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