Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

As Spaniards Lose Their Religion, Church Leaders Struggle to Hold On

The New York Times  June 26, 2005

 

MADRID - Last weekend the center of this city was virtually shut down by two competing events, each of which drew hundreds of thousands of people. The first was organized with the backing of the Roman Catholic Church and the conservative opposition party to protest government sponsored legislation that would allow same-sex marriages. Nineteen bishops and a cardinal took part. The second event was a concert by the Brazilian samba star Carlinhos Brown on the Castellana, Madrid's major thoroughfare. It had no overt political message, beyond Mr. Brown's exhortations for personal freedom and mutual respect, which were met with jubilation by the wildly dancing crowd.

If one were to ask which event matched the political winds now blowing in Spain, the outdoor concert would have won hands down. Religion is rapidly losing strength and influence in politics here. Even though this country was once the global bastion of conservative Catholicism, gay marriage is expected to become legal this month, under the most liberal such law in all of Europe. This presents a particularly troubling challenge for the Catholic Church, whose new pope, Benedict XVI, has expressed a strong concern about the decline of religious feeling throughout Europe. Northern Europe has a long history of secularism, but southern Europe is now catching up, with the changes in Spain particularly profound, swift and sometimes jarring.

The church here was deeply intertwined with the state during most of Spanish history, until well into the last half of the 20th century. In comparison, France has had a forceful tradition of secularism in the two centuries since its revolution, while in Italy the church has witnessed rising levels of secularism without the level of rancor that is occurring here.

In Spain, said Professor Alfonso Pérez-Agote, a Madrid sociologist who studies religion, the leaders of the church are finding it difficult to let go of their power. "This has been a very publicly political church," he said.

The church leaders blame the ruling Socialist Party, which took power in the wake of the March 11, 2004, terrorist bombings here. But the government's policies have wide public support. Two-thirds of the Spanish public have supported the gay marriage law in recent polls, according to the Center for Sociological Investigation, a nonpartisan government-supported research organization. And while 80 percent of Spaniards refer to themselves as Catholic, only 20 percent regularly attend church, and 50 percent said they almost never go except for weddings and funerals. "For the majority of Spaniards, in everyday life and in politics, we have almost a shameful situation," said the Rev. Leopoldo Vives Soto, who heads the secretariat on family and life for the Spanish Conference of Bishops. "There is social prestige in agnosticism and atheism and in rejecting the church's teachings."

In fact, Spaniards have been shedding traditional Catholic doctrine from their private lives, and from the law, since the 1970's, the last days of the Franco regime, which was closely allied with the church hierarchy. Divorce and abortion were legalized in the 1980's and early 1990's under a Socialist government, although those early changes included many legal caveats that deferred to Catholicism.

The new century began with the conservative Popular Party in power and closely aligned with the church. But the pace of change picked up once the Socialists regained power last year, seemingly intent on stripping away whatever aspects of church doctrine remain in the Spanish legal code. A mandatory separation period prior to divorce has been scrapped, laws on in vitro fertilization have been loosened and the last government's attempt to make Christianity a mandatory subject in school has been replaced with the option of studying other religions, including Islam - and by making religion an extracurricular activity.

For the church, the government's policies are confounding. "They want religion to disappear in public life," said Father Vives. "They want the voice of the church to disappear."

But Spaniards themselves are rejecting the role of the church in dictating personal mores.

A poll taken in the spring by the Center for Sociological Investigation found that Spaniards' hopes for the new pope were that he would help the poor (60 percent) and open up to changes and progress (45 percent). Only 5 percent hoped he would defend strict moral values. Church leaders say this secularism began in force with the consumerism of the 1970's, and also note the longtime strain of anti-clericalism in the Spanish left.

The turnout in Madrid last week showed, at the same time, that significant numbers of Spaniards still care deeply about the church as a font of moral values. Fernando Lobo, a 30-year-old chemist from Seville who attended the rally with his wife and two young children, said gay marriage "is a deviation, a physical and mental sickness." Still, he noted that it was too late to stop the law. "The battle is lost," he said. At the rally, placards argued against legalizing same-sex unions as a threat to the family. But some analysts say Spaniards have been able to run from the church partly because the family here is in fact thriving - and remains a source of emotional support. A high percentage of people under 35 still live with their parents, for example, and large family gatherings are still a normal weekly event.

As acceptance of homosexuality has grown, many Spaniards have considered it more important to assist gay relatives than to listen to church doctrine, said Fernando Vallespín Oña, president of the Center for Sociological Investigation.

"Spaniards' love of their children is deeper than their love for their religion," he said.

Samuel Loewenberg is a journalist who covers policy and politics.

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