Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

SPAIN: Theologians Blast Catholic Bishops’ Opposition to Social Reforms

Tito Drago

MADRID, Oct 20 2004 (IPS) - A group of Catholic theologians in Spain have criticised the local Church leadership for lashing out against the legislative reforms promoted by the socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which include measures that would reduce the financing that the Church receives from the state.

Bills that would legalise marriage and adoption by homosexuals, streamline divorce, relax laws on abortion and euthanasia, scrap plans for compulsory religious instruction in public schools, and cut state financing of the Church have drawn sharp criticism from the country’s bishops and cardinals.

Cardinal Julián Herranz, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, has complained that the Zapatero administration’s proposed social reforms amount to “lay fundamentalism and agnostic totalitarianism”.

Theologian Enrique Miret Magdalena told IPS that he believed the Church should lose the special privileges it has enjoyed since the years of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco (1939-1975).

The Church should be self-financing and, if it receives money from the state for social works, it should be required to account for how it was used, just as foundations and non-governmental organisations must do, said Miret Magdalena, a scientist, theologian and journalist who, at the age of 90, heads the John XXIII Association of Men and Women Theologians, a progressive Catholic group in Spain.

“Religious instruction should be paid for by the faithful themselves, as a demonstration of their faith and of their interest in receiving such education for themselves and their children,” he argued.

The government plans to modify the current system, under which teachers of religion are paid by the government but appointed by bishops. In the future, the teachers would be subject to secular employment conditions.

In addition, a government commission is drafting proposals to eliminate Christian symbols like the crucifix from public buildings, including prisons, schools and military installations. And proposed reforms would sharply reduce direct or indirect state funding of the Church, which is based on agreements signed by the Church and previous governments.

Miret Magdalena presided over a conference in Madrid last weekend in which 35 theologians and university professors signed a statement that blasts the position taken by the bishops conference in Spain and conservative Church groups.

The document complains that the Church leadership in Spain rejects the basic premises of non-religious ethics, is insensitive to religious pluralism in Spanish society, and is “obsessed with imposing its moral code and social world view”, which it considers the only “true” way of looking at the world, while believing it has a monopoly on ethics.

The signatories also underlined that they do not believe it is the bishops’ place to decide on the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of laws passed by the legislature.

The position taken by Spain’s bishops does not reflect reality, said the theologians, who noted that the country’s socialist political leaders – in power since April – have expressed their respect for all religious beliefs and their commitment to living up to agreements signed in the past by the Spanish state and religious leaders.

Asked why the bishops have taken such an outspoken position against the Zapatero administration’s proposed legislative reforms, Miret Magdalena said it is due to the fact that the bishops are chosen by the papal nuncio (the Pope’s ambassador), without consulting the Catholic laity.

Surveys show that although most Spaniards identify themselves as Catholics, a majority support the legalisation of homosexual marriage, for example.

One of Spain’s conservative bishops, Jesús García Burillo in the central province of Avila, sent a letter to his parishioners stating that “only at times of a coup d’etat” have there been “so many changes affecting the morality that this nation has maintained as an invaluable treasure for centuries.”

The president of the National Catholic Confederation of Parents of Pupils (CONCAPA), Luis Carbonell, told IPS that his organisation is prepared “to take the government to the courts” to fight its intention to make religious instruction in public schools optional.

“And, as occurred when we did that in 1999, the judges will once again rule that we are right,” he added. According to Carbonell, CONCAPA’s affiliated organisations represent three million families nationwide in this country of 40 million people.

In less than a month and a half, he said, these organisations have collected 500,000 signatures to challenge the government’s plan to overturn a law dating to the previous conservative government of José María Aznar that would have reintroduced compulsory religious instruction.

When the petition drive has reached one million signatures, they will be presented to the government to demand that the proposed amendment of the current education law be withdrawn, Carbonell explained.

When asked his opinion of the views expressed by the John XXIII Association, he said the group’s arguments are not valid “because their members are against the Church.”

The head of the episcopal conference’s commission on education, Bishop Modesto Romero, also referred to the possibility of taking legal action against the reform of the education law, which he said may violate the constitution and an agreement signed by the Vatican and the Spanish state in January 1979.

The theologians meeting last weekend in Madrid lamented that the bishops were “closing ranks with right-wing voters” while excluding voters on the left, “who include more than a few Catholics”.

They also complained that the bishops are paying more attention to maintaining the Catholic Church’s privileges than to the pressing needs for social justice.

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