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Catholic Church Speaks Up in Spain

Bishops, worried about dwindling influence, clash with government on gay marriage plan.

July 21, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — Uneasy over the new government's liberal social agenda and its own declining influence, the Roman Catholic Church in Spain urged followers Tuesday to do their utmost to block Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's plan to legalize same-sex marriage.

The exhortation followed a meeting of Spain's leading bishops, who condemned such unions as an aberration against nature and said the government's proposed law was an unprecedented affront to traditional values.

"Legal recognition of homosexual unions, and especially placing it on the same level with marriage, would constitute an error and an injustice with very negative consequences for the common good and the future of society," the bishops said in a statement released at a news conference.

Father Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, a spokesman for the Spanish Episcopal Conference, said that Catholic legislators should vote against the measure and that all Spaniards, Catholic or otherwise, should oppose the bill. He would not say whether the church would encourage government bureaucrats to refuse to enforce the law, if it passes.

Zapatero's Socialist government, elected in an upset in March that ended eight years of conservative rule, says a law formally recognizing same-sex unions should be ready to be submitted to parliament in September and could be enacted as early as January.

This is only one of many issues over which the church and the new government have clashed. Zapatero has indicated that he plans to relax restrictions on abortion and divorce, permit stem-cell research using human embryos and shelve a law that made Catholic instruction compulsory in schools.

In addition, the government is negotiating with Protestant representatives and the leaders of two other faiths that have existed in Spain for centuries -- Islam and Judaism -- on a plan to grant them limited benefits.

All of this makes the Catholic Church nervous and serves as a painful reminder that it no longer holds the privileged position it enjoyed for generations in Spain.

On paper, this is one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. The church, which is generally very conservative here, wielded enormous power under dictator Gen. Francisco Franco and was close to the government of Zapatero's predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, some of whose members belong to the ultraconservative Catholic organization Opus Dei. It was Aznar's government that last year pushed through a law making religious studies mandatory in schools.

In practice, however, church leaders have watched attendance at Mass plummet. Fewer than 20% of Spanish respondents identify themselves as practicing Catholics, according to recent polls. Islam, by most accounts, is the fastest-growing religion in the country, a trend fed primarily by immigrants from Morocco.

With Aznar out and Zapatero in, the other major religions have welcomed the chance to improve what they consider their second-class status.

Although the 1978 constitution guarantees religious freedom and states that Spain has no official faith, it is the Catholic Church alone that receives substantial subsidies from the government. Taxpayers can donate a portion of their tax payments to the Catholic Church, which is exempt from many of the taxes levied on other churches. The state also picks up the salaries of many priests and bishops.

El Pais newspaper estimates that the Catholic Church receives $3.75 billion a year in direct and indirect state funding.

Justice Minister Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar has been speaking with other religious leaders to create a system to enable them to receive public money as well. Martinez Camino, the bishops' representative, said the church did not oppose money going to other faiths as long as it was distributed "proportionally" -- meaning that the biggest slice of the pie would still go to the Catholic Church.

Eager to smooth over any perception of hostility, Zapatero made a pilgrimage to the Vatican last month for an audience with Pope John Paul II.

He sought to reassure the pontiff that his government would not harm the church's special status. The pope was evidently not convinced and publicly reminded his visitor of his duty to "conserve moral and cultural values, as well as [Spain's] Christian roots."

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