Saturday, October 23, 2004

MADRID — Since taking power six months ago, the leftist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has floated a constellation of domestic initiatives aimed at transforming Spain from one of Europe’s most conservative countries to one of its most liberal.

Many of the proposals, ranging from plans to legalize abortion and some forms of embryo research to easing divorce restrictions, have barely inched past talking points. But this month, Mr. Zapatero’s Cabinet approved legislation to legalize same-sex “weddings.” The Socialist-dominated parliament is expected to pass the bill early next year, which would make Spain only the third country, after the Netherlands and Belgium, to do so.

While garnering widespread popular support, the reforms have put Mr. Zapatero’s Socialists on a collision course with Spain’s once-powerful Roman Catholic Church.

In July, the country’s leading archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela, declared that the Socialists’ initiatives were taking Spain back to medieval times, when it was being ruled by Muslim conquerors. And in September, Juan Antonio Martinez Campo, spokesman for Spain’s Episcopal Conference, described same-sex “marriages” as a “virus,” threatening Spanish society.

Since then, the Catholic hierarchy has toned town its rhetoric, opting instead for bookish defenses on the conference’s Web site and in rare public interviews.

“The church has the most cordial relations with the government,” Leopoldo Vives Soto, secretary for the Episcopal Conference’s Family and Defense of Life subcommittee, said in a telephone interview. “At the same time, the church hopes the government will listen to it, in the name of many Catholics.”

The church has left tough talk to supporters such as Xavier Gomez, 26, a member of a Christian youth club.

“Marriage should be between a man and a woman,” said Mr. Gomez, as he tried to hand out Christian literature outside San Gines church. “I’m against homosexual marriage. I’m against homosexual couples adopting. And the majority of people think the same way.”

Numerous polls — not to mention the polite brushoffs Mr. Gomez received to his solicitations — suggest otherwise. The government’s reform initiatives have received strong popular backing in majority-Catholic Spain, where, as elsewhere in Europe, church attendance has plummeted in recent years.

Surveys show two-thirds of Spaniards support legalizing same-sex “marriages,” and more than 40 percent approve of allowing homosexual couples to adopt.

“The policies of the Zapatero government have widespread support,” said political scientist Antonio Remiro. “So if the Catholic Church wants to impose its own interests, conflict is inevitable. And of course, the church will lose this conflict.”

The current standoff underscores a dramatic change in the fortunes of Spain’s once-influential church.

For centuries after the collapse of Moorish rule in 1492, church and state were inextricably linked. Indeed, Gen. Francisco Franco made the “crusade for God and country” the mantra of his 36-year dictatorship, which ended with his death in 1975.

Gen. Franco re-established Roman Catholicism as the state religion and outlawed homosexuality. He later softened many of his stances, which included imprisoning and torturing homosexuals. But only in 2001 did the Spanish parliament pass a law erasing the criminal records of Franco-era homosexuals.

By contrast, Spanish society has evolved rapidly in the years following Gen. Franco’s death. While abortions are still only allowed under strict circumstances, for example, many women use a “psychological damage” clause to dodge the law.

“Finally, the government is in synch with the population,” said Pedro Zerolo, an openly homosexual Socialist party deputy who also heads the Spanish chapter of the Federation of Lesbians, Gays and Transsexuals. “Zapatero is simply responding to the citizens’ demands.”

Spain’s Catholic Church is hardly the only one under siege. Historic bonds between religion and state are unraveling across Europe. Neighboring France, where a law banning the wearing of religious symbols in public schools went into effect this year, is at the forefront.

“I can fully understand why the Catholic Church is alarmed,” said Charles Powell, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid-based think tank. “It feels it is already losing — indeed already has lost — much of its social influence in Spain over the past 10, 20 years.”

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