Pope Benedict XVI in an ‘aggressively secular’ Spain

7 Nov

During his two days in Spain, Pope Benedict XVI has succeeded in converting what could have been a victorious tour of a traditional Catholic stronghold into a visit mired in controversy. Before even arriving in Santiago de Compostela to begin his visit, the Pope told reporters that Spain was suffering an ‘aggressive secularism’, which he compared with the anticlericalism of the 1930s.

Zapatero alongside Pope Benedict in what seems an awkward encounter

By referring to the 1930s when Spain stood on the brink of a civil war, the Pope irresponsibly highlights political divisions that have been difficult to rid from the national consciousness. In the 1930s Spanish society was divided between liberal, left-wing Republicans and right-wing, largely Catholic Nationalists. The Second Republic from 1931 to 1936 passed legislation separating the church and the state, legalising divorce and allowing women the vote. During this time radical left-wingers demonstrated their anticlericalism through attacks on nuns and monks and by burning churches. To compare the current state of Spain’s Catholic Church to these violent acts carried out by a minority is not only inaccurate, it is irresponsible. In the past, comments like this could have served to polarise Spanish society, described by the Civil War expert Ángel Viñas as ‘un juego pendular’, or pendulum game, for its history of extreme left and right politics.

But by harking back to a time of widespread devotion in Spain, when secularism posed no threat whatsoever, Pope Benedict’s comments inadvertently evoke the role Catholicism played in Franco’s dictatorship. Franco exploited Catholicism to legitimise his dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 when church attendance was high for fear of punishment. Catholicism was embraced in its most conservative form; women’s place was in the home and homosexuality was a criminal offence. Today an article in El País which analysed the Pope’s statement attracted many readers’ comments. Among them was Juan XXIII who said: “El Papa ha dicho lo que ha dicho: que el laicismo actual es como el anterior al golpe de estado de Franco. ¿Quiere decir que el golpe fue bueno? Pues sí, eso es lo que dice el Papa, porque es un dictador como lo fue Franco y como lo es la Iglesia.” (“The Pope has said what he’s said: that our current secularism is like what we had before Franco’s coup d’etat. Is he saying the coup was good? Well yes, that is what the Pope says, because he is a dictator like Franco was and like the Catholic church still is.”)

The PSOE's legalisation of gay marriage in 2005 was met with demonstrations in Madrid

These days Spain’s political and social outlook has developed greatly under the Socialist leadership of Zapatero and the PSOE who have legalised gay marriage, fast-track divorce and easy access to abortions. The secularism Pope Benedict refers to is seen in the low attendance of mass – only 14% of Spaniards regularly attend according to the BBC – and the rejection of certain church teachings, such as no sex before marriage, especially by young people. However, 73% of Spaniards still define themselves as Catholic, hardly a sign that ‘aggressive secularism’ is rife.

When the Pope was in Barcelona today visiting Gaudí’s famous cathedral La Sagrada Familia, he was met with a protest by almost 200 gay activists who staged a ‘kiss-in’. It is a refreshing sign that Spain has established enough distance from Franco’s dictatorship that these men and women can openly campaign for a change in the Catholic mentality towards homosexuality. Such tension with the Papal See only demonstrates Spain’s independence to legislate free from Papal intervention. The reaction to the Pope’s careless statement is a show of strength on the part of the Spanish, rejecting the opinion of a leader whose antiquated views would see a return to a time when Spain was autocratically governed by Catholic, conservative ideals.

Gay demonstrators' 'kiss-in' gains media attention in Barcelona

Image 1:  2Space

Image 2: BBC News

Image 3: Joemygod

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