Via Integra

Fr Mark's progressive Anglo-Catholic take on European Christianity

  • This is my collection of material about the current state of the churches in Europe. I am interested in looking at how they are dealing with the pressing issues of our time: the issues of gay people and women in ministry/ leadership are particularly pressing at the moment, as is the area of declining church attendance.

    I would like to see how Europe's traditional religious institutions are coping with the new Europe currently being forged, in which public opinion and ethical attitudes are becoming inceasingly pan-European, and are evidently presenting a series of strong challenges for the churches.

Spain – church attendance

Posted by Fr Mark on August 30, 2009

350PX-~1New Spanish liberalism at odds with Catholic past  


From The, 25.03.05:

In the 12 months since the Madrid bombings, Spain has become a very different place

When the dust settled after explosions ripped through four commuter trains in Madrid on March 11 last year, it quickly became clear that Spain would never be the same again.

Three days after the terrorist attack, which killed 191 people, Spanish voters swept the conservative Popular Party from power. The new socialist Government achieved instant international notoriety by withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq.

A year later, US President George Bush is still not speaking to the new Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

In a country where 90 per cent of the population opposed the war in Iraq, such moves came as no surprise.

What few predicted, however, was that within a year the new government would all but complete a social revolution, forever transforming the social fabric of the country and provoking open warfare with the Catholic Church.

The Vatican has always considered Spain – where more than 80 per cent of the population is nominally Catholic – to be a bastion of faith amid the moral relativism of secular Europe. Although Spain does indeed have strong Catholic roots, modern Spain is also a country where personal freedom is celebrated like nowhere else and the protection of individual choice is sacrosanct.

Perhaps it was not unusual in liberal Europe that Ana Botella, a devout Catholic and wife of the former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, should openly tell reporters while her husband was still in power that “it doesn’t matter if someone has one or two or three or four affairs”. Where else but Spain, however, could her seemingly unconcerned husband respond by saying: “Spain is Catholic but in its own way. People try to have a good time.”

And yet, for all that, Spain’s laws have rarely reflected this very Spanish love of freedom.

Until as recently as 1978, contraceptives were banned from sale in Spain and adultery was illegal. Divorce was not permitted until 1981. Under the dictator General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 until 1975, homosexuals were imprisoned under the Law on Social Dangers which grouped them alongside “ruffians, pimps and professional beggars” and “those who exploit minors”.

After democracy swept away the old order and its draconian laws, the Catholic Church – which had stood proudly alongside Franco and provided critical legitimacy for his rule – clung fast to its old ways as if caught unawares by the changes that were sweeping the country.

The Spanish church opposed Spain’s 1978 constitution, which cemented Spain’s return to democracy, on the grounds that it neglected to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and opened the path to divorce, birth control and a host of other social evils.

In the meantime, Spaniards were intent on making up for lost time, embracing in equal measure their newfound liberation and all that was once forbidden. They did so with all the zeal of an ex-convent schoolgirl. In Spain, church attendance is at an all-time low. Some polls put the figure as low as 20 per cent. Mr Zapatero is not among the churchgoers and, in April last year, he became the first Spanish prime minister to swear his oath of allegiance not on the Bible, but on the Spanish constitution. Spain’s new cabinet also contained just one practising Catholic among its 16 members. The church was not happy but remained quiet.

Then the new Government announced a legislative program that is among the most socially liberal in Europe, encompassing euthanasia, gay marriage, abortion, divorce and allowing embryonic research for therapeutic purposes.

Less than three decades after gay Spaniards were being imprisoned, homosexuals and transsexuals will soon enjoy complete equality with heterosexuals. This equality even extends into the area of adoption rights. Only two other countries – notoriously liberal Holland and Belgium – have gone to such lengths.

The new laws unleashed a firestorm of protest from Catholic clerics outraged that a secular government should presume to challenge so directly the church’s monopoly over the moral well-being of the nation.

So deep is the unease within the church over the Spanish Government’s secular agenda that Pope John Paul recently made a rare foray into the domestic politics of a sovereign nation. Publicly reprimanding the Spanish Prime Minister, the pontiff spoke of Spain’s “increasing contempt for and ignorance of religious matters”.

He also expressed concern that “new generations of Spaniards, influenced by religious indifference and ignorance of Christian tradition, are being exposed to the temptations of moral permissiveness” and warned the Spanish Government that the “living roots of Christianity in Spain cannot be torn out”.

Criticism by the Vatican of increasingly liberal European values is nothing new. Reforms in the Netherlands and other countries with less-than-dominant Catholic traditions have always been viewed with distaste by the church and held up as worrying evidence of Europe’s moral decline.

But Spain is different. For the Vatican, Spain’s Catholic identity is an inviolable article of faith and the Government’s social reforms represent nothing less than a threat to the pre-eminence of Catholic values in its heartland. The vehemence of the church’s response also reflects a growing awareness within the church hierarchy that its conservative social values are increasingly out of step with Spanish public opinion, a state of affairs which is contributing to a serious loss of influence.

Recent opinion polls suggest that two-thirds of Spaniards support gay marriage and 70 per cent would like to see euthanasia laws liberalised. Polls taken at the same time found that 61.8 per cent of Spaniards have little or no confidence in the church. Some secular analysts have even dared to suggest that Spain is no longer a Catholic country.

Amid the storm, Mr Zapatero continues along his reformist path. He does so safe in the knowledge that he is winning the battle for the soul of Spain.

Drawing on the power that derives from such a position of strength, he recently became the first Spanish leader in living memory to dare to suggest to the church that “it wouldn’t be bad if they progressed a bit to the social times that we live in”. That it should come to this in Catholic Spain is less surprising than the fact that it took so long.

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