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

Idle Hands: Leftist Failures and Anti-Catholicism in Spain

In the overnight hours of March 22nd-23rd, a group of radical feminists set fire to the historic 18th century church of Saint Vincent in Sarrià, a place which I know well and have written about on my other blog, Catholic Barcelona. The formerly independent village of Sarrià is a pretty, well-to-do neighborhood in the north end of Barcelona, somewhat reminiscent of Georgetown here in DC. Why those responsible chose this particular parish we do not know, though its pastor, Father Manel Valls, is well-known both in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia for being the celebrant of the televised Sunday Mass on TV2, one of the main Catalan television stations.

The anonymous group which claimed responsibility for this act intended to do not only as much damage as possible to the church building, but also to wound the hearts and minds of Catholics everywhere, not just local parishioners. Mocking the part of the mass known as the Presentation of the Gifts, during which lay members of the congregation process with bread and wine to the altar and then present these gifts to the priest to be used for the Consecration of Jesus’ Body and Blood, the unnamed group sneered on their website that “by this action, we present our unique offering to the Church and its values: 3 liters of gasoline, which burned to illuminate the darkness of the night.” Fortunately for the parish, the group only succeeded in burning part of the main portal and door of the church, as shown below: next time, the parish may not be so lucky.

Direct attacks by leftists on Catholic houses of worship have been increasing across Spain in recent weeks. From a student chapel at Madrid’s most important university, to parish churches in Segovia, Tenerife, and elsewhere, anti-Catholic violence has been undergoing a real resurgence. However this particular action in Barcelona is a significant stepping up of the level of violence seen so far. Until this recent attempt at church burning, the current rash of break-ins and protests have involved offensive graffiti and signs, or demonstrations which devolved into laughable acts of hysteria and crowd frenzy. They could be dismissed as disgusting, but to some extent predictable, elements of life in a free society.

Yet the more disturbing aspect of this has been the appearance of signage and chanting, calling not only for the deliberate burning of the churches, but also the killing of the members of the clergy and religious orders, actions last undertaken during the rule of the Left before and during the Spanish Civil War. My fear is, it can only be a matter of time before the targets of assault and even destruction cease to be structures, and start to be people. It would not be the first time in Spanish history that such evils took place.

Despite pleas from Church officials and the laity that these matters be taken seriously before they are allowed to go too far, these classic, tell-tale signs of trouble seem to be taking many by surprise. It was thought in many quarters, from the media and academia to politicians and bureaucrats, both within Spain and internationally, that in this day and age there was no real physical threat either to the property of the Church or to either its leaders/adherents. Not only is this an utterly ignorant position, for anyone who knows a little about the history of Spain and its tendency to repeat itself, but it also betrays a subconscious attitude on the part of many that by not “keeping up with the times” with respect to its social teachings on abortion, contraception, or on the ordination of women, the Catholic Church in some way deserves what it gets.

The reason for this increasing radicalization is said by many to be unclear, but I attribute it to three, key points. First and foremost, we must take into account the precarious state of the Spanish economy, which has been circling the drain for some time, with market watchers worrying over the state of the country’s savings banks, increasing interest rates, and slashed growth forecasts. Overall unemployment currently stands at 20% of the population, but youth unemployment for those in the 18-35 age bracket is stuck at a shocking 40%. If idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, there is nothing like a young, unemployed Spanish leftist to do his handiwork.

Secondly, blame must be laid at the doorstep of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who recently announced that he will not be seeking a third term as President of the Spanish Government. Not only have “the Shoemaker’s” policies since 2004 led his country to the point of economic collapse, but his thinly-veiled loathing of both conservatives and the Catholic Church have been expressed through the radical social policies he has pushed through parliament, to rapturous adulation from those on the left. All the while, he has been giving the Spanish people circuses rather than bread; now they have realized that they are hungry, and by standing down for the next general election he has clearly indicated that he does not want to be thrown to them for food.

And finally we must consider what I believe to be the third cause for the increase in anti-Catholicism in Spain which, ironically enough, is the success of the faithful within Spain to stand up for themselves with the visible support of their Pontiff. The Papal Visits to Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona last year drew enormous crowds – not of the elderly, though of course they were there also, but more significantly of the young. Watching streaming media coverage of the consecration of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the clearly audible and visible shock of the jaded newscasters at the presence of enormous numbers of youth overjoyed to see this elderly German priest made me smile rather broadly. And of course this summer, the celebration of the Holy Father of World Youth Day in Madrid – which will, in fact, go on for much longer than a day – is going to throw the supposedly sophisticated Spanish leftist for an even bigger loop.

The idle hands which I mentioned earlier have to up the ante if they are going to prevent the Church in Spain from having any kind of a future, and this is why those hands are putting down their placards and picking up cans of gasoline. For the left cannot claim that these young people – who have no memory at all of General Franco and the repressive aspects of his regime – are being forced to practice Catholicism or to admire the pope. The under 40’s in Spain have grown into their teens and adulthood knowing that virtually every libertine path is open to them, and yet a surprisingly large number have chosen to reject social engineering, radical feminism, and bioethics standards taken from the collected works of Josef Mengele, and instead freely and willingly choose to follow the path of Christ. The fact that a Spaniard born into modern, democratic Spain would exercise their free will to be a Catholic sends your average Spanish leftist into a screeching hissy fit.

The latest chapter in the history of anti-Catholicism in Spain is being written before our eyes; we are living under the curse of that Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” How much more violent that anti-Catholicism becomes – and I fear it will inevitably become even more violent – will depend on the willingness of those in authority to protect not only the property of the Church, but also the safety of those who work for and worship within it. Those of us who care can do our part by not only following the news about what is going on in Spain, but also by blogging, tweeting, e-mailing, and talking about it with those in our circle. And in the meantime, let us hope and pray that these attacks will stop soon, before something far more grave occurs.

The entrance portal to the church of St. Vincent in Barcelona,
after being attacked by leftists last month.

>Anti-Catholic Theatre in Catalonia: The Play’s Not the Thing

>A new play is premiering tomorrow night at the National Theatre of Catalonia, in my beloved city of Barcelona, entitled “Gang Bang – Open Until the Hour of the Angelus”. As if the title was not enough of an obvious clue, based on [WARNING: graphic material] the press reports I have seen, the plot is a predictably amateurish and puerile mixture of anti-Catholicism and human degradation, fed through a meat grinder. The director-playwright and the actors claim that it is not an attack on the Church, but rather exploring loneliness and spirituality through unconventional expression. They also joke that there is smoking in the play, which is what the audience should find truly controversial given Spain’s new smoking ban.

Because the production is being funded in part by taxpayer money, it was inevitable that complaints would ensue. The National Theatre of Catalonia is a prominent theatre indeed in both influence and actual size; this is not some off-off-Broadway venue. There are already calls by Christian groups for an investigation, and promises of lodging official complaints and the taking of other measures against the government in Catalonia. As often happens of course, the controversy has led to record advance ticket sales.

Much as this sort of thing disturbs us to some degree, it is also an occasion to reflect on what it means to be a gentleman (or lady) in the present age, not only in framing our response but more importantly in examining ourselves. Regular readers know that Castiglione, the inspiration for this blog, has much to say on how a courtier ought to develop himself. What does he have to say about those who shock for the sake of provocation and notoriety?

In his seminal “The Book of the Courtier” (of which title the title of this blog is a pun), Castiglione explains why it is that those of marginal abilities who are seeking wealth, power, fame, or all three, often resort to shock value to make a name for themselves. During a part of the discussion in the book as to how to behave in public, the character of Archbishop Federico Fregoso describes how people who want to become popular are often so lacking in personal humility as to make fools of themselves. “People like this very often embark on certain things without knowing how to finish,” he says, “and they then try to extricate themselves by raising a laugh. But they do this so awkwardly that it does not succeed, and instead their efforts fall flat and they inspire the greatest distaste in whoever sees or hears them.”

Fregoso goes on to criticize the equally common tendency of the under-talented to try to shock others for the sake of shocking. “On other occasions, convinced they are being terribly witty and amusing, they use filthy and indecent language in the presence of ladies, and often to their face,” he states. “And the more they make the ladies blush, the more they are convinced that they are being good courtiers; they never stop laughing and they pride themselves on the fine talents they believe they possess.”

“But the only reason they behave in such a beastly fashion,” continues Fregoso, “is because they think it makes them the life and soul of the party. This is what they think truly laudable and what they pride themselves on most. And so to acquire this reputation they indulge in the most shameful and shocking discourtesies in the world.”

One feels that Castiglione could just as easily apply such descriptions to Josep Maria Miró Coromina, the writer and director of “Gang Bang”. Mr. Miró hails, appropriately enough, from the provincial sausage-making capital of Vic, where he was born in 1977. Through Catalonia’s generous education system he has managed to earn a doctorate in literature and work his way up to the prominent position of becoming a writer in residence at the National Theatre. He has feigned surprise in press interviews at the controversy surrounding his piece, telling people that if they are worried they will be offended they ought not to come and see the play, and that such complaints are completely foreign to his experience due to his age – an oblique reference to his having been born after the death of Spain’s long-reigning dictator General Francisco Franco, under whose fist censorship held sway.

Of course, Mr. Miró’s is a very old canard indeed: so old its feathers and the bits of beak and sinew have been fed into his sausage-making machine. It is typically waved about by shock-makers as a justification for their actions, since no one likes the idea of censoring the free exchange of ideas. In this case, it is their way of seemingly offering what most people want, i.e. a sense of choice. I do not have to eat the nasty broccoli on my plate, and can instead turn my attention to the mashed potatoes and the sausage.

However the point of course is not that one is free not to see the play, any more than one wants to see how to go about getting the bits with which to make sausages. Rather, the issue here is that public money is being used. Since I do not pay taxes in Catalonia, my money is not supporting Mr. Miró’s sausage festival; I can question his artistic integrity from a financially neutral position. Those who do have to pay for it however, have every right to question why they are being forced to do so: that is no choice at all.

This type of controversy is nothing new, of course, for such controversies over funding happen in this country and in Europe on an almost weekly basis. We have seen such things in New York, in Vienna, and here in the Nation’s Capital in recent months, and fortunately there will always be good Catholics in a position to stand up and complain. Sometimes they will succeed in getting the work removed from the taxpayer’s bill, and sometimes not. At first glance, this play is just another example of more of the same.

However, in considering the context of this particular bit of offal, I believe the fact that Mr. Miró set his play on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s Papal Visit to Barcelona this past November is a more significant one than he lets on. The popular reception which the Pope received when he came to dedicate the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s most iconic building let alone church, and raise it to the level of a basilica, took many of the commentariat in Catalonia by surprise. The fact that Barcelona, cradle of anarchists for the past century or more, and home to the most leftist of leftist intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula would be inundated with people overjoyed to see the Pontiff, was no doubt itself a shock to those who thought that the Church was just about finished in Catalonia.

And what is likely even more worrisome to such people were the enormous numbers of young people, with no memory of either General Franco, the Civil War, or a time when they were forbidden to speak Catalan, excited to even catch a glimpse of this elderly German priest and to participate in the mass. Indeed, this past November was a likely preview of what is about to happen when the Pope arrives in Madrid this August for World Youth Day. If the Church as it exists in Catalonia today is no longer any real threat to Mr. Miró or those of his ilk, they would not bother to try to denigrate it. The fact that the flame may be burning low, but has demonstrably not gone out, means that the Church is not as weak as believed.

Ultimately, Mr. Miró’s efforts will fail of course. It is doubtful that any devout Catholics will go to see his play. He may succeed in further hardening the hearts of those who loathe the Church as he obviously does, and he may even convince a few unfortunate theatre-goers to go over the edge and join him. Yet one reason why Castiglione makes the point he does about those who seek to put on an uncouth show, is that no matter how much fame, attention, or popularity such individuals may gain, they know in their heart of hearts – even if they do not choose to admit it – that the more they wallow in filth, the more they disappoint those whose approval they desperately want. And in the case of Mr. Miró and others like him who attack the Church, that person is Christ.

National Theatre of Catalonia, Barcelona