There was an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 on the battles between church and state over the spread of secularism in Spain, which is being repeated tonight at 8.30pm. The Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been promoting a secular agenda, legislating for gay marriage and speedy divorce. His government has also introduced new classes called Education for Citizenship, which have provoked a great deal of resistance from the Catholic Church and its schools, because they deal with issues like sexuality, divorce and abortion. These are the same battles that have being going on in Europe, on and off, for the past two centuries, since the Enlightenment raised the demand for the separation of church and state.
Here we have the words of one of the Catholic parents opposed to the new classes
“If you are able to lead kids to a certain way of thinking, you can have full control of them – that’s what I think the government is trying to do now,” complains Agustin Losada, a parent whose formal objection to the new classes is supported by Madrid’s Conservative regional government.
Mr Losada adds: “The right to educate children in moral principles does not belong to the government, it belongs to the parents. It’s a principle that’s recognised by our constitution.
“By forcing everybody to study this kind of subject, the government are trying to impose a view which is not in line with what some parents could think.”
Here’s the rub. The Catholic Church is of the opinion that the state should leave the moral education of its flock to the Church, regardless of the fact that people live within society, and that if society is to work, people must behave according to its norms. This is of course a fundamental clash in views of what forms government and national identity should take in Spain. Should they reflect Spain’s Catholic heritage, or should they reflect the civic ideals of modern democracy? The Bishops are clear. The effectively warned people that they shouldn’t vote for the Socialist Party, but it was re-elected, and is pushing ahead with its programme.
The response from the church and the opposition Popular Party has been guerrilla warfare, with schools teaching their own versions of their classes with the support of local governments controlled by the opposition. My personal favourite was in Valencia, where they are teaching the classes, but in English so that the pupils cannot understand them. Viewing the opinion polls and listening to the programme, it seems that the church is doomed to failure on this issue, but the fact that the Popular Party is lining up behind it means that that cannot be taken for granted. While the situation is reminiscent of other European struggles over the past two centuries, it also calls to mind the struggles over Darwinism and secularism in the United States.
Of course these are themes not unfamiliar to people in Ireland, north and south. The southern Irish constitution as originally written by Fianna Fáil embodied Catholic social teaching – as did the policies of the Treatyite government before it – and the effects are still felt to this day. In the north, religion remains the overwhelmingly most important factor in social and political relations. Although great progress has been made, the fight for our own secular democracies and politics north and south go on. Still, if Spain can change, so can we.