The Church today

The Catholic Church underwent quite radical changes as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). After the Council, the call to arms for many Catholics, both laymen and priests, was the so-called liberation theology, which presented Christ as not only the Redeemer but also the Liberator of the oppressed. It emphasized the Christian mission to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, particularly through political activism, and was widely regarded as a form of Christian socialism. It was particularly strong in Latin America and among the Jesuits, to the extent that a break between the Vatican and the Church in the Americas seemed almost inevitable at one point. In the 60s, many priests joined the guerrilla movements which were rampant in South America in the years following the Cuban revolution (1959), the most famous one being Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest who was killed in a skirmish with government troops in February 1966. Because of its defence of human rights, the Catholic Church was regarded as Public Enemy Number Two, after the revolutionary movements, in many South American countries where it sided with the people against dictatorial governments. One of its most famous martyrs was Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, who was shot to death by right-wing thugs as he said mass in the cathedral on March 24th, 1980. Liberation theology manifested itself in Spain in the form of the so-called curas obreros (worker priests), who in the late 60s and early 70s defied the Church hierarchy to practice what they preached alongside the workers, especially in the construction industry and agriculture. However, the liberation theology never reached fruition in Spain, where the Church hierarchy enjoyed the full backing of one of Europe’s last dictators, Francisco Franco, until his death in November 1975. And the power of liberation theology began to ebb the world over after Pope John Paul II was elected to the throne of St Peter in October 1978, just before Spain’s new Constitution was accepted in a referendum later that year. An indication of how far the Church had fallen was that the draft Constitution didn’t even mention it at all. It was only after the bishops had kicked up a fuss that religion was added, almost as an afterthought. The idea of an official religion was rejected, and the only concession was that the authorities would “take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and maintain the appropriate relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other denominations.” Since then, religion has been a bone of contention between Right and Left, and the current government’s recent announcement that it intends to reform the Law on Religious Freedom has already revived all the old arguments. The reform is intended to “further the secularization of the State”, which is another way of saying the Church should finance itself, and to make all religions equal. Critics say that Moslems, Jews and Protestants – who were not allowed to publicly practice their religion during the Franco dictatorship – now enjoy the same religious freedom as Catholics so there is no need for a law to guarantee their equality. But the crux of the matter is money, as usual. The State still finances the Church, as it has done on and off, mostly on, for centuries. Taxpayers are allowed to choose between giving a small portion – just over 0.5% – of their contributions to the Church or other charities. If they do not mark either of the boxes provided on the tax return form, that percentage automatically goes to the charities not the Church. Some 30% on average mark their form in favour of the Church (12% opt for the charities) so the State has to make up the shortfall. When the Socialists took over in 2004, they said this state of affairs could not be allowed to continue but the Church has managed to keep the wolf from the door so far. It’s difficult to predict what would happen if the government really came down hard on the Church in a country where 80% of the people still describe themselves as Catholics. Several bishops have already accused the Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of trying to create a “society without God”. When the new government was sworn in, most of the ministers and the PM himself ignored the Bible that lay open on the table. But whether it would go as far as refusing former Prime Ministers and other dignitaries a Catholic burial, as the leader of the Federation of Evangelical Sects in Spain wants, is a different matter. He complained because the funeral service for the former Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, a staunch Catholic, was held in the La Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. In the name of religious equality, he wants State funerals to be non-denominational – but denying a practising Catholic a Catholic funeral smacks of religious oppression to many, and violates the Constitution’s promise to “take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society”.


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