Whither the Catholic Church in Spain?

Last week's visit by the pope was largely ignored by Spaniards. The country remains nominally Catholic, but church attendance has fallen to historic lows. Grassroots religious groups say the time has come for a full separation of state and Church

Writing in the late fourth century, when the first Christian states were emerging, Saint Augustine instructed rulers to oblige their subjects to become Christians: "Compelle eos intrare " (Compel them to enter). Augustine based this instruction on the parable told by Luke of the discourteous guests who refused to accept a royal invitation to a wedding banquet, prompting the king to tell his guards " Compelle eos ." In the space of a few hundred years, the Christian Church had gone from protecting the rights of a minority to imposing the doctrine of what was now the majority. For Augustine, the state did not simply have a responsibility to protect the Church, but was also obliged to use every means, including force, to bring its subjects to its bosom.

"People are disaffected and largely uninterested in the papal visit"
"The Church played a big role in spreading nationalist propaganda"
"The pope's visit was above all political, and it was a media circus"

More than 1,500 years later, modern states are less inclined to be told what to do by the Church. Science, politics, and culture have largely cured them of their fear, and most reject what they see as intolerance and the Church's efforts to coalesce theory with truth, along with its tendency to impose its traditions and practices. Nevertheless, the Vatican continues fighting the relativism of our times with its message of absolutism. Compared with the last papal visit in 1992, Pope Benedict last week discovered that Spaniards seem largely unconcerned about their spiritual welfare, and less inclined to accept the Vatican's authority than ever.

The reasons are many and varied. Key among them is the position of women in the Church and in Spanish society. Female parishioners have long been the mainstay of the Catholic Church, but few of today's generation are interested in following in their mothers' footsteps. Little wonder: women remain excluded from the Church hierarchy and from an active role in celebrating mass, while the current pope believes that the ordination of women is a serious offense, comparable to pederasty. The Catholic Church's reputation worldwide has been hit hard by the Vatican's perceived refusal to address the long-standing problem of sexual abuse by priests that has been exposed in seminaries, colleges, and parishes in Europe, the United States, and beyond.

Compared to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has largely failed to grasp either the imagination of the faithful or that of the rest of the world. Whereas Pope John Paul II visited Spain in 1982 under the banner of Totus Tuus (All Yours), the current pontiff's trip was a state visit. Benedict clearly lacks the charisma of John Paul, and has been unable to connect with Catholics in the same way. Whereas John Paul had fought both the Nazis and the Communists, Benedict's main claim to fame is having presided over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - or as it used to be known, the Inquisition.

Such factors explain in large part the lack of grassroots enthusiasm for the pope's visit, as they also do falling Church attendance numbers. Last year finally saw the number of civil-marriage ceremonies overtake those held in church. When civil unions were first legalized in Spain in 1870, ending the Catholic Church's monopoly, the bishops' response was to describe the move as "the legalization of public and universal concubinage."

Compelle eos intrare . Compel them to enter. Theologian Juan José Tamayo believes he hears echoes of Augustine's authoritarian approach in the strident criticism voiced by some in the Spanish Catholic Church of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero after he declined an invitation to attend a mass officiated by Benedict during his visit to Spain. Doubtless those calling for Zapatero's attendance miss the days of half a century ago when the Civil Guard would fine, or even beat, those who refused to attend mass on Sunday. The forces of law and order would have their work cut out in today's Spain, where just 13 percent of self-declared Catholics bother to go to church. A visit to any small village in Spain shows that in many cases, there is no longer a priest in attendance.

Many in the Catholic Church accuse the government of being anti-clerical: in reality it simply seems that fewer and fewer people are interested in organized religion. Again, it is little wonder that this government, or any other, would be prepared to literally bow down before a religious leader, even if he is a head of state. Spain is still, to some extent, living out its long love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. "Spaniards, always behind the priests; sometimes with a candle, sometimes with a broom handle," joked the great 20th-century man of letters Pío Baroja.

Jaume Botey, a historian of the Catholic Church at Barcelona's Autonomous University, says that Spaniards are simply bored with the Catholic Church. "They are disaffected and largely uninterested in a papal visit anymore," he says.

Botey says that Spaniards still haven't forgiven the Catholic Church for its close ties to the forty-year dictatorship of General Franco. "People still identify the Church with Franco, and it should be remembered that the Vatican has never asked for forgiveness for its association with the military regime," says Botey. "And until it does say it is sorry, then it will continue to be seen as a collaborator that used the terror of those times for its own benefit," he concludes.

Fernando Sebastián, the emeritus archbishop of Pamplona, points out that in reality, the Spanish Catholic Church has gotten off lightly, despite its close relationship with Franco's military dictatorship over the years.

Hilari Raguer, a Barcelona-based historian, says that the Catholic Church supported Franco from the outset. "The military coup was effectively made sacred from the first moments of the Civil War. It wasn't the generals who came running to the priests, but the other way round, and they supported Franco to the hilt. It came as a big surprise to the generals, but the Church was soon to play the biggest role in spreading propaganda on behalf of the nationalists," he says.

Benedict XVI referred to what he calls the "aggressive secularism" of the Second Republic, the democratically elected government that Franco overthrew. The Vatican still holds to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, while most republics have been viewed as impious, and with deep suspicion. "The plant must be cut at the roots," was the clerics' cry in 1931, when the Second Republic was ushered in. After Franco won the Civil War in 1939, anti-clericalists were shot in their droves.

Not that there weren't voices in the Catholic Church who called for a more tolerant approach. When the then primate of Spain, Isidro Gomá, called for an end to the executions in August 1939, Franco had him silenced. For good measure he also imposed a ban on mass in Catalan or Basque. Gomá died shortly afterwards, allegedly a broken man. Among his last acts was to oversee the victory mass in Madrid at which he anointed Franco leader of Spain.

"The Catholic Church has survived [those times]," says Archbishop Sebastián. Botey doesn't agree. He cites two main reasons for Spaniards' mistrust or lack of interest in the Catholic Church. "The first is to do with the Church's conception of power. Evangelization is carried out from a position of power, in alliance with political and economic power. This is contrary to Jesus' approach, which confronted and denounced religious and political power."

Botey says that Spaniards still see the Spanish Catholic Church as closely linked to the powerful. "Then there is the question of the conception of truth, and the Church's absolute conviction that it is the sole possessor of the truth, both religious and civil. This lies at the roots of the Church's inability to understand the modern age. Instead of celebrating the good news that humanity is approaching a secular maturity in terms of science, morality, economics, politics, or peace-building, the Catholic Church sees this as a loss of power. It is increasingly talking in fundamentalist terms, farther and farther away from reality," says Botey.

The pope's visit has illustrated both points clearly, he adds. "His visit was above all political, and it was a media circus. He then proceeded to rail against Spanish society because it now functions like a mature secular society. As a believer, I am sorry that both sides have contributed to making people feel that faith and the beliefs of the pope have nothing to do with them," he adds.

The pope also isolated many people by continuing to project himself as a world leader. "The pope has not had a real role to play for a thousand years. It is an anachronism for him to be a head of state, it makes no sense. The idea, in today's world, that he somehow is the incarnation of truth and goodness, that he can still declare himself infallible and that power is somehow invested in his person, is medieval, it is just not sustainable. This whole montage that has been built up around him means nothing anymore. It belongs to another time," argues theologian José Arregi.

Then there is the absence of any women in the pope's world. Theologian Margarita Pintos says that the Vatican is unable to assign women an active role in the world. "We make up the majority at religious gatherings, but the fact that more people didn't turn up this time is explained by the Catholic Church's view that women are dependent on men, and the Church. We are denied the category of moral subjects, theologians and ecclesiasts. All that is required of us is the loyalty that means being subjected. That is why the pope has to place us in the context of 'home and work,' something that is never done to men. While the Church wants us to be servers, rather than mediators of grace and salvation, the Catholic Church will continue to alienate women in the same way that it has workers and intellectuals."

Joan Oñate, the head of Esglesia Plural, a Catalan grassroots organization that wants to see reform in the Catholic Church along the lines proposed by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, says that the Vatican has failed to adapt to the needs of modern societies. "The lack of interest in the pope's visit is explained by what he is seen to represent, which is the hierarchy. The visit to Spain was meant for the converted, indeed for the more belligerent among the faithful. We have been trying for decades to find a way to make religion more meaningful in the context of people's lives," he says.

Oñate says the fundamental problem is that the Second Vatican Council was never taken seriously by the majority of Catholic bishops: "The Church has insisted on pushing its simplistic message about sexual morals, of protecting the rights of the powerful, and in being defensive in the face of mounting secularism, and this doesn't connect with the growing numbers of people who see the bigger problems of unequal distribution of wealth, of injustice, and of environmental questions."

The Church also needs to modernize its structure, says Oñate. His list of recommendations is long: "The decision-making process needs to be made more democratic, gender equality is essential, positions in the Church cannot be for life, there has to be more right to dissent, and it is vital that we have division of powers. We also need to move forward immediately with the ordination of women, the elimination of obligatory celibacy, and parishioners have to be given more say in electing bishops; and finally, there must be an age limit of 75 for the Pope, as there is among bishops."

Curas de Madrid, which represents the more radical wing of the capital's priesthood, also points to the Church's failure to keep up with the times. "This obsession with defending the institutions of the Church, this persecution complex, this is not the evangelic way. Christ made us free," says one contributor to its website.

Other religious grassroots organizations, such as Somos Iglesia, say the pope's visit did little to bring Spaniards together. "The pope's words must be an expression of a Church in which we are all equal, and in which we live as brothers," says the organization's head, Raquel Mallavibarrena: "Catholics should be among the first in supporting the division between Church and state, out of loyalty and coherence with the evangelist message. The dynamism of a prophesying and independent Christianity that supports the poor and those who suffer is limited by a Church that sees itself as an institution where the confluence of political and social ideas governed by the ever-distant reality that Spain is a Catholic country."

That said, Mallavibarrena says that the government has some way to go in implementing a genuinely secular state. She says that the agreements reached between the state and the Catholic Church in the months following Franco's death in 1975 need overhauling, and are an obstacle to the Catholic Church finding its place in Spanish society. "It is vital that the government and the political parties face up to the challenge of developing secularism, something that we have been waiting for in this country for some time."

A gay couple kiss one another as Pope Benedict XVI travels through the streets of Santiago.
A gay couple kiss one another as Pope Benedict XVI travels through the streets of Santiago.AFP

The roots of anti-clericalism

Following a pastoral visit that contained several less-than diplomatic moments, the man who represents 18 percent of the world's population returned home to the Vatican. Next year, following his third visit to Spain, Benedict XVI will have visited this country more than any other. For many of us, this proves that the country remains - with all due respect - one of the more bothersome boils on the pontiff's venerable behind.

Catholic Spain has become, thanks to the irreligious drift of its politicians, the business end of the radical secularism that even as we speak is busy undermining the foundations of a European civilization, who no longer includes going to church on a Sunday as a popular social practice. According to the Holy Father and his more fundamentalist representatives, an aggressive secularism on a par with the days of the Second Republic has returned to plague Spain.

It matters little to the pope and his followers that the facts seem to suggest otherwise: the state continues to finance Catholic religious education; the Catholic Church continues to receive a large slice of the budget; agreements from the Franco era continue to be respected; new legislation on religious freedom is being blocked; public money is spent on papal visits; and as a result of all of the above and more, those who want to see a clearer separation between Church and state are being ignored by the Catholic Church.

The Vatican considers such voices to belong to little more than a gang of intolerant heathens, despite the fact that a great many Christians also want to see such separation.

Beyond looking for political scapegoats, it is not hard to see why the Catholic Church has lost the influence it once held; and that is without taking into account the countless slaughters carried out in its name, nor the innumerable popes famed more for their venality than piousness, nor the Inquisition, nor the banning of books, nor the legendary greed of many of its senior figures, nor its support for dictatorship, nor its silence in the face of genocide. With a litany like that, there isn't even any need to bring up its repugnant opposition to the use of condoms in an Africa losing the fight against AIDS, or its tolerance of sexual abuse by priests.

No. To explain why Catholicism is on the retreat in Spain and so many other countries, to understand why its churches are empty in cities and towns the length and breadth of the land, and why its arguments and sermons are of little interest to a growing majority of the population (including among right-wingers), all we need is a little fieldwork, of the kind that rapid anti-clericalists tend not to do: have a look round a church during Sunday morning mass.

Try to pay attention to a sermon that, with few notable exceptions, will be firmly rooted in the past, and that either turns its back on what happens out in the real world, or deliberately misinterprets it. The Church wants to exercise influence in the world, but cannot be bothered to make an effort to understand it. It still tends to sermonize and to reproach, but brings nothing to our lives, and certainly doesn't inspire us.

It repeats the same arguments, and argues them in the same way that it was doing three hundred years ago. But it does so today with even less conviction than it did back then.

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