‘We are hounded on all sides, but they can’t deal with us,’ the Archbishop of Pamplona, Fernando Sebastián told a congress of Catholic lay people held in Madrid in 2004. ‘We are persecuted, but we shall never be annihilated.’
This is rethorical nonsense. For a start, the Church- diminished thought it may be-is a very large institution and one with the means to exert a huge influence on what Spaniards think. The Bishop’s Conference owns a 50 per cent stake in one of the country’s main radio networks, Cadena Cope, and one Spanish children in every seven goes to a school owned by a religious order or association. Most importantly of all, perhaps, the Church oversees religious education in all of Spain’s schools, including even those it does not own.
As a result of its influences, Spanish society is shot through with instinctively Catholic attitudes, just as the Spanish language us crammed with phrases drawn from Catholic practice and dogma. When, for example, a Spaniard wants to convey the idea that something or somebody is reliable, trustworthy, ‘OK’ in the widest sense, he or she will say that that person or thing ‘va a misa‘ (‘goes to Mass’). When some terrible thing like multiple sclerosis or nuclear war is mentioned in conversation, in circumstances where and English-speaker might say, ‘It doesn’t bear thinking about’, a Spaniard-even an ostensibly irreligious one-will often say, ‘Que Dios noso coja confesados‘ )’Let’s hope God catches us confessed’). And wheb the first baby to be conceived through in vitro fertilization was born, that eminently secular periodical Cambio 16 headlined its report with the words ‘Born without Original Sin’.
Far from being persecuted, the Church is merely starting to get a measure of normal treatment after centuries of being showered with privileges. As the reconquista pushed forward the limits of Christian Spain, the Church acquired inmense tracts of land, especially in the southern half of the peninsula. No sooner were the confiscated in the 1830s than it was felt that the state had to make amends. In a pact, or Concordat, drawn between Madrid and the Vatican in 1851, the government undertook by way of indemnity to pay the clergy’s salaries and meet the cost of administering the sacraments. This extraordinary commitment was honoured by every government until 1931, when it was renounced by the authors of the Republican constitution. But two years later, when a conservative government came to power, the subsidy was resumed.
Franco not only continued to pay it, he also provided government money to rebuilt churches damaged or destroyed in the civil war and passed a series of measures bringing the law of Spain into line with the teachings of the Church. Divorce, which has been legal under the Republic, was abolished; the sale (but not, for some reasons, the manufacture) of contraceptives was banned, and the Roman Catholic religious instructions was made compulsory in public as well as private education at every level.
In return the Vatican granted Franco something that Spanish rulers had been seeking for centuries: effective control over the appointment of bishops. Cooperation between the Church and the regime became even closer after the end of the Second World War when Franco needed to turn a non-fascist face to the world. Several prominent Catholic laymen were included in the cabinet and one of them, Alberto Martín Artajo, succeeded in negotiating a new Concordant in Rome.
Signed in 1953, it ended the diplomatic isolation to which Spain had been subjected ever since the Allied victory, Franco was happy to make whatever concessions were necessary to clinch it. The Church was exempted from taxation and offered grants with which to construct churches and other religious buildings. It acquired the right to ask for material it found offensive to be withdrawn from sale, yet in owns publications were freed from censorship. Canonical marriage was recognized as the only valid from for Catholics. The Church was given the opportunity to found universities, run radio stations and own newspapers and magazines. The police were forbidden to enter churches except in cases of ‘urgency necessity’. The clergy could not be charged with criminal offences except with the permission of their diocesan bishop (in the case of priest) or the Holy See itself (in the case of bishops).
In the meantime, preparations had been made for a revision of the Concordat. In 1976, King Juan Carlos had unilaterally renounced the privilege of being able to name Spain’s bishops and in August of that year an agreement was signed formally restoring to the Church the power to appoint its own leaders in Spain. In December 1979 a partial revision of the Concordat appeared to prepare the ground for a financial separation between Church and state. Referring to the state’s lengthy atonement for the confiscations of the previous century, it was agreed that ‘the state can neither ignore nor prolong indefinitely juridical obligations acquired in the past’. So, tacitly acknowledging that the Church was incapable of going it alone overnight, the agreement proposed a transitional period of six years divided into two three-years stages. During stage one, the government would continue to pay the usual subsidy. But during stage two there would be a new system of finance. Taxpayers would be able to state on their returns whether they wished a small percentage of their taxes to go to the Church and the government would then hand over the resulting sum to the bishops. The press immediately dubbed it the impuesto religioso (religious tax), but this was a rather inaccurate label since it was never conceived of as a separate or additional charge. Whatever the individual taxpayer decided would make no difference to the size of his or her tax bill.
And not only that. Under the revised Concordat, the state undertook to ensure that during this second phase of the transition to self-financing the Church would get ‘resources of similar quantity’ to those it was already receiving. However few or many taxpayers expressed a desire to help the Church, therefore, it would make no difference to what it obtained from the state.
In fact, the arrangements in the Concordat have been only partially, and belatedly, implemented. Stage one lasted, not for three years, but for nine. It was not until 1988 that taxpayers were asked to decide whether they wanted a share of their contribution to be given to the Church or spent on ‘objectives of social interest’.
If Roman Catholicism is in poor shape in Spain then it is certainly not because the Church is in some way being hamstrung by politicians, but because it is failing to offer people a form of religion with which they wish to associate.
John Hooper, The New Spaniards.