Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is welcome at the
Pontifical audience in the Vatican City
on June 21, 2004.

The government of Jose Luis Zapatero announced on September 23, 2004, that it was willing to draft a “Route Map” to separate definitively the Church from the Spanish state and put an end to the unique privileges of the catholic faith in the country. Perhaps, it is the reaction to the strong return of the Opus Dei to the public scenario during the eight years of Aznar, but also to the concern pertaining to the enforcement, after 28 years, of the secular principles under the Constitution of 1978.

On a more general basis, the Spaniards want to put an end to the centuries of religious confrontation that ended with the civil war and Franco’s regime, and establish from now on the freedom of conscience [1].

Under the agreement signed with the Holy See in 1979 immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, and whose objective was to maintain the status of exception of the Catholic Church, there are still visible crosses on the walls of Spain’s public schools, and courses on catholic religion are delivered in detriment of the rest of the convictions. On the other hand, the Catholic Church still enjoys a favorable fiscal treatment and great state subsidies.

The Context

While most of the Spaniards consider these privileges as complicated spectrums of Franco’s regime that should be kept away soon, the government of Aznar reestablished the exams of catholic religion in the high school curriculum. Hence, the only groups that dare to get angry openly against the reform project of Zapatero are those which are in a more fundamentalist position of a church that only provides support with words, and limits to denounce the “secular harassment” against the majority of the catholic religion without believing too much in it, since it is known very well that the governmental project is not aimed at tackling religion, but on the contrary, ensuring freedom of conscience for all.

By reforming the relation between the Church and the State and bringing all convictions to equal terms, the government acts under the Constitution of 1978, whose Article 16 provides that no religion would be that of the State and no one is obliged to reveal its faith. It ensures therefore, the freedom of cult for individuals and communities with no other limitations than the need for public order. The article 27 provides freedom to establish teaching centers, the right to education and the right to moral and religious training.

The catholic religion plays a predominant role in Spain, maybe more than in the rest of the European countries. The Spanish identity was created in line with the Reconquest that ended in the age of the catholic kings, when Fernando de Aragon and Isabel de Castilla expelled the last Arabs from Granada in 1492. That is why Jose Maria Aznar has continued reminding the Spaniards those moments particularly gloomy in its history to revive the old disputes and promote the “clash of civilizations [2].”

However, the separation of the Church from the State was already established by the Constitution of the Republic in 1931, before the People’s Front became totally immersed in the extreme anti-clericalism that brought about as a reaction the alliance of the Church and Franco’s supporters within a “national-catholic” regime until 1978. The Spanish Catholic Church receives every year nearly 140 million Euros from the government to ensure its smooth running and the later pays the religion teachers of public schools, army chaplain and prisons and bears the major peripheral expenses of the cult.

In addition, the Church is exempted from payment of most of the taxes and is not subject to any regime of fiscal transparency, but that is not all. By adopting the status of a nongovernmental organization (NGO), the orders, foundations and catholic institutions put together this budget to a second state funding amounting to a total of nearly 100 million Euros, as a “solidarity” and “assistance for development.”

The Expected Reforms

The announced reforms appeared in the PSOE program for the elections of the last March 14. However, the announcement pertaining to the implementation of this “Road Map” has had a surprising effect, since the Spaniards had already got used to this contradiction between a constitution that provides a secular State and a very indulgent reality with regard to the privileges of the Church.

The vice-president of Zapatero’s government, Maria Teresa de la Vega, has the assignment to coordinate, during the next year, cross reforms related to the ministries of Justice, Economy and Social Affairs. Once the secular status has been drafted, it would be submitted to the Executive for approval and will have a great support of the educational, feminist, pacifist, trade union and defense of human rights association, etc, traditionally in the forefront of the battle.

The Justice Secretary General, Lopez Guerra, defends the project in these terms: “the catholic faith is in an unprecedented advantageous situation, not only due to tradition, but also, in the formal aspect, to the agreements with the Holy See in 1979. In the end, the ‘Road Map’ shall lead to an effective non-professional status of the State, which implies limiting the official character of any religion. None of them could be more official than the others because none of them could be more official.”

The new status provides, therefore, establishing equal treatment among the different religions represented in the country. It is estimated that in Spain, there are more than a million Muslims, 2.5 billion of supporters distributed among the Evangelical Churches and, according to the latest sociological studies, 20% of the population is either secular or atheist, an equivalent percentage to the Catholic churchgoers [3]. Hence, the project will try to adapt the institutions to a radically different religious scenario with regard to the beginning of the post-Franco era.

The first political decision made was the non-extension of the agreements between the Church and the State for the next year. They will be reviewed by the Ministry of Justice from a constitutional point of view. As for the educational aspect, it is expected that teaching catholic religion, including the rest of religions, would be during extra curricular activities and those students who do not wish to attend will not be obliged to choose an alternative subject. On the other hand, teaching religion will be considered as a subject but not examinable.

The Desperate Reactions of the Episcopate

His Excellency the Cardinal
Julian Herranz

His Excellency The Cardinal Julian Herranz, member of the Opus Dei [4] and the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, denounced from the City of Vatican the “secular fundamentalism” that encourages the promoters of these reforms, and echoed the statements from the main responsible people from the Spanish Catholic Church [5]. In his opinion, this “aggressive secularism” will have a very negative impact on some sectors and fundamental values of the society such as marriage, family and education of youngsters.

Strangely, the Iberian Episcopate, to criticize the reforms, turns to the arguments that the French Church has not defended very much the use of veil in schools: “It is not legitimate to appeal for tolerance to prevent the Christians to act as such in public places”, said the Barcelonan Archbishop Monsignor Luis Martinez Sistach [6].

From a more constructive point of view, Agustin Domingo Moratalla, professor of Philosophy of Law, Moral and Politics at Valencia University, insists on the need for financial autonomy for the Church, but denounced what he sees as a “secular privatization of the State”. He fears that the end of public subsidy of the Church prevents the citizens from some services which are provided today, but calls for “profitable cooperation” that, in his opinion, urges the British Labor with regard to the Anglican Church, the German Social-Democrat or that of the new Italian socialism to attack the “secular, anti-clerical and sectarian” role of the Spanish Socialist Party [7].

In the same edition of the centrist daily paper El Mundo, the journalist Jose Manuel Vidal ironically sent his own references to the Spanish cleric to defend the project: in his space for opinions under the title “Poor to be free”, quoted various passages of the Bible in which it is recalled especially the election of Jesus by the status of slavery despite his divine condition and the generous advice to his followers of not accumulating land wealth, to ascertain that the Spanish church, once free of its financial dependency with regard to the State, could only be freer and conclude: “A church which is dependent upon the State subsidies is a domesticated and mute church.”

[1The “freedom of conscience” ensures the possibility to believe or not in a religion. Therefore, it is applicable to believers, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. It shall be distinguished from “freedom of religion” that excludes from its concerns the non-religious convictions. During the last two centuries, the freedom of conscience has been progressively imposed in the European law, while the religious freedom triumphed in the American law. These theoretic distinctions have major practical consequences. Thus, in Europe, an ex-follower could turn against a sect that would have abused of his weakness, whereas in the United States the testimony of an apostate against his church of origin is not valid in court.

[2“The Clash of Civilizations”, Voltaire, December 7, 2004.

[3Manuel Sanchez: “The government prepares a “route map” to end the “undeniable advantages” of the Catholic Church”, El Pais, September 26, 2004.

[4See our archive on the Opus Dei

[5“The Cardinal Herranz denounces ‘aggressive secularism’”, El Mundo, September 27, 2004.

[6Jose Manuel Vidal: “Indignation at the Catholic Church for “harassment” of the Socialist Government”, El Mundo, September 25, 2004.

[7Columnist Augustin Domingo Moratalia: “The Profitability of Cooperation”, El Mundo, September 26, 2004.