>The Church in Spain: Lessons Unlearned

>I was deeply disturbed, though somehow not surprised, this morning to read about a mass celebrated yesterday in the town of Poio, in NE Spain, near the city of Pontevedra. It provides a very vivid example of why the Church has found itself in such a very dangerous and diminished state in formerly ultra Catholic Spain. You will find, gentle reader, no greater outspoken opponent of secularism, communism, and anti-clericalism than I – as you well-know if you read this blog on a regular basis – but you will also find that I get rather upset when members of the Church engage in behavior that is not going to accomplish anything constructive.

The conservative Partido Popular, or “People’s Party”, is a political descendant of the one-party rule of General Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1938 until his death in 1975; it has distanced itself from its origins, but there remain certain elements within the party who exemplify the sort of odd Spanish version of ultramontanism that characterized at least the earlier decades of Franco’s rule. The party organized a mass in one of the chapels of the Mercedarian Monastery of Saint John in Poio, ahead of campaigning in local elections which are to take place on May 22nd. This in and of itself is not the problem; lawmakers and their supporters who practice a particular faith or who wish to gather together to pray ought to be encouraged to do so, rather than otherwise. Here on our side of the pond for example, we have masses and prayer services before the March for Life, in which Pro-Life politicians and their supporters can gather and ask for God’s Grace in attacking this issue.

The problem in this particular case however, is that the sanctuary of the chapel was decorated with campaign posters promoting the Partido Popular, on both sides of the altar and on front of the pulpit. Whoever greenlighted this absolutely idiotic idea at the Monastery ought to have his head examined, and then be sent to Rome to explain his actions to the Holy Father. It would be hard to believe that even the Jesuits at (Un)Holy Trinity in Georgetown would go so far as to festoon the sanctuary of their church with Obama “O’s”.

Throughout Spanish history the Church has played a critically important role in the development of the nation. During the Roman period the spread of Christianity through the efforts of St. James and the early martyrs brought Hispania into a closer contact with the Universal Church. In the Middle Ages the monastic orders created an explosion of culture and learning, while the bishops and preachers provided the ideological zeal to fight the Muslim invaders to take Spain back from Islamic rule. During the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation, Spanish missionaries went all over the world, spreading the Church across the planet with a speed which other countries could only partially emulate.

In effect, the Church in Spain became so accustomed to being at the center of things, including having the ear of the sovereign whenever it wanted, that it came to presume that this was its inalienable right. So when the Civil War arrived and the Church was thrown down, only to be restored to favor by General Franco, it gave in to the temptation to become the lapdog of the state, a position which unfortunately it had held at many points in the past. When as was inevitable Franco himself went, and Spain transitioned into a rather Leftist-oriented democracy, the Church once again entered a wilderness period, in which to some extent it still wanders today.

During a very long and fruitful discussion yesterday with several Catholic gentlemen of my acquaintance, one of the issues which continued to re-emerge over the course of our conversation was a concern that there were many well-meaning Catholics who have been establishing a kind of bunker or fortress mentality, rather than engaging the culture of the world we happen to have been born into. At the same time that morally they are upright and devout, prayerful people, their level of education about the world around them has become woefully inadequate, to the detriment of the Church as a whole. As one of the company remarked, “Orthodoxy alone is not enough.”

Spain unfortunately is just such an example of where orthodoxy has been thought to be enough, or indeed all that is required, and the Church lost its way by worrying too much about rules and regulations and not enough worrying about hearts and (even more importantly) minds. This is not an either-or task: otherwise we have the equally ridiculous result of Catholics who effectively make themselves their own popes through active dissent from Church teaching, which is the ultimate end of such thinking. In Spain, by allying herself to the preceding regime too closely, the Church reaped the benefits of political favor but failed to create a generation which actually understood the Faith. The Churches were full, but the minds in the pews were mostly empty. When that political power fell, as inevitably happened, the Church was so intertwined with the regime and had done such an effective job at raising sheep rather than men, that it proved unable to recover when those sheep went out among the wolves of contemporary society.

Thus it appears that despite the many lessons to be learned from their history, there are people in politics and in the Church in Spain who still have not learnt their lesson. Of course part of this has to do with the national character, and the Spanish are known for being a very stubborn people indeed, as everyone from Trajan to the Hapsburgs to Napoleon to Ernest Hemingway has remarked. And you will find few individuals more stubborn that a practicing Catholic Spanish conservative – except possibly an anticlerical Spanish liberal.

While that fortitude can be an admirable quality in many respects, the demonstrable inability to separate the Church, not just from the State, but from actual party politics, is doing a great disservice to both the Church and the Spanish people. There are many reasons, historical and otherwise, why the Church does not feel comfortable with the left-wing parties in Spain, whose membership often holds people who are radically opposed to the Church, and whose predecessors were responsible for the desecration of hundreds of churches and the murder of thousands of priests and religious in the 1930’s. Yet there appears to be on the part of some in Spain, helped directly or indirectly by members of the clergy, a desire to try to reclaim what was lost in terms of the old Church-State relationship with respect to temporal power; yesterday’s mass is a clear example of this.

Having World Youth Day in Madrid this summer is a wonderful thing, as was Pope Benedict’s visit to Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela last year. Yet having the Pope come and visit should not be occasioned as a sort of administration of the Last Rites to a devout old lady. The Church in Spain needs to understand that it cannot continue to make blatant alliances with political parties, or it runs the risk of losing the remaining foothold that it has in Spanish society, and falling into further socio-political disfavor for yet another generation of Spaniards.

I hope that when His Holiness sits down to talk with the Spanish Episcopal Conference this summer, that he encourages them to wake up on this point and reign in this sort of regrettable display.

The Cathedral of Toledo, Seat of the Primate of Spain

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