The Pope’s presence in Spain could seem, on the surface, like just another pastoral visit. But it goes much further than that in a country that is something of a paradox.
Spain, traditionally deeply Catholic, has become in recent years under the Zapatero government, one of Europe’s most progressive and socially audacious states.
The Vatican is worried about the dechristianisation of Europe; not just in Spain but also in Italy and France. The Catholic Church fears that Zapatero’s push towards secularism may spread to Latin America.
More than 30 years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, which made Catholicism a national religion, belief is waning. Just eight years ago, 80 percent of Spaniards considered themselves Catholic. Today, that figure has fallen to 73 percent.
The child sex abuse scandals appear not to be the main cause as Spain has recorded relatively few cases compared to other countries.
Spain today is not afraid to turn its back on the Catholic Church. In 2005 the socialist government adopted a law permitting gay marriage. Since then 20,000 same-sex marriages have taken place despite the conservative opposition’s anger. The Popular Party has promised to review this law if it returns to power, as well as a law removing restrictions on abortions.
Although there were well-attended pro-life marches across the country, the abortion law went ahead. The Vatican was incensed.
And the Spanish government could go even further. Proposals have been in the pipelines since last December, including forbidding the crucifix in public places, a debate which is also raging in Italy.
But the government has not yet put anything before parliament, concerned perhaps not to pour oil on the fire.