Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

SPAIN: Sparks Fly Between Church and Government

Tito Drago

MADRID, Jan 2 2008 (IPS) - The Spanish Catholic Church “has strayed from the fundamentals of democracy,” said the governing socialist party (PSOE) Wednesday, in response to harsh criticism from the Church leadership.

The PSOE statement was triggered by remarks made by the archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, at a rally in defence of “the Christian family” organised by his diocese Sunday in a downtown square in the capital.

Although according to the archbishop’s office, two million people took part in the rally, an estimate by the Madrid daily El País, based on a calculation of three people per square metre, indicated that the real number was less than 160,000.

But above and beyond the number of participants, the rally received heavy media coverage and the reverberations continued Wednesday, when the PSOE issued its communiqué which, as sources with the party told IPS, was personally cleared by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who is also secretary general of the PSOE.

The Church leadership convened the rally – which was backed by the main opposition force, the centre-right People’s Party (PP) – to criticise government policies, especially social laws pushed through parliament by the PSOE despite the opposition of the PP, thanks to the support of small leftist and nationalist parties.

The Church’s loudest criticism has targeted the legalisation of same-sex marriage; the fast-track divorce law; and a new civics course that parents can choose for their children instead of religious studies in school.

During the rally in Madrid’s Plaza Colón, Rouco Varela said that in Spain, “the legal order has backtracked with respect to what is recognised in the Declaration of Human Rights: that the family is the basic nucleus of society and has the right to be recognised.”

In his view, “the fate of man himself, and of the peaceful present and future of society and of nations, lies in, and collapses with, the fate of the family, as does the present and the future of Spain and Europe.”

Valencia Cardinal Agustín García-Gasco said “the path of abortion, express divorce and ideologies aimed at manipulating the education of our youngsters does not lead to any dignified destiny for man and his rights, but to the breakdown of democracy.”

Jaime Mayor Oreja, a member of the European parliament and former interior minister under the 1996-2004 PP administration, who attended Sunday’s rally, said the Catholic bishops are criticising the government because they have suffered from “three years of a (socialist) offensive against the dignity of the individual, the family and the nation.”

Mayor Oreja lashed out against the socialists’ criticism of the bishops as “a lack of respect for freedom and democracy.”

The reaction from within the ranks of the PSOE was immediate. Justice Minister Mariano Fernández Bermejo suggested that the Church “put its own house in order.”

He specifically mentioned remarks made on Dec. 26 by the bishop of Tenerife, Bernardo Álvarez, who said “there are 13-year-old teenagers who are minors but who completely give their consent (to sexual relations with older men), and who in fact want them. They even provoke you, if you’re not careful.”

Even though he was justifying crimes like child molestation, Álvarez’s statements were not taken up by the bishops’ conference.

Another prominent PSOE leader, José Blanco, replied to the Church that its leadership, “with their lies,” are capable of causing a breakdown of the Christian family, and reminded them that for Christians, “lying is a sin.”

He also said the Zapatero administration was the foremost defender of the family, having implemented social policies making it possible for parents to reconcile work and family life, by granting fathers paternity leave, for example.

The PSOE statement said the stance taken by the Church hierarchy undermined the fundamentals of democracy, which are based on the principle that it is society that has the authority to organise the principles of individual freedom. It added that “in a regime based on freedoms, faith cannot be legislated.”

The debate does not look like it will be dying out any time soon. General elections are slated for Mar. 9, and the polls show the PSOE and the PP are neck and neck, which will force them to strike deals with smaller parties to get their candidates designated as prime minister by parliament.

Spain remains a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. In a July 2007 survey by the BBVA (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria) Foundation, 74 percent of those interviewed described themselves as Catholics.

But the same poll showed that six out of 10 respondents accepted same-sex marriage, half did not go to church, except for baptisms, funerals and weddings, and 42 percent said they never prayed.

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