Cover story -- Spain
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Issue Date:  July 1, 2005

A new battle plan

Spanish Catholics take pope's fight against 'relativism' to the streets

Madrid, Spain

In the highly polarized context of Spanish politics, strong rhetoric is par for the course. Even by that standard, however, the church-state clash that has gripped the country for more than a year has been nasty. Catholics angered by what they see as a Socialist onslaught in favor of gay marriage, divorce and other hot-button issues have accused the leftist government of seeking the “destruction of the church”; not to be outdone, the left has accused the church of never getting over its nostalgia for Franco and Spain’s version of a Fascist police state.

Since necessity is sometimes the mother of invention, observers across the Catholic world have been waiting to see if this crisis might stimulate Spanish Catholics to invent a new model of resistance -- a new battle plan, so to speak, for the struggle against what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism” in the secular West.

That model made its debut on the streets of Madrid June 18 -- and to judge from the experience, it was as if El Cid had hired Ralph Reed.

On Saturday, throngs of Spaniards (organizers claimed 1.5 million, Spanish police said 166,000, and most estimates settled on around 500,000), along with 19 bishops, showed up in Madrid to demonstrate in favor of the family, and against a new gay marriage law. The most galvanized participants seemed to blend a robust, uncompromising defense of their country’s Catholic roots, in the manner of the legendary crusader El Cid, with the grassroots political savvy of America’s religious right, associated with former Christian Coalition strategist Ralph Reed.

At a glance
Nowhere are the culture wars hotter than in Spain, where the ruling Socialists are pursuing an ambitious program on gay marriage, divorce, euthanasia and other issues. Catholics are fighting back, and brought a half million people into the streets of Madrid June 18. Some Spanish Catholics believe this campaign, with parallels to the American religious right, is too partisan and divisive. The debate will have broader implications for the political role of the church under Benedict XVI.

In Rome, there’s keen interest in Spain, in part because Vatican officials worry that the Italian left may come to power in looming national elections and, to some extent, take their cues from their Spanish cousins; in part because Spain is key to Pope Benedict’s desire to reawaken the Christian roots of Europe; and in part because Spain is an important point of reference for Latin America, where almost half of the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world today live.

What is coming into focus in Spain may therefore hint at the broader political and cultural strategy of the Catholic church under Benedict XVI, and the tensions inside and outside the church that strategy might generate.

Ignacio Arsuga, a 32-year-old Spanish lawyer who runs an organization called (loosely meaning “listen up!”) and who was one of the architects of the rally, told NCR that he and his like-minded Catholic friends dream of building something like the Christian Coalition in Spain.

“When we are attacked by the government, we want to be ready to defend our rights,” he said.

Some Catholics, however, including a portion of the country’s bishops, weren’t so thrilled with this kind of counterattack. To them, the muscular Catholicism on display June 18 seemed excessive -- too partisan, too confrontational, too reminiscent of the not-so-distant days of the Civil War, when church-state disputes in Spain often ended in blood.

The result is division among Spanish Catholics about the best way to defend the church’s message on life, the family and marriage. How that division is resolved, and the lessons learned from it, could have implications for Roman Catholicism everywhere.

* * *

Despite assurances from government officials such as Vice Premier María Teresa Fernández de la Vega that the ruling Socialists “in no way want a confrontation with the church,” many Spanish Catholics complain of an “assault,” and it’s easy to understand what they mean. In just a little over 12 months, the government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has moved to implement a sweeping social agenda:

  • A law on gay marriage and adoption by gay couples is set for final approval June 30;
  • Existing laws on divorce, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia have been liberalized;
  • There is talk about liberalizing the abortion law;
  • Reductions in state subsidies to the church, as well as modifications to the teaching of religion in public schools, have also been suggested.

If one were deliberately trying to provoke the Catholic church, it would be hard to do a better job.

In their desire to fight back, the grass-roots lay organizers of the June 18 demonstration were embraced by an important group of Spanish bishops, above all Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela of Madrid and the archbishop of Toledo, Antonio Cañizares Llovera. Rouco brought his two auxiliary bishops and several of the bishops of surrounding dioceses to the demonstration, and stood in the front row center. Bishop Javier Martínez of Grenada rented 22 buses to ferry Catholics from his diocese to the demonstration.

In turn, Rouco’s stance was supported by Vatican officials, and may have in part been inspired by them.

According to a source in the Spanish church, after Cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo of Seville expressed reservations about the rally earlier in the year, he received instructions from Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian and president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, not to oppose it.

Fr. Manuel Maria Brú, delegate for social communications for the Madrid archdiocese, told NCR that when the Spanish bishops came to Rome on their most recent ad limina visit, Vatican officials made it clear that Rome wanted a response from the church to the Socialists.

“The concern was, if this happens in Catholic Spain and the church doesn’t react, it could happen in other countries,” Brú said.

Not everyone, however, was sold on the reaction the church chose.

Critics on the secular left complained that the church wants to turn the clock back to the era of “national Catholicism” under Franco. Veteran political observers, meanwhile, suggested the church’s strategy could backfire, energizing the Socialist base while failing to deliver real results. One Spanish journalist said that jousting with the church is actually a welcome distraction for the government from problems such as Basque separatism and terrorism.

Yet the deepest questions seem to come from within the Catholic world. The fact that only 19 bishops showed up for the June 18 rally, out of roughly 70 Spanish dioceses and 120 bishops, suggests that at least some prelates are worried about the implications of the line associated with Rouco and the rally organizers.

Jesuit Fr. José M. Martín Patino, who served as vicar general under Madrid’s former Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, told NCR that of the roughly 2,500 priests in Madrid, in general only the “most conservative,” which he identified as associated with groups such as the Neocatechumenate, Communion and Liberation, and Opus Dei, took part in the rally.

No one in the Catholic world, it should be said, questions the church’s obligation to defend its teaching on the family. The debate is rather over how that effort should be carried forward.

As Brú put it, “Everyone is agreed on the ends. The division is over means.”

The Spanish experience thus throws several hard questions into relief:

  • How to influence public affairs without becoming identified with a partisan political option, thereby alienating broad sectors of public opinion and aggravating divisions within the church.
  • How to construct a comprehensive pro-family movement that would be as articulate about health care and housing as it is about gay marriage.
  • How to ensure that street protests and political debate do not distract the church from evangelizing society from the bottom up -- since, among other things, political programs that don’t reflect a genuine social consensus seem destined to fail.
* * *

Some analysts believe Spain is experiencing the worst church-state crisis since the 1936-39 Civil War.

Martín Patino, who runs an independent think tank in Madrid called the Fundación Encuentro, told NCR he believes the situation is as grave as in 1931, when Cardinal Pedro Segura y Sáenz (then of Toledo, later of Seville) published a blunt pastoral letter rejecting Spain’s new republic and supporting the king, which helped lay the groundwork for the war.

Quietly, some Spanish Catholics whisper about dark forces at work behind the Socialist agenda. One editor of a Catholic publication in Madrid, for example, pointed out to NCR June 16 that Zapatero’s grandfather was a Freemason. (In fact, his paternal grandfather, Juan Rodríguez Lozano, was a Freemason and a captain in the Republican army during Spain’s Civil War.) The editor suggested that the Masons might therefore be behind the “antichurch” zeal of some Socialists.

Other observers, however, caution against overdramatizing the present situation.

“In the late 19th century, the state approved civil marriage, and the church was out in the streets,” Juan Bedoya, who covers religious affairs for El País, Spain’s leading weekly, told NCR June 18.

“In 1974, Franco expelled some bishops from the Basque territories, causing a serious crisis. In 1979, the church protested against a new abortion law. This is simply another in a long line of crises.”

Bedoya cited a famous witticism from Spanish writer Pio Baroja to illustrate the perennial character of the country’s church-state conflicts: “The whole history of Spain is composed of people following behind priests, carrying either candles or sticks,” Baroja wrote.

* * *

The June 18 rally marked a public relations coup for the Spanish Forum for the Family, an umbrella group that claims to represent 5,000 Spanish associations, 20 confederations and 117 federations with more than 4 million families as members.

Though the forum describes itself as both nonconfessional and nonpartisan, the overwhelming majority of its members are Catholic; for example, its leading spokesperson, Benigno Blanco, is a member of Opus Dei. Most of the people connected to the forum generally vote for the main conservative opposition to the Socialists, the Popular Party of former Prime Minister Jose María Aznar. Blanco himself was once a party official.

In a June 18 interview with NCR, however, Blanco denied that either the Forum for the Family, or its rally, had any partisan character.

“We are responding to a specific piece of legislative aggression presented by the government,” Blanco said, speaking on the edges of the rally in downtown Madrid. “We’re not with any party.”

Ambient circumstances surrounding the June 18 rally, however, made that a difficult claim for some Spaniards to swallow. The demonstration was the third major antigovernment rally in Spain in as many weeks, albeit organized by different groups for different causes. It came on the eve of important regional elections in Galicia, where a Popular Party incumbent was in trouble. It also came in the run-up to tough negotiations between the government and the bishops over state subsidies to the church, as well as looming debates over religion in state schools.

In light of those circumstances, Bedoya said, many Spaniards will probably conclude that the June 18 rally, and especially the presence of so many Spanish bishops, was a deliberate attempt to hurt the government in favor of the opposition.

That’s a conclusion rejected by Jesuit Fr. Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, secretary general for the Spanish bishop’s conference, who told NCR June 18 that defending the rights of the family is “pre-political.”

At the same time, Camino, who also functions as a spokesperson for the Spanish bishops’ conference, appeared to pay a backhanded compliment to the Popular Party, adding: “We’re happy there are parties who agree with us.”

Other senior Catholic figures, however, seemed more ambivalent.

Not a single bishop from either the Basque or Catalan regions of Spain, for example, attended the event. Deep antipathy to the Popular Party in these two independence-minded territories, where the conservative party is a seen as a bastion of Spanish centralism, no doubt convinced them to keep a safe distance.

Apart from the delicate question of regionalism, some bishops also felt the event would aggravate ideological divisions in the country and the church.

Barcelona’s auxiliary bishop, Joan Carrera, for example, told a regional radio network June 17, “What is worrying is that two poles are forming, and the Catholic church is included in one of them.

“This situation means that half of Spain will not look at Christianity with spiritual peace or intellectual curiosity, because it will be divided along political lines. … I would do everything possible so this does not happen.”

Two other senior figures conspicuous by their absence were the new president of the Spanish bishops’ conference, Bishop Ricardo Blázquez Pérez of Bilbao, and Amigo Vallejo, both seen as favoring greater moderation in the relationship with the government. Amigo Vallejo told reporters that the only marches he attends are religious processions.

It wasn’t just bishops expressing reservations about a partisan tone.

Martín Patino, who was a peritus at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as an adviser to Tarancón, and who later helped edit the section on religious liberty in the Spanish Constitution, told NCR that he had two problems with the rally.

First, he said, a mass event in the streets is an “act of pressure,” an attempt to impose a conclusion on the government rather than to propose it. Quoting Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi, Martín Patino added: “Not all democratic means are evangelical means.”

Second, Martín Patino said, it risks creating the appearance of an alliance with a political party -- in this case, the Popular Party.

“People will think the bishops are trying to discredit the government in order to win votes for the Popular Party,” he said.

* * *

Partisanship wasn’t the only question mark.

If the church is serious about helping families, some critics argued, it isn’t sufficient to oppose measures such as gay marriage, liberalized divorce and in vitro fertilization. The Tarancón church has to help build a comprehensive pro-family movement, uniting the family values emphasis of the right with the social justice concerns of the left, especially on issues of housing, health care, child care, education and employment.

In that sense, some wondered if the muscular Catholicism glimpsed in the Madrid rally would generate as much momentum for serious social reflection and creative initiatives as for protest.

Blanco said that the Forum for the Family, which was created in 1991, well before the current crisis, has developed just such a comprehensive program for the family. He said it consists of five elements: tax breaks for families; flexible work hours for women to allow them to perform child care; fiscal support for families at least equal to other European Union nations; special subsidies for large families; and the right of parents to direct the education of their children.

“Our objective is not just to fight gay marriage,” Blanco told NCR. “It’s only when we’re being attacked that we have to go on the defensive.”

Other observers, however, say the church’s advocacy on family issues is disproportionately invested in the “culture wars.”

Bedoya, for example, noted that his newspaper, El País, was planning to run a feature June 19 about the failure of successive Spanish governments over 20 years to improve the provision of childcare.

“Maybe instead of spending its energy on demonstrations, the church could make sure that every time a new government comes to power at any level in Spain, it is reminded of its promises about the family and childcare,” Bedoya said.

Martín Patino agreed that the leadership of the church in Spain, at least on family issues, spends too much time on the defensive.

“The bishops say ‘no’ with much more frequency than they say ‘yes,’ ” Martín Patino said. “It’s always no to the pill, no to condoms. But what are we for?”

Martín Patino said his Fundación Encuentro is also working to develop a positive set of proposals to improve real conditions for Spanish families, including flexible work hours for parents and state support for family members who stay at home full or part-time in order to care for an elderly relative.

Enrico Juliana, Madrid bureau chief of the Barcelona daily La Vangardia, said he’s skeptical that the current crisis might jar elements in the Spanish church into shaping a broad pro-family movement, uniting elements of what have traditionally been either “conservative” or “liberal” concerns.

“I don’t see it,” he said.

“We’re not in a moment in which creative new alignments seem likely. We’re passing through a time in which everyone feels the need to affirm their own identity, on both left and right. That means they keep returning to old scripts, fighting old battles.”

Fr. Leopoldo Vives Soto, director of a subcommission of the Spanish bishops’ conference for Family and Defense of Life, told NCR in a June 15 interview in Rome that he shared this concern.

Vives noted, for example, that in Spain’s major cities, it’s difficult for large families to find affordable apartments. Spain has one of the least generous maternity leave systems in Europe, he said, and is one of the most difficult countries in which to receive a flexible work schedule to allow for care of children.

“There’s much work to be done,” Vives said, expressing hope that the current crisis might stimulate the growth of movements concerned with these issues.

Yet he admitted that his optimism is tinged with anxiety.

“Spaniards are sometimes too determined to be against something,” Vives said. “We’re wasting time with these campaigns of opposition. We have to make positive proposals.”

* * *

A related question is whether by focusing so much energy on legislative battles, the church has put the cart ahead of the horse -- that forming culture must come before the political arena, because otherwise there won’t be a social consensus upon which law can be based.

Martín Patino put it this way: “In Spain, our bishops don’t want to evangelize society, they want to evangelize the president.” He called this a variant of the early modern system of cuius regio, eius religio -- whoever controls the government controls the religion.

Juliana agreed.

“Spanish Catholicism has always concerned itself with the elites,” he said. “This was the model of the great orders and groups born in Spain, from the Dominicans to the Jesuits to Opus Dei. There’s no real tradition of a populist Catholicism in Spain.”

As a result, he said, Spanish Catholicism is ill-equipped for a situation in which it can no longer rely on the state to reinforce its values.

The point can be illustrated with respect to the gay marriage issue, where according to one recent poll, more than 60 percent of Spaniards said they favor the new law redefining marriage to include homosexuals. While some of the more fervent Catholic opponents of the law say they want a popular referendum to settle the question, such numbers would suggest they’re destined to lose.

Arsuga doesn’t believe it.

“First of all, these polls are conducted by a government agency, and they’re known to be inaccurate,” he said. “Secondly, the questions are worded badly. They ask, ‘Are you in favor of gay rights?’ Well, I’m for that too, but not for changing the definition of marriage.”

Whatever the actual numbers, it’s obvious that a broad swath of Spain does not stand with the church on the issues currently under discussion. Despite a year of relentless church-state conflict, the Socialists still enjoy a lead in public approval over their conservative opponents, and Zapatero remains the most admired politician in the country.

In such a context, the hard question is -- does it make sense for the church to invest itself in momentarily satisfying political exercises, realizing they may not make any real difference? Or should Catholics, meaning both the bishops and grass-roots initiatives such as the Forum on the Family, spend more time in one-to-one evangelization, relying on individual witness and persuasion rather than the force of law?

In some European Catholic circles, the Italian church’s victory in a June 12 and 13 referendum on in vitro fertilization, coupled with the strong turnout June 18 in Madrid and the political momentum it has created, seem a powerful response to such critical questions.

Moreover, raising these questions can feel like fiddling while Rome burns to some Spanish Catholics -- the country is in crisis, they say, and the church has to do something.

“It’s clear that the law will pass,” Brú said, referring to the gay marriage law. “But at least in this moment of history, people will have the security of knowing that the Catholic church has given a response on behalf of the pastors and the faithful.”

* * *

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of Christianity in Europe as a “creative minority,” and some have understood him to mean a more insular church, detached from public debates. In fact, however, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was responsible for a controversial document calling on Catholic politicians to align their votes with church teaching, and warning of consequences if they didn’t. These are not the instructions of someone for whom politics are irrelevant. The pope wants a church engaged in politics; but by releasing it from the pretense of being a majority, he hopes this engagement will be more “evangelical,” based on the Gospel and what he sees as objective truth rather than institutional or bureaucratic considerations. In the end, that’s likely to mean a church with a sharper political edge, more ready to be a “sign of contradiction.”

That was very much the spirit of June 18 in Madrid.

Yet answers to the question of whether Spanish Catholicism has something to teach the rest of the church depends, like so much else in Spain, on who you ask.

“They shouldn’t learn from us,” Martín Patino said flatly. “We’re doing a very bad job.”

Martín Patino’s main worry is that of partisan division.

“In my opinion, and that of many theologians, the bishops have made a serious mistake. Paul VI said that the moment a bishop identifies with a particular ideology, he is dissolving the unity of his flock. That’s what we see here.”

Martínez Camino also cautioned against drawing broader conclusions from the Spanish experience, not because he thinks the church has erred. Rather, he believes the circumstances in Spain are unique.

“The strategy has to be different in every place,” he said. “Here it was necessary to adopt an exceptional response, because we’re in an absolutely exceptional situation. This has never happened in any country of the world.”

Martínez Camino was referring to the Spanish bishops’ belief that Spain’s law goes further than the others, because it doesn’t leave the existing law on marriage intact and create a parallel law for homosexuals. Instead, it removes all reference to marriage as a relationship between man and woman. They see this as more fundamental than what happened in Belgium and Holland.

Arsuga, however, is confident that his “El Cid-meets-Ralph Reed” model can be applied elsewhere.

Pointing to the 500-plus news agencies accredited to cover the June 18 protest, representing 20 countries, he said, “The eyes of the world are upon us. We’re demonstrating that we are responsible citizens, who will resist when marriage, families and children are threatened,” he said.

Brú said that the June 18 rally could mark an important turning point in the Catholic church’s capacity to use “the street,” meaning large-scale public demonstrations, to get its message across.

“Usually in Europe, demonstrations are associated with political parties, and above all the left,” he said. “This could be a call to action in the future for the church elsewhere.”

Arsuga agreed.

“I’m convinced we’ll give an important signal to the world,” he said.

To judge from the ongoing discussion in the Spanish church, however, the jury is still out on what exactly that signal is -- and the extent to which it’s really the way forward.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005

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