Clericalism and Anticlericalism in Spain

Edd Doerr

The reign in Spain, it’s plain, will strain and pain your brain.

(Apologies to Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, and Bernard Shaw.)

Spain’s perennial church-state problems are heating up again. The country’s Catholic bishops are trying to impede further liberalization of the country’s twenty-five-year-old law that legalizes abortion in certain circumstances. They oppose sexuality education in the schools. At the same time, complaints are mounting over violations of the legislation designed to protect students from involuntary religious indoctrination.

These controversies are well below the radar for most Americans—hence this review of the religious-liberty and church-state situation in a country that most Americans have long assumed is “solidly Catholic” as ever. Let me attempt to summarize what has already filled libraries to overflowing.

Since dictator Francisco Franco went patas arriba (“kicked the bucket”) in 1975, Spain has made more progress in advancing religious freedom, church-state separation, and civil liberties than any country in the world. Of course, after Franco, Spain had nowhere to go but up! (By contrast, over the same period, the United States has been slipping in its commitment to secularism, thanks to powerful clericalist lobbies and conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.) Spain now has a secular constitution, legalized divorce and civil marriage, contraception, same-sex marriage, and has been moving rapidly to secularize education even further. Remarkably, its parliament (el Congreso de Diputados) even has before it a bill to grant limited human rights to great apes, a move promoted by humanist ethicist Peter Singer (a founder of the Great Ape Project) and, incidentally, yours truly.

Is Spain solidly Roman Catholic? Hardly. The country’s tax system sends a tiny percentage of an individual’s income tax to the Catholic Church upon request (Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim groups rejected this offer). Government figures show that only one-third of taxpayers opts to allow the government to pass along even a few euros to the Church.

Spain, however, can only be really understood from a historical perspective.

As the eight-hundred-year Reconquest (Reconquista) of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims drew to a close in the same year that Columbus “discovered” the New World, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (Fernando and Isabel) consolidated Catholicism as the state religion, employing the Inquisition to eradicate Judaism, Islam, and heterodoxy. Spain’s large Sephardic Jewish and Muslim populations were given a choice: convert, emigrate, or die. The Inquisition was used to ferret out “secret Jews” or “Judaizers.” This is the subject of Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte’s 2006 novel Purity of Blood (published in Spanish as Limpieza de Sangre in 1997). Spanish Jews settled in Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, and Morocco. An unknown number of “secret Jews” survive in the American Southwest. As for Spanish Muslims (Moors), they returned to Morocco.

Spain’s economic and political situation climbed and then slowly sank, reaching low ebb at the time of the Napoleonic wars—and Spain’s almost simultaneous loss of its American empire. For most of the past five hundred years, the Church, wealthy landowners, and the army pretty much ran everything, leaving the vast majority of the population stagnating in poverty and near-serfdom. This incubated growing resentment of the Church, the rich, and the monarchy.

In Spain as elsewhere, history operates rather like a pendulum. The farther the pendulum swings in one direction, the farther it will eventually swing in the other. As Catholic historian José Sánchez has put it, anticlericalism is the response to clericalism.

Though few Americans know about them, violent outbreaks of anticlericalism occurred long before Franco’s ultimately successful military rebellion against the elected government in July of 1936, which was quickly followed by the killing of priests and the burning of churches for several months before the Republican (Loyalist) government was able to restore a semblance of order in the half of the country it still controlled. A great many, perhaps most, Spaniards on both sides regarded the Catholic Church—then the country’s only church—as an important pillar of support for Franco’s extremely brutal military uprising. (Catholic prelates went so far as to bless Franco’s barbaric colonial Muslim troops!)

To review the history, many priests were killed in revolutionary upheavals between 1820 and 1823. More were killed in 1834 and 1835 during the First Carlist War. (The Carlists, a long-lived traditionalist faction, remained fanatically conservative Catholics right up to the end of the 1936–39 Civil War.) As Catholic historian Sánchez has written, “In 1868, and again in 1873, during the revolutionary chaos that accompanied the overthrow of Isabella II and the establishment of the First Republic, churches were again burned and probably some half-dozen clerics were killed.” In the “Tragic Week” in Barcelona in 1909, about fifty churches and convents were set on fire. Illustrative of attitudes is the old Spanish saying, “A priest is a man whom everyone calls ‘Father,’ except his own children, who call him ‘uncle.’”

Our account must begin with the 1898 Spanish-American War, which cost Spain what was left of its once-vast empire. Over the next quarter-century, Spanish democracy, never very strong, proved to be weak and ineffective. By 1923, the government and the monarchy were on the verge of collapse. A military coup by General Miguel Primo de Rivera allowed the monarchy of King Alfonso XIII to survive until the Great Depression began in 1929. Alfonso dismissed the corrupt and inefficient Primo de Rivera dictatorship in 1930, replacing him with another general, an arrangement that lasted only a little over a year. In early 1931, municipal elections were won by socialists and liberal middle-class republicans; the monarchy was washed up. Alfonso XIII left the country, though he did not abdicate. The Second Republic was born.

Not wasting any time, the new Republic set about writing a new, progressive, secularist constitution. The government ended mandatory religious education in the schools, began an ambitious program of building vast numbers of needed secular public schools, legalized divorce and civil marriage, secularized cemeteries, separated church and state, proclaimed full religious liberty, and sought to reduce the accumulated power and wealth of the clergy. All this so infuriated Catholic Church officials that on May 7, 1931, only a week after the formal proclamation of the Republic, Cardinal Archbishop Segura issued a “pastoral letter” essentially declaring war on the government and calling on Catholics to take up arms against it.

From the Republic’s birth in the spring of 1931 until Franco’s rebellion in July of 1936, Spain’s internal divisions went from bad to far worse. On one side were the wealthy landowners and industrialists, the too-long coddled army, Church leaders, and nascent fascist organizations aided by Mussolini’s Italy. On the other were intellectuals, secularists, and vast numbers of poor workers and peasants increasingly attracted to assorted socialist and anarchist unions and parties.

Franco’s July 17, 1936, military uprising, aided by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, plunged Spain into a bloody three-year civil war that attracted the attention of the whole world and motivated volunteers from Europe and America to come to th
e aid of the beleaguered Republic. Ernest Hemingway (whose war experiences informed his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls) and George Orwell (author of the memoir Homage to Catalonia) were among the many writers who went there.

With Franco’s military victory in the spring of 1939, made possible by great infusions of all sorts of aid from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy—and by the failure of the United States and Great Britain to help the legitimate Loyalist government—a dark curtain of clericalism again descended over Spain, remaining in place until after Franco’s death in 1975.

Since then, Spain has risen from the ashes. My own visits there over the last thirty years have been uniformly pleasant: nary a cleric to be seen, a lonely shop of Nazi-era souvenirs cloaked with years of dust, great bookstores with more books by Woody Allen (in Spanish) than I can find in my local Borders, and a stable, progressive government run by the moderate Socialist Workers Party.

Let’s give the last words to a young Harvard student who visited Spain in 1937, some time before his father became U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. “[Spaniards’] attitude towards the Church was just a reaction to the strength of the Jesuits who had become too powerful—the affiliation between church and state being much too close.” The writer was future U.S. President John F. Kennedy, as quoted by his biographer historian James MacGregor Burns.

(For readers who would like to know more about the Spanish Civil War, let me recommend two excellent, concise books: Gabriel Jackson’s 1965 The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931–1939, and Paul Preston’s 1986 The Spanish Civil War: An Illustrated Chronicle 1936–39. Let me also suggest three superb films, all available from video stores: the British Land and Freedom [1995], based without attribution on George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia; Ay, Carmela! [1990]; and Pan’s Labyrinth [2006], the latter two in Spanish with English subtitles).


Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

The reign in Spain, it’s plain, will strain and pain your brain. (Apologies to Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, and Bernard Shaw.) Spain’s perennial church-state problems are heating up again. The country’s Catholic bishops are trying to impede further liberalization of the country’s twenty-five-year-old law that legalizes abortion in certain circumstances. They oppose sexuality education in …

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