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Pope’s visit highlights challenges for Spanish Church

Benedict XVI arrives in Santiago on November 6 with the country’s Catholic heritage on the wane and hoping to contain the spread of progressive social reforms.


Benedict XVI will enjoy an enthusiastic reception in Spain, but the country presents him with serious challenges. Photo: The Vatican.

For Pope Benedict XVI, a visit to Spain will seem like a carefree holiday after his recent tour of Britain. That trip to Scotland and England coincided with angry protests at the Vatican’s handling of child sex abuse cases, and calls for him to face legal action. The British secret service even thwarted a reported attempt on the pope’s life by Islamists.

No such hostility is expected when the pontiff touches down in Santiago de Compostela on November 6, for a two-day visit that will also take him to Barcelona. Spain has been relatively unaffected by the abuse scandals that have rocked other countries with large Catholic communities.

The visit will be “momentous,” the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, Julián Barrio, told the Spanish media.  “We are losing the theological reference points of our Christian roots, and I think the pope will help us revitalize our faith.”

But despite the enthusiastic reception he is certain to receive during his visit (with the exception of some protests at what it will cost the Spanish taxpayer) there will still be plenty to occupy Benedict XVI’s mind, given the challenges facing the Church in Spain.

The country has undergone deep and accelerated social and political changes since Franco died in 1975, bringing to an end his “National-Catholic” regime. Seventy-five percent of Spaniards now describe themselves as Catholic, down from 84 percent in 1998, according to a study by Spain’s CIS. Less than 20 percent go to mass regularly.

“In Spain we have more and more people who don’t agree with the teachings of the Church,” Juan Rubio, editor of Vida Nueva, a weekly Catholic publication, told Iberosphere. “There has been a drop in religious practice in Spain; not so much baptisms and other ceremonies, but in regular church-going. The churches are emptier than they were.” Last year, he points out, for the first time ever there were more civil wedding ceremonies than religious ones.

This mirrors the acute social changes Spain has seen over the last six years under the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has introduced reforms easing divorce, allowing abortion on demand and giving gay couples the right to marry and adopt children. Spain’s social reforms and their possible spread to other countries are one reason why the pontiff is so interested in –and worried about– the country. He visited Valencia in 2006 and will travel to Madrid in August 2011, for World Youth Day, giving Spain the kind of papal presence most other Catholic countries can only dream of.

But while Benedict XVI follows Spain’s political developments with a concerned eye, the agenda of Zapatero’s centre-left administration has clashed –at times fiercely– with the country’s own Catholic hierarchy. The head of the Spanish Church and archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco, has been a vocal critic of the prime minister. In one typical speech he accused the Socialists of allowing “the elimination of half a million children” through the abortion reform.

Rouco and many of his bishops have taken part in massive protest marches against some of these reforms and the quasi-political status of these senior Church figures has at times alarmed even the pope, who has sought to rein in their activism.

Spain is also of particular interest to the Vatican due to the enormous number of immigrants it received during the decade-long boom that ended with the current economic crisis. Nearly six million foreigners are registered in Spain, and hundreds of thousands more have illegal status. Many immigrants are young people from South American countries such as Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia.

“For the Vatican, Spain is the bridge to Latin America. The pope sees this country as a kind of laboratory, where he can see how things might develop across the Atlantic,” explains Rubio.

Letting down the Latin American congregation

And yet, many believe the Church has failed to rise to the challenge of this influx of migrants from Catholic countries. For Carmen Pérez, an Ecuadorian nanny who lives in Madrid, the Spanish Church has let her down. “In Ecuador the churches are full of young people at mass, but here it’s mainly old folks that go,” she says. “I don’t feel that the Catholic Church has opened its arms to me in Spain.”

In addition, with many other immigrants coming from countries with Orthodox traditions such as Romania and Bulgaria, and Muslim nations such as Morocco, the Catholic identity that the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela referred to is inevitably being diluted.

And yet, despite the problem of churches struggling to fill their pews, and with pensioners dominating the thinning congregations, there are young Spaniards who are boldly brandishing their Catholicism.

The movement Orgullosos de ser Católicos (Proud to be Catholic), from Santa Teresa church in Toledo, is one example. Its members are mainly teenagers who wear “Proud to be Catholic” t-shirts and they have even received the Vatican’s approval.

“There’s a perception among Spaniards that being Catholic is old-fashioned and has nothing to do with the modern day,” Gustavo Conde, a priest who is involved in the group, told Iberosphere. “The media, for example, seems to make fun of the Church a lot and that’s despite the fact that so many Spaniards are Catholics.”

As well as being regular church-goers, his charges keenly observe traditional rituals and ceremonies, such as the dramatic Easter Week processions that are staged in many cities, particularly in the south.

“The idea behind this movement is that you should have no worries about saying that you are happy to be Catholic,” Conde says.

More established, albeit non-mainstream, Catholic groups, such as the conservative Opus Dei and Legions of Christ, are also seeing many young people join their ranks.

Reasons to be cheerful?

The Vatican can also look at Spain with optimism for other reasons. Spanish authorities worked closely with the Vatican in negotiating the release of Cuban dissidents earlier this year, showing cooperation with the Socialists was possible despite their differences. Moreover, the Zapatero administration appears to be heading for defeat in the 2012 general elections, to be replaced by the more Church-friendly conservative Popular Party.

But when Benedict XVI arrives, he will be visiting a nation of contradictions: Spain has a deep Catholic heritage and yet it has embraced modern-day consumerism and values with the zeal of a convert.

The itinerary of the pope’s visit will highlight this paradox. Santiago is a deeply traditional place whose enormous, Romanesque cathedral has been the destination for pilgrims from around the world since the ninth century. Barcelona, meanwhile, is known as Spain’s most contemporary and cosmopolitan city. Its Sagrada Familia temple, which the pope will consecrate during his visit, is a modernist marvel, designed by Antoni Gaudí, but which famously remains unfinished.

And while the pope’s visit is a major boost for Spain’s Catholic Church, much work also remains for it in the face of the challenges of the 21st century.

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7 Comments for “Pope’s visit highlights challenges for Spanish Church”

  1. Wonder how he'll like the kiss-in – otherwise known as the "queer kissing flashmob"..?

  2. Really,who cares? 75% down from 84% yet only 20 -odd go to church,so that is the true number:one in five is catholic the rest claim to be and just go to church for weddings and funerals… mitzvahs not being likely.So one in five?Irrelevant.Probably more people follow Real Madrid…even I do a bit now thanks to The Special One.

    Also,not too affected by sexual abuse?Maybe not publicised but you bet there were quite a few pervy priests.

  3. The supposed terror attack on the pope turned out to be the absurd rounding up of a few binmen, pushing dustcarts around. None of them were even interested in the pope let alone terrorists and all were released with an apology – but it was enough to gratify the PR crowd.

    Secondly, one major reason that the church in Spain hasn't had so many cases of paedophile priests is because the cult of secrecy has much more impact in Spain. As Geoffrey Robertson exposed in his book The Case of the Pope which came out this year, the church regards itself as outside of civil and criminal law and instructs its members to maintain complete secrecy over cases of child abuse to the extent of threatening excommunication even to the victims if they make public any information at all.

    One reason why Zapatero is so cagey is because he has to court the right wing to cling to power and the catholic church is a major player in right-wing politics. Spain is supposed constitutionally to be a secular state but the truth is that the catholic church still wields enormous political power and ZP is too scared to confront this – if he did so, he'd lose power.

    By any reasonable ethical standard, the Pope would be subject to charges of crimes against humanity for his stance on the use of condoms in the treatment of AIDS (knowingly increasing the death toll in order comply with religious dogma) but it is probably impossible for any politician here to even contemplate saying so.

  4. Another interesting question is why Spain actually permits the Vatican to call itself a state and accord diplomatic formalities to it. It doesn't issue passports, it doesn't have an economy nor anything resembling a state apparatus, its diplomats have no power in international law, it does not police its own territory, and it has no territory nor defined population. In all respects, it's not a state. The pope is the CEO of a religious business, not a head of state. Presumably that's something else just not talked about in modern Spain.

  5. Well done to Bob!!Fully agree.

  6. Bob, thats exactly right, CEO Benedict.

    I hope the Queer flashmob get a lot of publicity here in Spain to rub the catholics nose in it. They will be disgusted of course, as they always are when confronted with anyone wanting to express their freedom. Spain is changing rapidly, the 75% mark gives a false impression, the reality is much less as will be seen in time. The lack of child abuse claims is curious though, i fear the population is still too scared to say anything, time will tell.

  7. Actually,Bob,having wikipediad it I see it is a state that can issue passports but rarely does.However,I do agree with your comments.

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