I FEEL as if I’m being dogged by the Pope. I was in the UK when the old bigot made an expensive state visit to the country, and now that I am in Spain I learned this week that he due here this weekend.
I am delighted to report, though, that all is not well Ratzinger’s visit – it is definitely not going down well with a large section of Spain’s younger generation.
Sociologist Kerman Calvo said of the two-day visit:
This is without a doubt the least Catholic Spain in history, and demographic data suggest it will continue to become less and less Catholic.
The visit is part of a major Vatican push to make increasingly secular Europe re-embrace its Christian roots, but the Pope faces a big challenge in a nation that has undergone an extraordinary social transformation in just the past few years â€” with laws allowing gay marriage, fast-track divorce and easier abortions.
These changes are the latest, perhaps most dramatic, chapter in Spain’s reinvention after the deeply conservative dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. After rigid social and political constraints came an explosion of hedonism and cultural vigour that caused the nation to stray further and further from its religious heritage.
It has all horrified the Vatican, which remembers a not-so-distant age when all public schoolrooms had a picture of Franco and a crucifix mounted on the wall. For many liberal Spaniards, on the other hand, it’s the church’s association with the Franco regime that has been a cause for much of the alienation.
Indeed, church attendance is falling steadily and at Mass on Sunday most worshippers have gray hair. Congregations are fast losing young people. And civil ceremonies now outnumber church marriages for the first time.
Tensions rose even before the Pope arrived, as riot police swinging truncheons clashed Thursday night with anti-papal protesters in Santiago, some of whom carried red banners reading:
I am not waiting for you.
In Barcelona, hundreds of people staged a peaceful night-time rally against the visit, with banners decrying everything from the cost of hosting the pope to the paedophile priest scandal that has rocked the Vatican.
Thousands of gays and lesbians plan a kiss-in in Barcelona in the Pope’s presence as he leaves the grounds of the city’s actual cathedral on Sunday morning, puckering up en masse to protest against the conservative pontiff, whose opposition to gay marriage is well known.
Monsignor Celso Morga, a Spaniard and undersecretary in the Vatican’s office for clergy, said thePope
Wants to give a message to Europe, young and old: Let’s return to the tomb of the apostle, let’s return to the origins of our faith which built Europe.
Javier Elzo, a professor emeritus at Deusto University in the Basque region and expert on the sociology of religion, said he is not ready to declare Catholicism comatose in Spain.
He noted that a poll released in September showed 73 percent of those questioned still consider themselves Catholic, calling that significant even if it is down nearly 10 points since 1994.
The Catholic brand has not disappeared.
Part of the problem in Spain is that many Catholics want to remain true to their faith but are frustrated with the conservative bent of the Pope and of Spanish bishops named in the times of the late John Paul II, said Mariano Benito, a churchgoing businessman of 46.
Since his election in 2004, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has angered the church with his liberal-minded reform program. The latest plank was officially installed in July with a law that eased abortion legislation dating back to 1985, providing for unrestricted abortion in the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy and letting girls as young as 16 undergo the procedure with no need for parental consent. It’s a far cry from the Franco era in which Spanish women travelled to England, France or Holland for abortions.
But now Zapatero is overseeing an economy struggling to overcome recession and a nearly 20 percent jobless rate and trailing the opposition conservatives badly in the polls with elections due in 18 months â€” and has apparently shelved plans to enact a law that would force the removal of crucifixes from schools and other public buildings such as hospitals.
The conservative Popular Party has challenged the abortion law in Spain’s highest court, and party leader Mariano Rajoy has said that if elected prime minister he would propose erasing the clause allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to abort without parental permission.
Father Olegario Gonzalez de Cardedal, a professor of theology at the University of Salamanca, says Spanish society has changed tremendously over the past 50 years and the church is working to catch up and find new ways to spread faith now that old models like the family and small local parishes have lessened in importance. He acknowledges the role of the church has weakened, but insists it remains strong and is trying to adjust.
These days, he wrote in the conservative newspaper ABC:
People get their education from the street, from music, from information society in its diverse and extremely complex channels, from the society of anonymity.