Church-State battle hots up in Spain

It’s all happening in Spain as the battle between Church and State continues to rage on several fronts.

In schools, the new civics course, which replaces the traditional Catholic religious education classes, has begun, with the Church screaming blue murder over its loss of power in education.

Church officials and conservative social activists are trying to have the mandatory courses scrapped, contending that the curriculum promotes ideas that go against church teachings. Among those is acceptance of homosexuals and, by implication, same-sex marriage, which the government legalised a couple of years ago.

“This is a frontal assault on the Catholic religion,” said Sister Maria Rosa de la Cierva, a nun who is the church’s liaison to the Education Ministry. “This is an authentic scholastic war … and part of a clear persecution, little by little, of the Catholic faith.”

Opponents of the curriculum have mounted a petition drive and claim to have gathered more than 20,000 signatures. They want children to be allowed to declare themselves “conscientious objectors” and boycott the classes. And they say they are prepared to go to court to press their challenge.

Education is only the latest squabble driving a wedge between the church and the state.

Church officials, a so-called ‘pro-family’ conservative lobby and rightist opposition politicians have reacted with horror to the Spanish government’s liberalisation of abortion and divorce laws, its reduction of state funding for churches and its efforts to better separate church and state.

At the heart of the conflict is a Vatican-backed effort by Spanish conservatives to restore traditional Catholicism to a place of importance in public life – and to recapture the power and influence that go with that. The Socialist government, however, sees the promotion of secular values and its socially liberal agenda as essential to the nation’s modernisation, especially in today’s fast-changing, multicultural Spain.

Now reports are emerging that the Zapatero government is considering proposing a whole raft of new secularising measures that will drive the Church to even greater fury. A Government working group is looking at changing the Vatican concordat to remove from the military the over-arching influence of the Catholic Church, so that people from other religions can find a place in the armed services.

Modern Spanish history is replete with the ups and downs of tumultuous relations between the church and state. As the renowned Basque writer Pio Baroja once put it: “Spaniards through the ages have followed their priests – either with candles, or with clubs.”

A deadly wave of anti-clericalism swept Spain in the 1930s, when another leftist government was trying to modernise the state and push aside a Catholicism that had reigned for centuries. In extreme cases, priests who resisted the changes were jailed, even killed, and churches burned.

It became one of the pretexts seized upon by General Franco to attempt overthrowing the government in a 1936 revolt that launched Spain’s devastating civil war. Once he won, Franco declared Catholicism the official religion, and the church and its priests gained enormous clout.

Under the fascist regime of Franco, Catholic instruction became compulsory in school. To this day, under a treaty that Franco signed with the “Holy See”, Spain is still obliged to offer Catholic instruction in all public schools – only now it is optional.

With the citizenship curriculum introduced this term, that arrangement raises the possibility of contradictory lessons. A pupil could be instructed in the beliefs of the Catholic Church in one schoolroom, then hear opposite arguments in another.

Education Ministry officials say that teaching about citizenship and laws, and all that goes with it, including tolerance for minorities, is essential in a Spain that is no longer homogenous. The number of children of immigrant parents in Spain’s pre-university school population has grown nearly tenfold in the last decade.

“The reality of Spain today is that students are coming from different kinds of families,” Alejandro Tiana, secretary-general of the ministry, said in an interview. “The education system should teach the importance of fighting discrimination and avoiding homophobia.”

Tiana said the citizenship courses would not force pupils to change their core beliefs but would help them understand what it means to be a responsible citizen in a diverse world. He said he believed the government would be able to negotiate with moderate sectors of the church to make the curriculum acceptable, saying, “It is not our desire to have a war.”

However, in another act of provocation to the anti-clericalists, the Vatican decided to “beatify” several hundred clergy killed during the civil war. Left-wingers claim that these priests and nuns were complicit with the dictatorial Franco regime and were little more than fascists themselves.

As the Church held one of its pompous parades to start the ‘beatification’ process, fights broke out between the faithful and the anti-Church radicals.

The Association for History Memory, which searches for the mass graves of those killed by Franco’s forces, said the Church had not admitted its role in the violence. “The Catholic Church hierarchy is missing an opportunity to publicly recognise its responsibility for supporting Franco’s military coup and helping the dictatorship,” it said in a statement. “It is claiming its share of victims without admitting its role as persecutor.”

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