The RCC is a spent force in Spain

The RCC is a spent force in Spain

BARRY DUKE on virgins, big bangs, and a whimper from Pope Ratzinger. (This editorial appeared in the December 2010 edition.)


I REALLY wish someone would tell me exactly who the virgin is who was responsible for an outbreak of big bangs that persisted for days in my new home town of Benidorm last month.

The Big Bang Virgin Mary

The Big Bang Virgin Mary

The noise began on the morning of November 13, when I heard a series of ear-shattering explosions. I rushed onto my 31 floor balcony to see clouds of smoke pouring from several levels of a tower block in the La Cala area, and immediately thought the worst.

Then I remembered. That Saturday was the start of a five-day fiesta honouring the Virgin of the Sufragio.

Curiously, Google offers no details of who she was.

During these five days each year there is deafening music on the streets, fireworks, one heck of a lot of drinking, and a “hunt the virgin” contest, which really tickled me as Benidorm is the last place on the planet you’re ever likely to find a real, live adult virgin.

I asked a few natives whether there was a Catholic dimension to all this noise and frolicking and they simply laughed. “Oh”, said one “maybe once, but now nobody in Spain gives a shit about religion. We just love the festivals inspired by the Church.”

Not surprising then that a particularly glum Pope left Spain after a weekend visit a week or so before, whimpering his displeasure over the fact that Spain is less Catholic now than at any time in its past.

Indeed, Ratzinger went as far as to warn of an “aggressive anticlericalism” in Spain which he said was akin to that experienced during the 1930s. The clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong today,” he said. And he pointed out that:

Spain saw in the 1930s the birth of a strong and aggressive anticlericalism.

Where that anticlericalism came from, and where today’s (alleged) anticlericalism comes from, the pontiff did not say, which prompted one commentator to observe:

That lack of any broader vision or context seems to characterise many of his readings on history.


Ratzinger’s failure to elaborate on his statement may have been deliberate, for to have done so would have meant casting an unwelcome light on several aspects of the Church’s despicable behaviour in Spain in the years preceding the 1930s, notably the Inquisition, its encouragement of the persecution of Jews, and its opposition to all forms of political liberalism.

This interference left Spain foundering in a fog of social and economic backwardness while the rest of Europe surged ahead.

And this is what led eventually to outbreaks of violence. From 1822 to 1936, at least 235 members of the clergy were assassinated and around 500 churches and religious centres were burned. In addition, in the three years of the Civil War, almost 7,000 priests, monks and nuns suffered the same fate.

But there can be no doubt that in alluding to the 1930s, Ratzinger was hankering after the dark days of General Franco, once described by H G Wells as:

Every inch a murderous little Christian gentleman.

In the early years of the Franco regime, the Catholic Church and state had a close and mutually beneficial association. The loyalty of the Roman Catholic Church to the Francoist state lent legitimacy to the dictatorship, which in turn restored and enhanced the Church’s traditional privileges – privileges lost when the final government of the republican era – the Popular Front – collapsed.

The Republican government, which came to power in Spain in 1931, was based on secular principles. In the first years some laws were passed secularising education, prohibiting religious education in the schools, and expelling the Jesuits from the country.

On Pentecost 1932, Pope Pius XI protested against these measures and demanded restitution. He asked the Catholics of Spain to fight with all legal means against the “injustices”. On June 3, 1933 he issued the encyclical Dilectissima Nobis, in which he lamented the expropriation of all Church buildings, episcopal residences, parish houses, seminaries and monasteries.

By law, they were now property of the Spanish State, to which the Church had to pay rent and taxes in order to continue use these properties.

“Thus the Catholic Church is compelled to pay taxes on what was violently taken from her”, he howled. Religious vestments, liturgical instruments, statues, pictures, vases, gems and similar objects necessary for worship were expropriated as well.

In contrast to the anticlericalism of the Popular Front, the Franco regime established policies that were highly favourable to the Church, which was restored to its previous status as the official religion of Spain.

In addition to receiving government subsidies, the Church regained its dominant position in the education system, and laws were made to conform to Catholic dogma.

During the Franco years, Roman Catholicism was the only religion to have legal status; other worship services could not be advertised, and only the Roman Catholic Church could own property or publish books. The government not only paid priests’ salaries and subsidized the Church, but it also assisted in the reconstruction of Church buildings damaged by the war.

Laws were passed abolishing divorce and banning the sale of contraceptives. Catholic religious instruction was mandatory, even in public schools.

Although it is true that the Church fell out of love with Franco in the latter days of his rule, and played a cooperative and supportive role in the emergence of plural democracy in Spain, it was outraged when a new, democratic Spain immediately began a vigorous programme of wide-ranging reforms – from the legalisation of abortion to gay marriage – which basically sent a signal to the Vatican that it needed to back off and stop interfering in the lives of the Spanish people.

The Vatican’s subsequent attempts to regain some its influence have come to nought.

Today in Spain the Catholic Church is truly a spent force, and with this in mind I happily joined in raising a glass to the life of Virgen of the Sufragio – whoever the hell she was.

Note: I have since learned that La Virgen del Sufragio was a “miraculous” flame-resistant statue rescued from a burning boat in the 1700s and is one of several patron saints of Benidorm.


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