Clash of church and state in Spain

The Government and the Catholic Church are at loggerheads again in Spain following a mass demonstration in Madrid over the New Year. The rally, organised by the Church, was supposed to be “in defence of the family” but was, in fact, an attack on the Spanish Government’s legalisation of gay marriage, its new fast-track divorce law and a new civics course that parents can choose for their children instead of religious indoctrination in schools. The Pope made an appearance via a video link to cheer on the bigots. The Church claimed that two million people had taken part in the rally, but an independent count by El Pais newspaper put the number at less than 160,000. Even they had to be bussed in from all over the country, and some even from Portugal.

Valencia’s Cardinal Agustín García-Gasco said “the path of abortion, express divorce and ideologies aimed at manipulating the education of our youngsters does not lead to any dignified destiny for man and his rights, but to the breakdown of democracy.”

The ruling PSOE party, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was quick to respond, saying that the Spanish Catholic Church “has strayed from the fundamentals of democracy,” Justice Minister Mariano Fernández Bermejo suggested that the Church “put its own house in order.”

Another prominent PSOE leader, José Blanco, replied to the Church that its leadership, “with their lies,” are capable of causing a breakdown of the Christian family, and reminded them that for Christians, “lying is a sin.”

He also said the Zapatero administration was the foremost defender of the family, having implemented social policies making it possible for parents to reconcile work and family life, by granting fathers paternity leave, for example. Signor Zapatero said that his government was carrying out policies which were supported by the ‘immense majority’ of the Spanish people, and Spain would continue to act in that way.

Making no effort to mask his anger at the Cardinals and Bishops who led the Catholic Church event in the Plaza de Colón, Zapatero reminded them that the Spanish Constitution ensured that there was room for everybody in Spain, that everybody has the right to have rights, whatever they think, and whether they belong to a religion or not. The Prime Minister made his comments at a rally in the Huelva town of Almonte.

The PSOE statement said the stance taken by the Church hierarchy undermined the fundamentals of democracy, which are based on the principle that it is society that has the authority to organise the principles of individual freedom. It added that “in a regime based on freedoms, faith cannot be enforced by law.”

Criticism of Sunday’s event has also come from the leader of the left-wing IU, Gaspar Llamazares. He said that the event was organised by the most conservative wing of the Church. The Spanish Federation of Gays and Lesbians accused the Church of dangerously promoting religious fanaticism.

There will be a general election in Spain on 9 March, and the polls show the PSOE and the opposition People’s Party (which supported the Church rally) are neck and neck, which will force them to strike deals with smaller parties to get their candidates designated as prime minister by parliament.

In a July 2007 survey by the BBVA (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria) Foundation, 74 percent of those interviewed described themselves as Catholics. But the same poll showed that six out of 10 respondents accepted same-sex marriage, half did not go to church, except for baptisms, funerals and weddings, and 42 percent said they never prayed.

4 January 2008