Taking on the Church; A Raft of Liberal Reforms Promoted by the Country's Ruling Socialists Is Fueling the Roman Catholic Church's Sense of Siege in Europe

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Pape and Mike Elkin (With Edward Pentin at the Vatican and Alberto Letona in Bilbao)

Pope John Paul II may be bowed, his speech slurred, his Spanish fading, but the 84-year-old pontiff still knows how to pick a fight. Last week he accused the socialist government of Spain of promoting "scorn and ignorance" toward religion. "Permissive morality," he told dozens of top Spanish clergy visiting the Vatican, will damage the "imprint of Catholic faith in Spanish culture and restrict religious liberty." A top church official offered a summation of the pope's message: "This is dynamite."

The fireworks were directed less at the hapless Spanish priests than at the administration of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Since coming to power last spring, Zapatero's cabinet has pushed a slew of social reforms guaranteed to irk the Holy See: easing divorce laws, loosening limits on abortion, making religious education optional, even allowing gay marriage. And bolstered by poll numbers showing only one in five Spaniards attends church regularly, they've done so with little regard for the Vatican's opinion. Just last week, Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono blasted the pope's criticisms as "an exaggeration and a mistake." Of the church's stance against gays, he declared, "I am not disposed to accept this doctrine by which... the kingdom of the heavens isn't made for homosexuals." Spanish Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Calvo Merino then lodged a formal complaint with the Vatican's representative to Spain, Archbishop Manuel Monteiro de Castro.

Is this the start of a new holy war in southern Europe? The Vatican certainly feels besieged; last fall officials warned of an "inquisition" taking place against religiosity in Europe. In predominantly Roman Catholic France--which allows civil unions for gays and banned crucifixes as well as headscarves in schools last year--churches have been closing for decades. The number of French who say they attend church regularly has shrunk to a mere 7.7 percent. Nearly 90 percent of Italians call themselves Catholic, but less than 30 percent say they go to Mass regularly. In Spain, only 14 percent of young Spaniards attend church--a 50 percent decline in less than four years. More than 60 percent of Spaniards say they have little or no trust in the Catholic Church, making the institution less respected than the Army or the police in a country with living memories of fascism.

Zapatero's socialists, on the other hand, are feeling emboldened. Their victory had far more to do with the center-right Popular Party's mishandling of the March 11 Madrid train bombings than with their liberal platform. Nevertheless, the convincing nature of the win gave Zapatero something of a mandate. Rather than toning down the party's social positions--many of which had been promoted with less fervor by earlier socialist administrations in the early 1990s--the new government has pushed forward on several fronts simultaneously, from divorce and abortion (both currently legal but tightly restricted) to gay rights. A law allowing same-sex marriages and adoptions by gay parents is scheduled to be passed this spring.

The target may not be the church so much as Zapatero's domestic opposition. Measures like gay marriage are supported by two out of three Spaniards. …