It was announced this week that the Pope will visit Spain in November. The news comes during a tense phase in Church-State relations after the Spanish Senate approved a new abortion law on 25 February. It is the latest round in a battle that the secularising government seems to be winning
Last year an estimated one million people demonstrated in Madrid when the proposals to liberalise the abortion law became public. Now that it looks set to become law, the Spanish bishops’ conference has approved a new campaign of protest marches by pro-lifers – describing the proposals as a “licence to kill” children, and an attack on the institution of the family. “This law gives a sealed envelope to a woman to sort herself out, and frees the father of any responsibility,” declared the conference’s spokesman, Bishop Juan Antonio Martínez Camino.
In a country where a majority of the population still identifies itself more or less as Catholic, one would have thought that this is one issue Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero would be advised not to pick a fight over. In fact, Zapatero appears to have taken on the bishops over an issue that alone is unlikely to threaten his political survival.
The law allows the procedure without restrictions up to 14 weeks of a pregnancy, and up to 22 weeks if two doctors certify that there is a serious threat to the health of the mother, or if there is foetal malformation. Beyond 22 weeks, abortion will be allowed if doctors certify foetal malformation deemed “incompatible with life” or if the foetus is diagnosed with an extremely serious or incurable disease. An amendment was passed requiring 16- and 17-year-olds to inform their families if they decide to have an abortion unless they face “a clear risk of family violence, threats, pressure or mistreatment”.
It was an earlier socialist government that in 1985 legalised abortion in Spain, restricting access to termination to cases of rape, foetal malformation or when the mother’s physical or mental health is at risk. From the socialist Government’s perspective, the abortion act has strengthened women’s rights, offering them a choice and bringing an end to the anomaly of the “mental health” loophole under which 100,000 women obtained abortions yearly across a network of often poorly regulated private clinics. Politicians who voted for the new law – they include a small number of “moral rebels” in the main opposition pro-Catholic Partido Popular, and some Catholic Basque and Catalan nationalist party politicians who had a free vote – have put themselves in an “objective state of sin”. While the situation lasts, they will not be “admitted to Holy Communion”.
Pro-lifers have meanwhile urged King Juan Carlos not to sign the act into law. Hopes of provoking a constitutional crisis over the abortion issue, however, appear to be wishful thinking. Bishop Martínez Camino drew a distinction between the King’s constitutional duty to sign laws approved by the democratically elected parliament, and the politicians’ freedom to vote.
Most Spanish commentators have interpreted this as a political rather than a moral distinction even though the bishops are shying away from admitting to this in public. Since being enthroned as head of state in 1975, following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, King Juan Carlos intervened forcefully only once, when Spanish democracy was threatened by a military coup in 1981. His popularity has nonetheless largely rested on his reputation as a bastion of stability against the dark, divisive forces that in years past threw Spain into a bloody Civil War. In practice this has meant legitimising the country’s transition from a dictatorship to a modern state, including signing in other liberal laws on gay marriages and divorce.
The King’s position reflects perhaps sensitivity to the changing cultural context of modern Spain. The religious map of Spain has been altered thanks to the huge increase in immigration in recent years (Muslims form the largest minority faith), and the separation of Church and State.
The percentage of the Spanish population declaring itself Catholic has fallen from 83.5 per cent in 1998 to under 75 per cent last year. Only 50 per cent of these “Catholics” admit to ever going to church other than for events such as a funeral or wedding. There is also a crisis in vocations, with the average age of priests put at 67.
A recent visit to Madrid confirmed the extent to which the Catholic Church appears to be losing influence particularly among the young and middle-aged groups. “The bishops here are out of touch with what a majority of Spaniards who have grown up after Franco feel should be part of modern life,” said Carlos Oppe, an Anglo-Spanish Ampleforth-educated ecologist and married father of young twins.
A Sunday Mass I attended in the outskirts of Madrid was half empty, with the congregation largely made up of rather well-heeled old pensioners. There was a striking absence of youth, apart from a young priest, whose hellfire sermon denouncing the alleged unbelievers outside the Church made no attempt to engage with any earthly, still less spiritual, sense of the common good. Across the hills I could see clearly the huge cross at the memorial known as the Valley of the Fallen, built by Republican prisoners after the Civil War for the eternal glory of National Catholicism Spain as personified by Franco. It was another reminder of how much Spain had changed.
Elsewhere, left-wing priests have provoked tensions with a hierarchy increasingly bending to the wishes of a doctrinally conservative Pope. For example, in the working-class Madrileño suburb of Vallecas, the so-called “red” church of San Carlos Borromeo has been threatened with closure by the local bishop because of its alleged lack of liturgical rigour. The church welcomes non-Catholics, including Muslims, who were allowed to share their readings of the Qur’an.
According to the Hispanist historian Henry Kamen, Spanish identity based on a seemingly indelible Catholic legacy can no longer be taken for granted in modern Spain, with its changing political, social and cultural landscape. In his book Imagining Spain, Kamen argues that the “myth” of Catholic Spain was fuelled by the triumphalist writings of the nineteenth-century scholar Menéndez Pelayo. “One faith, one baptism, one flock, one shepherd, one Church … the hammer of heretics, the light of Trent, the sword of Rome,” wrote Menéndez Pelayo of his country.
Certainly in the lead-up to Easter in Spain, the Holy Week processions will draw large crowds of enthusiastic devotees in villages and towns across Spain, a reminder of the mysticism that endures in Spanish society, and the rituals involved.
And yet today’s Prime Minister Zapatero is a self-proclaimed agnostic, whose presidency of the EU makes no mention of his country’s evangelising mission but rather focuses on issues which the Spanish socialist Government claims as the preserve of a liberated secular society, such as gender equality in all its manifestations from gay rights to abortion.
By contrast there appears to be a crisis of faith in Spain, not just in a fall-off in practice but also at an intellectual level, with a majority of Spaniards lacking a coherent view of what they really believe in and why. And this in a notionally Catholic country where the scandal of sexual abuse is thought widely to have been as covered up as it was in Ireland and could, according to local diplomats, similarly surface, belatedly, any time.
Such sexual scandals have until now only been hinted at by film directors like Almodóvar and relate to the Franco era. But in the same week as the abortion bill was being debated with minimum media interest, newspapers and TV went to town over a very recent case of a priest in Toledo who had worked as a male prostitute and spent church funds on telephone sex and internet pornography.
As things are, the Spanish bishops appear to be fighting a losing battle to wield greater influence on the State as the Government pushes its “modernising” agenda in education, removing crucifixes from classrooms as well as from some public places.
Most Spanish political commentators believe that Zapatero’s Achilles heel is not his lack of faith but his mismanagement of the economic crisis, with Spain’s four million unemployed, negative growth and spiralling budget deficit causing growing unrest among believers and unbelievers alike.