Church Vandalism in Spain: Credit Where It’s Due

Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, one would be able to regularly blog about or even tweet regarding acts of church vandalism in Spain? From Madrid to Barcelona and beyond, it seems that every week there is a new story of uncivilized, sometimes politically motivated, acts of violence against the fabric of the Church. As appalling as these events are however, it is extremely important to stress that cooler heads must prevail when reporting on these events. Not every physical attack on a church building comes about as a result of political action.

Recently for example, I learnt of a new act of vandalism in the historically important city of Burgos, located in central Spain. Two 13th century statues on the main entrance portal of the church of San Esteban (i.e. St. Stephen) were decapitated sometime late on Holy Thursday or early in the morning of Good Friday by an unknown person or persons. San Esteban was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, and is considered by some architectural historians to be the most important example of Gothic church architecture in the city after the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor. It was declared a National Monument of Spain in 1931, and at the present time it serves as the Altarpiece Museum for the Archdiocese of Burgos.

This morning Spanish authorities announced the capture and charging of an individual in connection with the case. The heads of the statues of St. Peter and St. Lawrence were recovered by the National Police from the individual, and these have been returned to the church for restoration. The defendant is a local man, who had been arrested and charged recently with antiquities theft in another matter, but was out on bond at the time of the San Esteban incident.

From the beginning the Archdiocese of Burgos has been very careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was an anticlerical act, and expressed its belief that this was probably an act of theft. Vandalism of ancient churches to feed the black market in looted antiquities is a problem throughout Europe, and Spain is no exception. When the incident was first reported, a spokesman for the Archdiocese noted the important detail that the heads were taken away, rather than left at the scene, as would normally be expected from leftist vandals. Nor was there any accompanying graffiti or other indications to suggest that the vandalism was a politically motivated act.

A similar, commendable restraint was shown by the Archdiocese of Barcelona and local authorities last week, when the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was torched by a mentally ill man. Neither the Archdiocese nor the police alleged that there was any connection between the individual and leftist anti-Catholic actions. By taking this cautionary approach in Burgos, Barcelona, and elsewhere, the Church is doing exactly what it needs to do, even if authorities are often powerless to prevent vandalism – politically motivated or not – against its property.

There is a trait in the Spanish character at all points along the socio-political spectrum to jump to conclusions about the cause or motivations behind an act, which at the moment the Church appears to be avoiding institutionally, unless there is undeniable proof of an anti-Catholic motivation. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of the Spanish tendency to form an opinion with insufficient evidence occurred on March 11, 2004, when the Madrid subway system was bombed three days before national elections were scheduled. The conservative government and some elements of the media immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, which denied all involvement – and admittedly the charge against them seemed rather bizarre to outside observers at the time, including this writer, since attacks like these are not the usual m.o. for ETA.

Through subsequent investigation it quickly came to light that the Madrid subway attacks were carried out not by Basque separatists, but rather by Muslim terrorists. The public reaction against the conservatives for making ETA the scapegoat for 3/11, as the subway bombing has come to be known, was harsh and swift; the small lead which the conservatives had enjoyed as the election was drawing to a close completely evaporated. This catapulted Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Party into office, where they remain at the present time.

There is without question a rising sentiment of anticlerical fervor in Spain, and this needs to be addressed both through engaging those who seek to harm the Church, and by insisting that civil authorities do their job to maintain law and order. However, the bishops, the media, and the laity need to act with restraint when assigning blame to acts of Church vandalism. Tarring with too a wide brush will only hurt the perception of the Church in the court of public opinion, creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. And it is among the members of the law-abiding public, Catholic or not, where the real power to combat deliberate acts of anticlericalism resides.

The 13th century statues of St. Peter (L) and St. Lawrence (R)
on the entrance portal of San Esteban in Burgos, prior to last week’s vandalism
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Put Some Clothes On

As The New York Times reported yesterday, the city of Barcelona intends to crack down on public nudity, taking a u-turn from a position which the government of that city adopted several years ago. Back in 2004, the city council issued a document encouraging citizens to consider “Expressing Yourself in Nudity”, and pointing out that there was no law on the books to prevent them from going naked in public. This followed a massive nude-in organized by photographer Spencer Tunick, in which thousands of people stripped off around Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya.

Although there has not been a rush to undress on the streets of the Catalan capital, in the years since the issuance of this publication celebrating immodesty Barcelona has experienced a significant increase in loutish behavior, which is having a devastating impact on its historic sites and tourist attractions. The open use of drugs is becoming common, as has publicly relieving oneself. The explosion in tagging and other graffiti on historic buildings and museums to shops, businesses, government offices and homes throughout the city is nothing short of epidemic. Despite its status as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, on street level Barcelona has, over the past decade of socialist leadership, come to look more like a war zone and less like a desirable place to live or visit.

This is the result of a rather anarchic way of thinking: a literalism which is subjectively adopted by the left when it suits its purpose. If public nudity is not statutorily prohibited, (presumably because previous generations of city leaders thought it self-evident that this practice was undesirable) then it must be implicitly permissible. Yet to follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, there must be other lewd or destructive activities not expressly forbidden which the citizenry of Barcelona could pursue. What those activities may be I will not dare to suggest, for fear that someone may adopt them.

Realizing that as a result of relativistic, laissez-faire policies on public decency their city today looks more like a rubbish tip than the jewel of the Mediterranean, Barcelona is beginning to rein in such behavior. Banning public nudity is a start, though no doubt there will be those who seek to challenge such bans in the courts as a violation their human rights. While we can agree that everyone has the fundamental right to be a functional idiot, if that is the best level of mental acuity they can achieve, one would hope that when such a case comes before the courts – as it surely will – rational heads will prevail, even if solely on the basis of public hygiene.

To take the anarchic line of reasoning into our own hands however, if the courts decide that the citizenry and visitors to Barcelona have the right to go about starkers, then someone needs to assert their own fundamental human right not to be forced to look at something offensive. One can avoid a museum or film dealing with unpleasant subject matter: a gallery exhibition of blasphemous art can be sidestepped just as easily as a big-budget slasher flick. No one is forced to look at such things, and this is why they are generally found to be permissible by Western legal systems. In the public square however, such as in a commercial exchange or when seeking government services, these interactions cannot be avoided.

Therefore my proposal is that public nudity, if a fundamental right, be regulated through a quarterly permit process. Residents and tourists alike who wish to go about in the altogether in Barcelona will have to be inspected by a panel of aesthetic experts, chosen from the worlds of art and design, media, and health, to determine whether or not they are sufficiently aesthetically pleasing so as to be seen naked. If approved, the applicant will be charged a fee for a 90-day nudity permit. At the conclusion of each quarter, they will be required to return to the panel in order to undergo inspection once again, to determine whether they are still eligible for permitting.

This policy would have several highly beneficial effects on a naked Barcelona. It would deal with the increasing problem of obesity and bad eating habits, by encouraging physical fitness and proper diet. It would add revenue to the local government through the initial permitting and subsequent mandatory quarterly review process. It would increase commerce through multiple sectors of the economy, from the fitness and health industries to the organic and health food sectors, and would also lead to increased tourism and associated revenues from those who not only want to see good-looking naked folk, but also among those whose narcissism would lead them to seek official government recognition of their being attractive. This in turn would yield increased revenues in the form of taxation to city coffers, which would then be redistributed in the form of improved city services.

St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians addressed some of the hedonistic practices of the community at Corinth, which were not uncommon in the pagan world of his day – a world to which we in the West are rapidly returning. He noted that the libertine attitude adopted by some of his flock was going to end up doing them and others harm:

‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything is beneficial.
‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything builds up.

1 Corinthians 10:23

Taking your clothes off in public is the ultimate way to draw attention to yourself by flouting common decency, and this is why those who engage in such behavior do so: it has nothing to do with being “natural”, and everything to do with being selfish. In the West, there is no natural reason for us to go about naked – particularly in a large, wealthy city like Barcelona. I hope that the good people of my favorite city will use this opportunity to continue the effort to take back their streets from the purveyors of relativism, whose way of thinking has quite literally sullied them.

“The Goddess” by Josep Clarà (1928)
Plaça Catalunya, Barcelona

Catalan Independence: Come Together, Now

Over the weekend a non-binding referendum held in the Catalan capital of Barcelona resulted in almost 90% of those participating supporting the idea that Catalonia declare independence from Spain. The results of this poll are essentially the same as polls taken in the other counties of Catalonia over the last two years, in which over 90% of participants also voted in favor of Catalan independence. While a full declaration of independence or secession is nowhere near a reality, there are some very significant developments in this area which ought to give naysayers some pause. Before we can get to that, however, some disclosures are necessary.

The regular reader of these pages is in no doubt as regards my general political leanings – though I put the tenets of my Catholic faith first, ahead of any political considerations. Thus although my posts often have a certain point of view, I do not in general blog at any length on overtly political issues. In this case, being half-Catalan, I need to make an exception.

With regard to the issue of bias, I freely admit that I am very much in favor of Catalonia regaining its independence from Spain, or at the very least engaging in the creation of a federal system within Spain similar to that which we enjoy in the United States, or that of Germany. If independence proves impossible but the latter path of federalism could be equitably applied, it would allow the individual states to retain a significant amount of control over their own finances, public policies, and so on. It would concentrate the power to govern in local hands, in order to better address local issues, while demarcating the powers of a national, centralized government to address large issues, such as defense, which are better-handled collectively.

Apart from the suspicious leanings of The Courtier in the eyes of some on the issue of Catalan independence we must also, when considering the poll result, drill down into the numbers of the poll results themselves; percentages only tell us part of the story. The number of voters in yesterday’s referendum was a bit north of a quarter of a million people. This figure represents a little over 21% of the estimated population of the city of Barcelona.

While I believe this does not detract from the fact that there are a large number of people in favor of Catalan independence – nearly one out of every five eligible Catalans and Catalanistas in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia voted in favor of it, after all – I think it reasonable to assume that those who went out to vote in this non-binding poll were the “true believers”, for lack of a better term. They are people who took the opportunity to make sure their voices were heard, even though they knew that there would be no direct result; the rest either were indifferent and thought the poll was not worth their time, or were opposed to the poll even taking place.

All that being said, what is significant about this most recent polling is that, unlike on previous occasions, the Catalan Center-Right participated more actively in the discussion. The current President of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, is a member of the largest Catalan conservative party, and voted in favor of independence, as did Jordi Pujol, the previous Catalan conservative head of government in the 1990’s. The strongest voices for Catalan independence have, in recent years, been those on the far Left, but the fact that the middle-class party is taking the question more seriously than it has in years is an indicator that perceptions may be shifting, given the disastrous governing of Spain’s present Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Because of its association with the Left during the 1930’s, many commentators outside of Catalonia and even many Catalans themselves forget that the rebirth of a desire for independence in Catalonia began in the mid-19th century, with the “gent de be”, i.e. the Catalan version of the UHB or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie” [with apologies to Whit Stillman.] This powerful group of aristocrats, gentry, industrialists, professionals and intellectuals, were proud of their Catalan heritage, outward looking at what the rest of Europe and the world had to offer, and yet remained deeply devout Catholics. They fundamentally changed not only the look of Barcelona, commissioning the work of legendary architects such as Gaudi, but also altered the future of Catalonia. Through their efforts, Catalonia emerged from being a cultural and economic backwater in the 17th and 18th centuries, after years of repeatedly being stomped on by Madrid and losing their empire, which once stretched from Barcelona to Palermo to Athens.

That we have a situation today, not seen since the transition after the death of Franco, in which both the Left and the Right among the Catalanist parties are willing to talk to each other but also to find common ground, is a very remarkable state of affairs. Even a low level of participation, but participation nonetheless among Catalan conservatives is noteworthy, and it should give pause to members of both the national conservative party, the Partido Popular (“PP”), and the national Socialist Party (“PSOE”). For ironically enough, Catalan independence is an issue which both the national Left and the national Right in Spain will put down their weapons over, and link up arm-in-arm to prevent from happening.

The press seems to focus on what the PP has to do and say because it is, in the eyes of many journalists, too Right-wing. This is because most Spanish journalists worship the philosophical quicksand that Mr. Zapatero walks on. Be that as it may, Catalan independence is, for the PP, first and foremost a philosophical issue. They do not see the Catalans as a nation-within-a-nation, even though the majority of Catalans see themselves that way – including those who would not vote for full independence from Spain for political or practical reasons.

Yet for all the press about the Right, the Socialists as currently headed by Mr. Zapatero, could not govern Spain if the Catalans were to leave. The national Left has always needed Catalan money and political support in order to remain in power. During the Civil War, when they were chased out of Madrid, Barcelona became the capital of Spain for the Leftist, Republican side. Today as then, take Catalonia out of the equation and Spain as a whole not only becomes significantly poorer, but also significantly more conservative politically. Thus, both the national Left and the national Right in Spain can, in fact, agree on one thing: that it is in neither of their interests for Catalonia to declare independence.

The idea of full independence through secession, or simply a larger degree of de-centralization, is one which gets knocked around in this country from time to time (e.g. in Texas and Hawaii), but which rarely gets any practical traction. In Europe however, there have been many examples in recent years of groups gaining either full independence or increased separation from the centralized state which had historically came to dominate it, often as a result of the absolute monarchies and empire builders of the 18th and 19th centuries. Critics call this “Balkanization”, based on how poorly this process was handled in the former Yugoslavia.

Yet as terrible as that was there are other examples – Scotland, Slovakia, etc. – where it was not necessary to shed blood in order to either gain greater autonomy or separate completely. In disintegrating Belgium over the last several months we have been witnessing the birth pains of what is probably going to be at least two new countries. Catalonia, if it eventually chooses to go its own way, does not have to be the next Kosovo or Bosnia.

This afternoon I will be attending a conference on the evils Mr. Zapatero and the Socialists have wrought in Spain over the past few years. The speaker will, I am sure, not favor Catalan independence, and so there is little point in my raising the issue with him. However, my hope is that the Catalans themselves will continue to actively engage in this issue, and not simply relegate it to the bar, cafe, or living room following yesterday’s referendum. Those are the places where this discussion needs to take place, of course, for it was in the homes and clubs, over a good coffee or brandy, that such talk began back in the 19th century among Barcelona’s UHB. Yet those discussions will need to move beyond the comfy chair or the tottering stool if they are ever going to be seriously considered by the Catalan people as a whole.

Giant Catalan flag unfurled at the legendary
Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona