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Pope honors 233 killed in Spanish Civil War

NCR Staff

Pope John Paul II drew fresh attention to one of the most blood-soaked chapters of recent church history with plans to beatify March 11 233 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.

It was to be the biggest group ever to be beatified, or declared “blessed,” in a single ceremony, according to the Vatican Information Service.

Experts believe some 10,000 priests, brothers, nuns and laity were killed in the early months of 1936, as leftists fighting to defend Spain’s secular republic attempted to wipe out what they saw as Catholic resistance.

Beatification, the final step before sainthood, will help preserve the memory of those victims, though a leading historian of the period says the church’s role in the bloodshed should be remembered, too. He says the church could have done more to prevent it.

Historian George Richard Esenwein, contends that, had Vatican II come 30 years earlier, much of the anti-clerical anger that sparked the violence might have been avoided.

Esenwein, who teaches at the University of Florida, is author of Spain at War: The Spanish Civil War in Context, 1931-39 (Addison-Wesley, 1995). He spoke to NCR from his office.

The Spanish Civil War, from 1936-39, pitted a progressive Republican government, supported by communists, anarchists, socialists and labor groups, against a Nationalist movement determined to preserve an authoritarian, traditionalist concept of Spanish society. Eventually the Nationalists under Gen. Francisco Franco prevailed.

Because the Spanish martyrs were killed by Republicans, John Paul numbers the martyrs among the Christian victims of communism in the 20th century, associating them with victims of religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Cuba and other communist-dominated territories.

There is no doubt the conduct of many of the martyrs was heroic.

Written material for the beatification, which runs to more than 4,000 pages, offers such stirring accounts as that of a group of seminary students imprisoned and later shot. They left behind this testimony, scrawled on a chocolate wrapper: “We die forgiving those who are taking away our life and offering it for the Christian ordering of the world.”

Yet, Esenwein said, such valor notwithstanding, the church bears a measure of responsibility for creating a social climate in which such acts were possible, largely through its identification with the Nationalist cause.

For example, Catholic worker movements in 1930s Spain were largely seen as fronts for the capitalist managerial elite, Esenwein said. They were known as “yellow unions,” in distinction from the “red unions” run by leftists that took a more aggressive pro-labor stance.

The Catholic political party of the era, CEDA, was the leading voice of the traditionalist reaction against progressive change. Its rhetoric, Esenwein said, was quite close to fascist movements in Italy, Austria and Germany.

“Over the years there was a shift from a perception of priests as protectors of the poor to priests as part of a defensive, embattled regime clinging to power,” Esenwein said. “The clergy became identified with the corruption of the political system and the backwardness of Spanish society.”

Some priests were so passionate about the Nationalist cause that they actually allowed snipers to use parish bell towers to fire on Republican troops. “There were plenty of eyewitnesses to document this,” Esenwein said.

The Spanish bishops issued pastoral letters in support of the Nationalists.

A more open-minded Catholicism, “the reformist mood of Vatican II,” might have changed history, Esenwein believes. “If the church had seemed more attentive to poverty, to the dispossessed, the propaganda against it would not have been so effective,” he said.

“Had social Catholicism gone deeper, established links with the culture of the workers, that too would have made a difference.”

Amid papal emphasis on killings of Catholics by Republicans, Esenwein said, atrocities on the Nationalist side should not be forgotten.

“They gained lots of territory quickly and used terror to pacify it,” Esenwein said. “In Seville they sent in troops to slaughter workers in leftist neighborhoods. There was a town near the Portuguese border where 1,000 people were killed in a bullring.”

In some cases, Catholic priests blessed Nationalist troops heading into battle, creating at least the appearance of tolerance for their conduct, Esenwein said.

The vast majority of the 233 martyrs recognized by John Paul come from the Spanish archdiocese of Valencia on the country’s eastern coast. Valencia was the capital of the Republican zone during the civil war, and thus its anti-clerical outbreaks were especially harsh.

The group beatified March 11 represents 20 percent of all the people John Paul II has beatified during his 22-year pontificate.

Short biographies of the Valencian martyrs can be found at www.archivalencia.org

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001