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Zapatero: a pope’s best friend

Spain’s Socialist government has upset the Catholic Church a number of times. But as Benedict XVI visits Madrid, he should recognise how much it has also helped him in recent years.


An anti-pope protester. But Spain's Socialist government has been on the Church's side lately. Photo: Carlotta Tofani / Flickr.

A mock “Popemobile” was present at Wednesday evening’s demonstration in central Madrid against the pope’s visit. In it, a skinny man in late middle age dressed as the pontiff was blessing the crowd of protesters around him in jocular fashion. Then, looking slightly jaded, the faux-pope put down his crosier, pulled out a cigarette and smiled as he took a deep drag.

It was a funny moment, but it seemed to me the real pope had every reason to be as satisfied during his marathon Spanish visit as this imposter.

No doubt Benedict XVI and those who think like him will disagree. After all, it was he who decried Spain’s “aggressive secularism” last time he came to visit, less than a year ago. Ratzinger also made another of his trademark -and questionable- sweeping statements when he said Spain’s anti-Catholicism was a throwback to the period just before the Civil War.

But besides such hyperbole, the Vatican can point to a steady decline in church attendance and the fact that only about one in five Spaniards go to Mass. These figures are particularly worrying when taking into account the number of Latin American, Catholic immigrants who have arrived in recent years, but who have not felt welcome in their local place of worship.

Moreover, protests such as Wednesday’s against the cost of the pope’s visit and the treatment being given to him in general reflect widespread antipathy towards an institution that once dominated Spanish society.

A Socialist government that has made divorce and abortion easier and which legalized same-sex marriage and adoption, (“the worst thing to happen to the Catholic Church in 2000 years”, according to the Episcopal Conference) is surely another reason for the pope to wonder if this southern member of his European flock is as good as lost.

But the reason Benedict XVI should be smiling, just like his protest march Doppelganger, is precisely because of the Spanish government.

The first four years of the Zapatero administration were indeed tense ones for Church-state relations. The prime minister’s social reform agenda inevitably angered the Church. The country’s bishops, led by the belligerent Cardinal José María Rouco Varela, responded with verbal broadsides, such as accusing the government of allowing “the elimination of half a million children” with the abortion reform. They also took the extraordinary step of barging further into the political arena by leading mass marches against gay marriage. If Zapatero’s social policies opened a division in society, then Rouco Varela’s response further opened the chasm.

No euthanasia, lots of money

But in the last three or four years, relations have improved. The government has not followed through on electoral promises such as a euthanasia law and a reform of the religious freedom law (which, for example, means that those being sworn into public office do so in front of a crucifix). The “dignified death” bill which has replaced the euthanasia proposal has still riled the bishops, but the government reportedly pulled back from presenting the latter due to pressure from the Church. Abandoning the religious freedom law may be more due to other priorities, such as the economy, but it’s probably no coincidence that Zapatero withdrew it after meeting with Benedict XVI.

But the biggest improvement in this Socialist government’s relationship with the Vatican and the Spanish Church is financial. Previously, taxpayers were able to apportion 0.52 percent of their income taxes to the Church. A revision of that agreement means they can now apportion 0.70 percent, bringing an estimated extra €250 million into the Catholic coffers.

So while the moral state of Spain will no doubt always worry this pope, when it comes to other more concrete areas, such as legislation and money, he has every reason to sit back and light up a cigarette – and perhaps even share one with Zapatero.

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Published: Aug 19 2011
Category: Iberoblog, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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4 Comments for “Zapatero: a pope’s best friend”

  1. “And what do you benefit if you gain the world but lose your soul.” – Mt 1:26

    Benedict and the Catholic Church are more concerned with the souls of Spain and the decaying faith and family life than 0.18% of incomes and a slight delay in further destroying their own civilzation. Gay marriage and the abortion of millions of children are not things to celebrate nor “every reason to sit back and light up a cigarette.”

  2. Perhaps this is a bit off topic but I am a bit confused as to why the polemic regarding Ratzinger’s visit here in Spain has only focused on the cost. Has everyone magically forgotten that this man should be a cell mate with Charles Taylor in the Hague? His few mumbled apologies for covering up child abuse within the church may absolve him for his sins with his particular spaghetti monster but in the real world a few sorries shouldn’t be enough when one is suspected of covering up abuse and abetting crimes for decades. This should be the real outrage!

    • The outrage probably focuses on the cost as it’s just so easy for everyone to see. Examples:
      In El Escorial where the Pope stayed at some point the raised zebra crossings were removed as they may have caused the Pope and his Popemobile problems. It’s said that they will be replaced at a later date. Who’s paying? I presume it’s the council, but it’s not the Vatican.
      I live 30km out of Madrid. A friend of mine went to catch the train one morning – no room – full of pilgrims. He went to the next carriage, same problem, full of the Pope’s followers. But who had paid the full price for his seat?? The pilgrims were given free transport paid for by?? They were also given free enterance to musuems!
      All through the Pope’s visit the people of Madrid were pushed to one side to make room for young people who were not only not paying their way, but were costing us money.
      Did anyone ask the Pope if this is what he wanted? I’m guessing that they didn’t.

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