By Latona, Robert
Conscience , Vol. 26, No. 3
"IN SPAIN, THE PEOPLE ALWAYS FOLlOW the priests; sometimes holding candles, sometimes clubs." It took a home-grown existentialist like Miguel de Unamuno to underscore the peculiar nature of the church-state conflict in Spain that came to a boil soon after Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero became prime minister in March 2004. On the surface, the dispute is driven by sharp differences over money, privilege and hot-button social issues like abortion. But as Unamuno also cautioned, in Spain, everything has to be contextualized in terms of the past, and that is where you find the roots of the Socialist government's irritation over the church's tenacious toehold in Spanish society, which Zapatero believes is definitely not the appropriate venue for the expression of "personal" religious beliefs, or for any institution not legitimized by voters to challenge his agenda for social change.
In what senses can Spain be considered a Catholic country? Probably not as many as one might imagine. The misapprehension that Spain is a Catholic country is lit by the afterglow of the Black Legend, the campaign propagated by z6th century Protestant countries eager to depict their geopolitical rival as a hotbed of religious fanaticism. Nowadays, many historians view the expulsion of the Jews and Moors during the Spanish Inquisition not so much as persecution undertaken for its own sake, but rather as a bid to cement political unity and social uniformity. This is especially the case as Spain had just been cobbled together out of reconqeuered territory and truculent, culturally impermeable kingdoms whose modern-day successors are still threatening to go their own separate ways from the rest of Spain.
For the record, the latest (May 2005) survey by the government's own polling agency shows 80 percent of Spaniards identify themselves as Catholics. Maybe not what the pope would consider outstanding Catholics: just over 17 percent make it to church on Sundays, while 42 percent rarely or never attend mass except for baptisms, weddings, first communions and funerals. For a large majority, the religious character of personal rites of passage and public occasions where a collective identity is affirmed (Easter processions, folklore and fiestas) is beyond question. In short, Spain is much like other countries in Europe's Mediterranean Catholic Belt.
Though there is no doubt that the church hierarchy was one of Franco's mainstays during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the last dozen years of Francisco Franco's life were soured by the Second Vatican Council. Much of the flexibility and goodwill that made the transition to democracy a success came from the church, particularly from the archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancon. Eager to decouple from a decadent regime and discredited ideology, the Spanish bishops' conference had publicly called for an end to the church's privileged status as the state-approved religion two years before Franco's death in 1975.
The terms of the separation were hashed out in a concordat with the Vatican in which the state pledged to continue subsidizing the disestablished church as a "temporary" measure. Aconfessionalism, as opposed to secularism, was enshrined in the 1978 Constitution, but another article stated that "public authorities shall take the religious beliefs of Spanish society into account and shall maintain the consequent relations of co-operation with the Catholic church and other confessions." For years, debate mostly centered on how much cash that cooperation works out to, but since Zapatero came to power, its terms have shifted to question whether such a provision has any business appearing in the charter of a country committed to building a united Europe on foundations of secular, social-democratic orthodoxy.
Zapatero's administration marks the second time the Socialists have wielded power in a democratic Spain. Under the 1982-96 governments of Felipe Gonzalez, however, nobody was eager to pick fights while the country was pursuing stability, institution-building and economic growth. …