FOCUS ON EUROPE�S FUTURE Zapatero reinvents Spain

Spanish Prime Minister Rodriguez ZapateroThe world tends to think of Spain as a solidly Catholic country. But in recent times many observers have been puzzled by the fact that under the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero its laws on same-sex marriage and reproductive technology are amongst the most permissive in the world. With Pope Benedict XVI about to officiate at a huge international gathering of families in the Spanish city of Valencia, it is worthwhile asking whether Spain has lost its Catholic heart.

Spanish leftists have always felt themselves called to “redeem” their nation from the influence of the Catholic Church, which they view as an obstacle to their notions of progress. In the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, this manifested itself in a bloody persecution of the Church -- thousands of clergy were murdered. However, in present-day democratic Spain, the aim the socialists has become relegation of religious beliefs to the private sphere of personal conscience, making them irrelevant in public life.

But the 1978 Spanish constitution, which was created democratically, says something quite different: “No religion shall have a state character. The public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and shall consequently maintain appropriate relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and other confessions” (Article 16.3).1 The article speaks of a non-denominational state, or a lay state, not a "laicist" state. It respects religious beliefs, it does not cold-shoulder them; its notion of separation of Church and State does not exclude cooperation, especially with the Catholic Church, which is expressly singled out.

The deep Catholic roots of Spanish society

A massive demonstration against government policies in 2005The socialists tend to think that the progressive secularisation of society is swiftly reducing the influence of the Catholic Church. Therefore they feel called to fashion a Spanish politics for a “lay society”.

Nonetheless, however strong secularisation may be, polls show that 81 per cent of Spaniards still say that they are Catholics, compared to 15 per cent who are non-believers and 2 per cent who belong to other religions. In the year 2000, 72 per cent of all newborn infants were baptised. Of every 10 marriages, more than 7 took place in the Church (and this is even higher amongst first marriages, since divorcees can only be married in a civil ceremony.)

Admittedly, attendance at Sunday Mass has fallen, but still no other social gathering draws together so many people. About 30 per cent of the population goes to church on Sundays, while another 17 per cent go several times a year and 48 per cent never or hardly ever go. Catholic schools are prestigious and have waiting lists.

At the same time, the moral behaviour and public activity of Catholics are often inconsistent with their beliefs. With respect to families, the figures are worrying. The birth rate is only 1.3 children per woman, trailing behind even Eastern Europe. It would be even worse if it were not for the children of immigrants, which make up 15 per cent of all births. One out of every six pregnancies ends in an abortion; the level of divorce rises year by year; and one out of every four children is born to unmarried mothers.

In a recent speech the Archbishop of Pamplona, Fernando Sebastián, acknowledged the great imbalance between baptised Catholics and coherent Catholics. “Weak personal commitment to the realities and life of faith; a sketchy intellectual formation and lack of esteem for one’s own faith make many Christians especially vulnerable to the forces of deChristianisation.” He warned that the Church has to stand out in the midst of Spanish society, “which, even though it has conserved many Christian elements, is no longer Christian at heart”. This weakness within Spanish Catholicism makes it more difficult to mount a resolute response to laws which threaten human dignity. Nowadays being a coherent Catholic is awkward in Spanish public life and confers no political advantages.

Radical changes in marriage

In his two years in office, Rodríguez Zapatero has taken great care not to carry out economic experiments which might dissipate the legacy of his conservative predecessors in the Partido Popular. Instead, his attempts to show a desire for change have been reflected in his social policy. So it is in matters related to the family, bioethics and education where tensions have risen with the Catholic Church.

Even though Zapatero’s public image is that of a moderate politician who is willing to dialogue, his proposals for family law are far more radical than elsewhere in Europe. To give recognition to homosexual unions, he has chosen the most extreme formula of all -- homosexual marriage with adoptions by homosexual couples. This puts Spain in the same league as the Netherlands and Belgium. There has been no in-depth debate about same-sex marriage, as in the United States, where some states have even had referendums on the topic. And even though the Zapatero government says that its reforms simply respond societal demand, the reality is that in the first 11 months of the law, only 1,275 same-sex marriages were registered -- which is a minuscule 0.6 per cent of all weddings.

No less radical is the reform of the divorce law. In 2004 there were 126,000 divorces, up 10 per cent from the previous year. The government, however, sought only to expedite the divorce process. Its new law eliminates the requirement of prior separation (before, there had to be a one-year separation period), abolished grounds of fault and allows one spouse to seek a divorce within three months of the marriage without the other being able to contest it.

This express divorce has been criticised by the Catholic Church, but not only by the Church. The judicial branch has been very critical. In an official comparative study2, it was found that only two countries, Finland and Sweden, allowed unilateral no-fault divorce, and their separation time was longer.

Points of friction

Another point of friction has been the reform of the law on assisted reproduction, for Spain’s current legislation places it amongst the most liberal in the world.

Faced with the problem of a growing number of frozen embryos, the previous government had limited the number of eggs which could be fertilised and implanted in the course of IVF treatment. The new law has removed these limits and thus allows embryos to be created not only for procreation, but for research. It only prohibits reproductive cloning.

The government finds it easy to present any objections to these changes as something peculiar to Catholics. Hence, its proposals are presented as the common denominator of a lay society, while objections are dismissed as personal religious beliefs which cannot be imposed upon other people. This has made it possible to avoid debates about its own policies and their consequences.

Religion in the schools

The issue which the Catholic bishops regard as most important of all, the one around which they are asking Catholics to rally, is the teaching of religion in schools. In the current system, schools are supposed to offer instruction in the Catholic religion as an optional subject. The teachers are nominated by the bishops and paid by the state. Formal agreements between Spain and the Vatican have established that religious instruction should be imparted in ways comparable to other subjects. Problems have now arisen about what “comparable” means. Should there be a subject in ethics or religious culture for those who do not want to attend classes in Catholic doctrine? Should religion be counted as an academic subject? Should it be taught within school time or after hours?

In the revised education law approved by the Zapatero government, the teaching of Catholic doctrine will continue to be optional, but it will no longer have any academic standing. The bishops fear that in practice, religion will become a second-class option ignored by students.

It should be borne in mind that the presence of religious instruction in schools is not just a legal requirement; parents want it for their children. In fact, more than 77 per cent of students currently choose to attend classes in religion. Relying on this statistic, the Church has promoted a campaign to defend the teaching of religion. Its approach is that public schools ought to respect the religious beliefs of their citizens and respect parents’ rights to see that their children receive religious instruction in school.

Passing on the faith

Underlying these conflicts between Church and State is the issue of finances. The Catholic Church in Spain is financed mainly with the contributions of the faithful and its own earnings, which together constitute about 70 per cent of its income. The other 30 per cent comes from the State, through income taxes and subsidies. In 1987 it was agreed that taxpayers could direct 0.52 per cent of their income tax to the Catholic Church -- as about 34 per cent of tax-payers did last year. As a temporary measure, the State agreed to make up the balance so that the Church would not receive less than it did under the old system. Although the time limit has come and gone, the Church still has not managed to balance its budget. It reckons that the percentage should be increased to 0.7 or 0.8 per cent. The Zapatero government says that it is willing to negotiate on the issue.

But what cannot be fixed in negotiations with the government is the revitalisation of Catholicism in Spain. The theme of the gathering in Valencia -- “the transmission of faith in the family” -- is a big challenge for Spanish Catholics, who currently live in a hostile cultural climate.

Ignacio Aréchaga is editor of the Madrid news agency Aceprensa.

(1) Constitución Española en inglés.
(2) Informe al Anteproyecto de Ley de modificación del Código Civil en materia de separación y divorcio. 31 Dec 2004.


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