At a crossroad: The Catholic Church in Spain

Seville Cathedral
Seville Cathedral ( Flickr/Reji)

As the Catholic Church in Spain prepares to celebrate the arrival of the third millennium, it finds itself at a crossroad. It realises that major changes are inevitable if it is to continue to be a significant force in Spanish society in the 21st century. But it’s still searching for a message that will keep the flock together and attract the young.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: November 18, 1997


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “At a crossroad – the Catholic Church in Spain”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Catholicism was first introduced in the Iberian Peninsula when Jesus Christ was still alive. By the 6th century, it had become the official state religion of Spain, a status it would maintain until the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931. The Republicans wanted to take their backward, poor nation into a new era. They introduced a series of progressive measures, including land reform, the separation of church and state and the introduction of secular education. But a few years later, deep divisions which had existed in Spanish society for decades boiled to the surface and civil war broke out. Over a million people would lose their lives during the three years of fighting, which ended in 1939 when General Francisco Franco assumed power. Franco’s ideal was to restore Catholic Spain to its former glory. During his 35-year dictatorship, Franco relied on the support of three groups: the Falange, the only legal political movement in Spain, the armed forces and the Catholic Church. And he amply rewarded the church for its support. He gave it money to rebuild the churches destroyed during the civil war. Divorce, which had been legalised by the Republic, was abolished. Roman Catholic religious education was made compulsory at all levels of education, both in public and private schools, and contraception was banned. A large segment of the Spanish population initially welcomed the measures, says Father Hector Vall, a professor of ecumenical studies at the Borja Centre in Barcelona.

Many conservative Catholics supported Franco, which explains why his regime was able to consolidate its power so quickly. But actually his support base extended throughout much of Spanish society, initially at least. But as time went by, the Franco dictatorship began to show is true face. People began to see the repression, and Catholics and the Catholic Church started distancing themselves from the Franco regime.

But for the first 20 years of his dictatorship, Franco ruled largely unchallenged. All dissenting voices, including those of some dissenting left-wing priests, were stifled. Thousands of critics of the Franco regime were imprisoned, and many more emigrated or went into exile to escape the repression, poverty and hunger which marked the post civil war years in Spain. The church remained remarkably silent about the injustices created by the Franco regime. In fact, after the Second World War, cooperation between the church and the regime intensified and by 1953, Franco had negotiated a new concordat or agreement with Rome. The concordat exempted the church from taxation. The church also received grants from the government to build new churches and other religious buildings. It was given the right to ask the government to ban publications which it found offensive. Civil marriages were outlawed for Catholics, and the church was allowed to establish universities, newspapers, magazines and radio stations, like the Cope network, which still broadcasts today throughout Spain.

By the 1950′ s and 60′ s, opposition to the Caudillo and his regime had begun to grow, but the church, and particularly its hierarchy, remained intensely loyal to the dictator, that is until 1962.

Pope Paul the 23rd summoned the bishops to Rome in 1962 for an ecumenical council. The idea was to bring the church up to date and to work for its spiritual regeneration. According to José María Javiere (sp?), a Spanish priest who attended the Second Vatican Council, many of the Spanish bishops headed off to the Vatican without the faintest idea of what was in store.

The Spanish bishops went to the council thinking it was going to be a spiritual meeting, where we would express our love for one another and discuss our Christian faith. They thought the Council would produce a new pastoral vision to meet the new challenges facing society. They soon discovered, however, that the Spanish church had become isolated from the major theological currents in Europe and the rest of the world. The complacency of our bishops was understandable. Unlike in other European countries, in Spain the Church was still strong. Religious life in Spanish families, the school system and even among workers and students was very much alive. So when our bishops arrived in Rome, they found themselves caught up in a major intellectual upheaval, and some of them were completely lost.

Not all the bishops were taken by surprise. Ever since the reign of the previous pope, Pius the 12th, there had been the hope among a segment of the Spanish Church, including certain bishops, priests and lay people, that the Catholic Church would be able to reform itself. Some of these bishops took these views with them to the Second Vatican Council, which lasted from 1962 to 1965. Their ideas, revolutionary for Spain at the time, were articulated most clearly by a young bishop, called Vicente Enrique Tarancón.

Throughout the Council, he imbued himself with the ideas expressed. Other bishops refused to accept the notion of democracy or reform of the Church. Bishop Tarancón would go on to be named archbishop and later cardinal. He was Pope Paul the 6th’s choice to introduce the Council in Spain. It heralded a radical change for the Catholic Church there, and I would say that the Council had far more impact in Spain than the rest of Europe because we were so far behind. Cardinal Tarancón would go on to introduce the Council’s notion of democracy and reconciliation. That’s what marked the beginning of a new era.

As a result of the Second Vatican Council, the church and state were again formally separated, as they had been during the brief Republican period. But Franco refused to surrender his say in the appointment of ecclesiastic officials, which for another decade would prevent liberals from entering the Church hierarchy. Nevertheless, the Church gradually encouraged people to prepare for the transition to the post-Franco period. As time went by and Franco became sick and began to fade, the Spanish hierarchy became increasingly critical of his dictatorship, says Joaquín Ortega, who has long been active in the Catholic Church and is now the director of a Catholic publishing house in Madrid.

The gradual separation between the Church and the Franco regime was difficult, very difficult, particularly during the last five years of Franco’s reign from 1970 to 1975. It was like a continuous quarrel or row. There were constant conflicts. There were many examples of doctrinal controversies about the law on the freedom of religion or the role of trade unions in society. There was also a major conflict involving a bishop in Bilbao in the Basque Country, who was about to be expelled from the country for some of his writings. They were really quite insignificant. The Spanish Episcopal conference threatened to excommunicate Franco if he expelled the bishop. The conference had even prepared and signed the excommunication papers, just in case the bishop was sent into exile. The church hierarchy also wrote a number of papers in the wake of the Second Vatican Council which conflicted profoundly with the views of Franco. The problem was that his regime was confessional. It was based on the Church. Suddenly Franco discovered that his regime’s foundations were beginning to move, while his own political and social views remained unchanged.

It was inevitable after Franco’s death in 1975 that a left-wing government would come to power in Spain’s new democracy, not a right-wing nor a centre government which had traditionally supported the Church. It had to be the Socialists or the Communists, but they had little support in the country. So the socialists took over the reins of power. Had the Second Vatican Council not taken place, the Catholic Church would have strongly opposed the new government and there would have been major clashes. But since the Council had established freedom of religion and its support for democracy, the transition was smooth. There was a dialogue between the Church and the new government, and we Catholics learned to accept our new democracy. The bishops didn’t tell us who to vote for as they would have in the past. Catholics, without much talk or protest, without their own political party, came out strongly in support of the advance of democracy in Spain.

But the path towards democracy wasn’t always easy for the Church to accept. When the new Spanish constitution was drawn up after Franco died, there was no mention of the Catholic Church. The bishops fought bitterly to get at least a mention, and that’s all they got.

The authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and maintain the appropriate relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and other denominations.

In a country where the majority is Catholic, the fact that the Church was unable to obtain a special reference was a blow to the Church. But it was just a sign of what was to come under the 13 years of Socialist administration. The Socialist government then tried to separate the State and Church financially. Ever since the 19th century, the Church had been receiving a substantial amount from the State every year to compensate it for the confiscation of Church properties. The Church and State agreed that the annual subsidy would be gradually cut. Within six years, it was due to be completely scrapped. But even though the agreement was reached in 1979, the state still hands 0.5% of the country’s national budget to the Church. In later years, the Socialists launched a major overhaul of the educational system. One of the aims of the reforms was to curb the Church’s influence in schools. Many within the Church, including Joaquín Ortega, are convinced that the measures introduced by the Socialists were part of a concerted attempt to eliminate the Church’s power and influence on Spanish society.

The 13 years of Socialist rule in Spain played a major role in the growing secularisation of Spanish society. It’s a widespread phenomenon, but the Socialist government showed little or no respect for the Catholic Church. It didn’t adopt anti-Christian or anti-Catholic policies. It simply ignored and despised the Catholic element in Spanish society by adopting laws regarding education and family and youth policy which produced major changes in people’s values. Today’s youths feel very disoriented. We in the Church have to take into account the effects of these 13 years of Socialist rule. We can’t simply continue our pastoral work as if nothing had happened. We have to think in terms of evangelisation.

Indeed, despite the Second Vatican Council and the reforms introduced by the Spanish church, secularisation has become a growing problem for the Church. Attendance at Sunday mass throughout Spain has plummeted. While the Socialist government’s policies may have contributed to this, sociologists believe that the drop in church attendance in Spain is simply a reflection of a European-wide phenomenon. All European societies have become more secular, and Spain because of its long isolation during the Franco dictatorship was simply catching up with the rest of the continent. But nowhere in Europe has the process been as fast and as dramatic as in Spain. Nonetheless says Amando de Miguel, a sociology professor at the Cumpletense University in Madrid, the development shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

Church attendance fell dramatically in the 70’s and 80’s, but since then the figures have remained fairly stable at between 25 and 30% of the population. You could say the figure is relatively low but it’s actually quite high. Sociological studies have uncovered some interesting things about how people’s beliefs have changed. Most people say for example that they believe in heaven, but they don’t believe in hell which, from a Catholic point of view, is completely absurd of course. The other interesting development is that people no longer follow the Church’s teachings in many areas, in particular when it comes to sexual matters, and they’re distancing themselves from Catholic beliefs and practices.

Church officials constantly repeat that quality is more important than quantity. According to Héctor Vall of the Borja Centre, unlike in the past, today’s practicing Catholics in Spain are true believers, and the Church has become a stronger organisation as a result.

Before the Council, social pressure forced many people to attend mass even though they didn’t believe or their faith was weak. Following the democratisation of the Church and the realisation that church participation no longer had political implications, the situation became clearer. Many people who weren’t true believers started to leave the Church. I would say that the post-Vatican Council Church is much better than the one that preceded it, much smaller but better because its members are true Catholics or authentic believers.

The Church is particularly worried about the fact that fewer and fewer young people are attending mass. A church that is unable to rejuvenate itself, which is unable to attract the young, will inevitably face problems. The paradox, says Héctor Vall of the Borja Centre, is that many of the values of today’s youths are essentially Christian in nature.

The main ideals of young people today, like the fight for liberty, democracy, the liberation of women, environmentalism, all of these issues are basically Christian. They’re issues that are essential to the Church and yet today’s youth believe these issues have nothing to do with Christianity. It’s a paradox, but that’s what’s happening.

Even more worrying for the Church hierarchy are the dwindling numbers of young people opting for a vocation within the Church. During the 1950’s, nearly 10,000 young men applied to study for the priesthood every year. By the 1970’s, the figure had fallen to about 1500 and has since stabilised at about 2000 men a year. In some areas, the situation has become critical. In Catalonia, for instance, less than 150 priests have been ordained over the past decade and the average age of priests is now 60. Young men who decide to study for the priesthood today, like Ramón Serks (sp?), who’s currently attending a seminary in Barcelona, are acutely aware that their decision is seen as unusual, if not downright bizarre.

We’re a minority. By choosing the priesthood, we’re embarking on an adventure. Today what’s important are economists, businessmen, executives, etc. When I told my friends and colleagues that I was going to join a seminary, a lot of people thought it very strange. Some people asked me what had gone wrong and whether I was having problems. That was their first reaction. But then when people saw I was happy and content, they discovered that becoming a priest is not all that strange. I realised that I wanted to devote my life to the church. I want to give my life to others because of my faith. Fewer people feel a calling today, but you see more and more people today who feel desperate and disorientated, who don’t know where they are going and who are looking for something. I think the Christian message can offer these people an alternative, a direction. That’s why I decided to become a priest. I think the Church did a lot of bad things in the past, but we shouldn’t only focus on the negative aspects of the Church. The basis of the Church is teachings, the word of God, remains valid today, and it can give us answers to many of the problems we’re facing. I’m thinking especially about the Church’s work for the weakest in society, for those in need. I also value the Church’s emphasis on giving, rather than just receiving, on loving everyone who needs your help. That’s what’s important to me: helping others. That’s what Christ wanted.

In parishes across Spain, priests are acting in their own small way to redefine a mission and a role for the Church in society. Jesús Iguerrez Fernández has served in the parish of La Paloma for more than 30 years. His parish is located in a typical, middle class neighbourhood of Madrid, and until recently, it mirrored developments in the rest of Spain. His flock was aging and getting smaller. The construction of new housing over the past decade brought an influx of young couples to the neighbourhood, and Father Jesús saw it as his mission to get some of these young people at least to come worship.

In this parish, we have been conducting our evangelical work in two ways. We have a community of neo-chatecumanates, which means people who are being taught the basics of the Catholic Church in order to be baptised. For the past couple of years, we have been getting the chatecumanate groups to visit the neighbourhood around the church. They divide up into pairs and go from flat to flat, house to house, talking to people. We’ve also organised what I call popular missions. For a two-week period each year, we try to mobilise the entire neighbourhood to spread the word of God. We preach not only in the church but also in discos and even in the streets. We use megaphones and preach the word of the Lord to encourage people to receive catechism. The key today for the Church is how we present our merchandise. Up till now, the Church has tended to interpret Christianity exclusively in religious terms. But that type of religion doesn’t interest today’s youth. If you present them an authentic form of Christianity, without all the doctrines and morals, people, even the young, will accept it. The Church used to try to convert people to be able to baptise them. What is happening today is that we have to convert the baptised.

Father Jesús has managed to get 200 to 250 young people involved in his parish. Over 100 of them are former drug addicts from all over Madrid who have succeeded in kicking their habit thanks to the word of the Lord and to the active community in the parish of La Paloma. For growing numbers of priests and future priests like Ramón Serks, Father Jesús’s hands-on, grassroots approach is the way the Church needs to move if it is to play a role in Spanish society in future.

I believe the Church has a communications problem with today’s world. The Church hasn’t been able to translate the gospel into terms which people, particularly the young, can relate to. But if we are able to get Jesus’s message across to people, to make it relevant, then it will be valid. As long as we preach a faith which is abstract, which seems unrelated to our daily lives, then the message will be lost. If we can make that connection, then the faith will be valid for people. You often hear people say: well, if that’s it, why didn’t you say so sooner?

In recent years, lay organisations and groups linked with the Catholic Church have been increasingly successful in presenting this more active and involved side of Christianity. Caritas Spain, for instance, has been shifting its emphasis to providing assistance and development to the Third World, most recently in the Great Lakes region in central Africa. But Caritas is also actively trying to fight social exclusion and poverty in Spain. In runs numerous job-training programmes throughout Spain, provides psychological and financial assistance to marginalised sectors of society, and it also assists the elderly and homeless. According to Pablo Martín, the secretary general of Caritas Spain, contributions to the organisation have been steadily increasing, and Caritas today has over 40,000 volunteers throughout the country.

People volunteer to work for Caritas because they believe in solidarity and a more fraternal society. We don’t demand of our volunteers that they be Catholic, but it’s clear that the majority of them are giving of themselves because of their faith. We believe that our work is based on one of the main concepts of Christianity: helping your fellow man. We believe that showing solidarity with others is part of the Church’s mission. When people see this solidarity and see that we want to help them overcome the difficulties, they recover their dignity and even begin asking themselves some fundamental questions about life, and in some cases about their own fate. Our goal is very simple and basic: we want to eliminate the material and physical barriers which prevent people from developing themselves fully as human beings.

As the Catholic Church in Spain prepares to celebrate the arrival of the third millennium, it finds itself at a crossroad. It realises that major changes are inevitable if it is to continue to be a significant force in Spanish society in the 21st century. It’s still searching for a message that will keep the flock together and attract the young. The problem facing the Church, believes sociologist Amando de Miguel, is despite all the changes and reforms introduced since the Second Vatican Council, it’s still out of touch with Spanish society.

There’s a wide divergence between Catholics, even practicing Catholics, and the Church hierarchy, particularly when it comes to sexual matters, contraception, divorce, abortion. The Church is inflexible. It hasn’t changed at all, and it’s making a big mistake. It must adapt, for example, on the issue of women in the priesthood. It was impossible for women to become priests during Christ’s time or even a few centuries ago, but the fact of the matter today is that it’s unacceptable that the priesthood be restricted to men. It doesn’t make any sense. The Church’s stance on homosexuality is equally absurd. There’s no reason why the Church shouldn’t recognise homosexual relationships. Gays and lesbians are adults, and if they love each other, why not? The Church’s stance is based on the traditional idea that sex has only one function – procreation – but sex, in and of itself, is the expression of a deeply Christian value. It’s the expression of two people’s love for each other. And love is the basis of Christianity. The same criticism can be levelled at the Church when it comes to its attitudes towards divorce. I believe the Church isn’t being charitable enough.

Héctor Vall of the Borja Centre also believes that the Spanish Church and the Vatican will have to accept major changes if they hope to remain relevant in the 21st century. But he’s pessimistic about renewal in the short term. Pope John Paul the 2nd strongly opposes any changes to the Church’s views on sexual matters or on the position of women within the Church. But the pope is ageing and in poor health.

Every time we come to the end of a papacy, there are two or three years of waiting. The election of a new pontiff could bring about spectacular changes. You never know. Personally, I’m optimistic. I think that society carries within itself the seeds to solve its own problems. These seeds need to be allowed to germinate. We also have to have faith that the Holy Spirit will help not only the Church but society as a whole to progress and to create a better future.

Regardless of whether the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Spain are able to rise up to the challenge of the new millennium, Amando de Miguel of the Complutense University in Madrid believes that Catholicism will continue to be an essential element of Spanish society. No other organisation is able to draw as many people as the Church, and that is unlikely to change for a long time to come.

It’s a sociological fact that Spain is a Catholic nation and it can’t be anything else. People are free to worship as they please, but Protestant churches, for instance, haven’t been able to gain a foothold in Spain. The same holds true for the Jewish and Muslim religions. Despite its size, Spain has been and remains a very homogenous nation ethnically and culturally. It can’t be anything else but a Catholic nation.

At a crossroad was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Peter Bos. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.