Zapatero tells Pope ‘Spain is secular’

The Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero reminded the Pope last week that Spain is a secular state after the pontiff attacked Government legislation on abortion, gay marriage and divorce.

Just as he did in the UK, the Pope started his attack on Spain’s “aggressive secularism” as soon as he arrived in the country, blaming it for the rise of fascism. He said there were comparisons between the anti-clericalism now and the anti-clericalism in the civil war – which has resulted in thousands of priests being assassinated in the run up to the civil war. Just as his comments about atheism and the Nazi regime had sparked outrage in Britain, so his re-writing of Spanish history caused an outcry there.

Left-wingers described the remarks as misguided given that the Spanish Government spends €6 billion (£5 billion) each year on financial support for the Church and recently shelved a law which would have given equal rights to other religions. “The Pope’s comments are an insult and an affront to Spanish democracy,” said Juanma Romero, of the United Left Party.

Gay marriage has been embraced by many Spaniards, seeing 20,000 unions in the past five years. And the pope’s message, while cheered by tens of thousands of the faithful, met with opposition from many others.

The daily newspaper El Pais said of the visit: “The Pope has set himself the Herculean task of combating the unstoppable development of secularisation in Europe – a process for which Spain has become the centre of operations, strangely enough. Ratzinger’s over-the-top approach resulted in a missed opportunity to build bridges between the Church and the state.”

From the heartland of Catholic Germany, Süddeutsche Zeitung said that whoever advised Benedict XVI in the course of his trip to Spain did him “a great disservice”. The Munich daily condemned as “fatal” the Pontiff’s comparison of contemporary anti-clericalism with that in the run up to the civil war, as the Second Spanish Republic attempted to limit the role of the Church. It shows that the Vatican is still eager to hide the true story of an “aggressive and murderous Spanish clergy too happy to give a leg-up to Francoist fascism.” But “why is Benedict XVI bringing all of this up now? Because in terms of social legislation, Spain has entered the modern world. Gay marriage, divorce without an interminable waiting period, abortion, and sex education – in the eyes of the Vatican, this is the catalogue of sin for which Spain is unable to atone.”

The Pope grumbled about the lack of religion in the Czech Republic, citing it as a prime example of the “marginalisation” of Christianity in Europe. But the Lidové Noviny newspaper conducted a poll that showed that the Czechs are not quite as anti-Catholic as the Pope would have us believe – but they are definitely anti-Ratzinger. The paper also argues that the Pope’s concerns over “the growing spiritual void in Europe, which will open the door to Islam,” are groundless. On the contrary, Lidové Noviny believes that “Islam is less likely to develop in the Czech Republic than in a country where Catholicism is a living force.”

The Spanish Prime Minister met briefly with the Pope at Barcelona airport just before the pontiff departed for Rome and, according to a statement from his office, diplomatically suggested that Spain had a smooth relationship with the Vatican. But the premier added that ties with the Vatican were based on the constitution, which states Spain is a “secular state which recognises the weight of the Catholic Church in Spain but guarantees the freedom of all.” As if to exemplify the tensions between church and state, the Queen took communion with the Pope while the King did not.

Zapatero also said that his Government would “co-operate fully” with the Pope’s next visit to Spain, which will be for World Youth Day in Madrid next August, and which will cost the country — already struggling under the weight of 20% unemployment and vast debts — very dearly.