As Spain's People Drift from Catholic Church, Government Cozies Up

Article excerpt

After years of moving in a more socially liberal direction along with the rest of western Europe, the Spanish government is now doing an about face, seeking to clamp down on abortion and return the Roman Catholic Church to a prominent role in the country's school system.

Though the church is still losing ground among the faithful, it has powerful friends in the current conservative Popular Party government, which has traditionally had close ties to the Vatican. Now the PP is pushing a controversial bill in parliament that would dramatically restrict access to abortion.

"We see an alliance between the ruling party and the Catholic hierarchy on moral issues. The church wants to press its priorities and it appears to be winning on issues like abortion and education," says Juan Jose Tamayo, director of theology at Carlos III University.

But the return of religion to the public sphere in a country that is over 70 percent Catholic is proving divisive. Spain is certainly split over abortion - an April poll published by El Pais, the country's leading daily, found that 46 percent of Spaniards don't want the law changed, 41 percent support the government's new restrictive draft, and 10 percent want abortion to be illegal in all circumstances.

Abortion isn't the only place where the church is making inroads. Last month the PP, which has a majority in parliament, rammed a new education law through parliament that requires more religion classes in public schools and diverts public funds to semi-private schools and gender-segregated schools that are mostly run by the Catholic Church.

Why the PP is tilting towards the church isn't clear from the perspective of political advantage, since it appears to be costing it popularity at a time of already heightened anger over the collapse of the economy.

"All governments are hostage to the Catholic Church. But there is a growing voice among Catholics that rejects the ties and that is being echoed in public opinion," said Dr. Tamayo. "It's a voice that is being ignored both the Catholic hierarchy and the government."

Unpopular reforms

Most Spaniards are against the broader educational system reforms, including the majority of PP voters, although they're not necessarily against the measures benefiting the church. The reforms included several controversial provisions, including weakening the control of regional governments in public education and further cutting of public spending, which have hit schools and universities particularly hard.

The planned abortion law reform is even more controversial and has brought out some splits within the PP, with officials publicly disagreeing about how profound the limits on abortion should be. …