Has Covid-19 shown that Spain has abandoned Catholicism?

During the the first days of the lock down back in March when it was clear that a number of people in the locality were dying or had died as a result of Covid-19 our parish priest for the local villages asked us to pray to San Roque (Saint Roche in French or San Rocco in Italian) who is the traditional Catholic help in times of plague.

I entered happily into a routine of prayers to San Roque – adding the devotion to my daily Office prayers – and wrote an article for the parish Facebook page as there seemed to be little remaining knowledge of this saint among the parish faithful (as evidenced by questions on the parish Whatsapp group.) Over the years as a pilgrim on foot and by bicycle to Compostela and to Rome, I have seen many statues of Saint Roche or San Roque or San Rocco in small parish churches or great basilicas. He is the saint who is often portrayed with a dog licking his wounds (and therefore as “the saint with the dog” he was always popular with children!)

The fact that San Roque seemed unknown – even to the over-sixties who are now most of those who assist at Mass – shows how far Catholicism has declined, even in its once-popular folk-religion manifestations.

Statue of San Roque, Alto de Perdón, Camino de Santiago, winter 2007.

There have been many articles in liberal Spanish newspapers over the past decades forecasting the end of the Catholic Church in Spain. Often this has just been wishful thinking by the advanced guard of secularist liberals, and the article by Juan José Tamayo in El País yesterday entitled Adiós a la cristiandad seems at first to be more of the same. (See https://elpais.com/opinion/2020-08-20/adios-a-la-cristiandad.html 20 August 2020) But his “Farewell to Christianity” is an interesting one, as he writes as Director of Theology and Religious Sciences at the prestigious Carlos III University of Madrid.

The article’s strap-line sets out the agenda: “It is time to relocate religion in the public space: repeal the accord with the Holy See and eliminate the teaching of confessional religion in schools.”

His basic argument is that the 1980 Spanish legal settlement on religion, the Ley Orgánica de Libertad Religiosa (LOLR) is now an anachronism in a largely secular state. The 1979 accord between the Spanish state and the Holy See which kept many of the privileges accorded to the Franco regime in 1953 has been considered by many jurists as unconstitutional and it is time in modern Spain to say goodbye to Catholic privileges.

Covid-19 state funeral was a catalyst moment

What I find significant in this article is the reference to the alleged “hegemony of the Catholic Church in the public space” during the national state funeral for the Covid-19 victims at the invitation of King Felipe VI, which the author describes as the “confessionalisation of the national pain”. The contradictions inherent in a Catholic state funeral for the victims of an aconfessional state – according to the author – made this a turning point in the discussion of the official presence of the Catholic Church in modern Spain. It sparked his challenge: “Forty years after the LOLR it is time to definitively say goodbye to Christianity” (i.e. the Catholic Church) and he calls for constitutional reform to remove the vestiges of Catholic confession within the Spanish state and the public sphere.

So, as a Catholic, why am I so interested in a press article by some sociologist of religion in Madrid who (as a “religious scientist” whatever that is) probably regards both the Catholic Church and the Islamic State as similarly interesting phenomena and who has no interest in a phenomenological understanding of spirituality from the inside?

I am interested because – honestly – I have seen exactly the problem he describes. I have recounted on these pages the way that Spaniards have lost touch with their own religious traditions a long time ago. I have also seen for myself how local parish churches are simply social clubs for the elderly. While not a bad thing in itself, that should not be the sole purpose of a Catholic presence in a community. Without any wider mission it is a moribund spiritual institution.

When I was teaching in international schools I knew many Spanish teachers who were entirely ignorant of the Catholic tradition, to the point where they even relied on me to explain to the students why Saint James the Great had become Spain’s patron saint, because they had no idea themselves!

School carnival 2018: Mr Thomas as Saint James of Compostela and his Sixth Form as bananas.

Beyond tribal religious identities

The problem goes wider than the collapse of respect for the Catholic Church in Spain. The past decade has seen a widening divide between Catholics of a traditionalist or liberal outlook to the point of open warfare. Quite frankly, I tired of that several years ago. In 2010 – as recounted in the early days of the old Brotherlapin blog which is Part 1 of the present blog – I joined together with various Catholic ‘traditionalists’ to write a blog. Ten years later many of the writers and readers of that blog support the present incumbent of the White House who is neither Christian nor has any basic humanity.

What is more important than Catholicism to many liberals or traditionals is loyalty to their tribe. Liberals emphasize social Christianity while often ignoring clear teaching of the Church on moral matters they “disagree” with; (!) while on the other hand, the political goals of quasi-conservative dogma can often go against every tenet of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. Liberal Catholics’ abandonment of the rights of the unborn, while offering no moral justification in line with teaching is an exercise in sheer contempt for their faith. Similarly, watching ‘traditional’ Catholics in the USA queue up to support Trump’s atrocities against Latin American migrants and their children was a steep learning curve in the banality of evil!

I reject tribal ‘liberalism’ and tribal ‘traditionalism’ and I remember what I was taught as an Anglican and what helped me convert to the Catholic Church, that there is only One Great Living Tradition, represented by the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, and the remnant of this Tradition is found sometimes in Orthodoxy and other Eastern churches, sometimes in Catholicism and sometimes in Anglicanism. The last place to find the living tradition of the Church is in Biden or Trump, or in Manchester United or Real Madrid. The colours of your team and the firmness of your grip on your tribal team scarf are no substitute for Scripture, Tradition and the practice of spirituality.

Yes, Spain has abandoned Catholicism: but it abandoned Spain sixty years ago

The kind of Catholicism found in Spain – still with the attitudes of the hierarchy reminiscent of the Franco era settlement of 1953 – no longer connects with most people. I struggle with church attendance and I am supposed to be living a structured religious rule! I find the average parish Mass very challenging because it is crushingly tedious, an entirely joyless occasion. Quite often in the post-Covid times it is also downright dangerous, with members of the congregation and priest himself putting each other in danger by overlooking elementary precautions.

During the lock down I found it very helpful to “virtually assist” at Mass in Saint Francis Catholic parish in Bristol. Even without the spiritual benefits of holy communion, it nevertheless provided a Christian nourishment that is often unobtainable in a typical Spanish parish Mass: and believe me, I have travelled miles in these past ten years in search of a local Sunday Mass that did not make me feel entirely alienated before we had even reached the Peace!

Has Spain abandoned Catholicism? As a retired geography teacher I would cite the demographics if you want a sociological answer. Yes. The populance has deserted it. The folk-religion of Holy Week and Easter will continue – with very few of those thousands of hooded “penitents” ever seen at a regular Sunday Mass – and if you think that counts for a representation of “Catholic Spain” you are missing the point.

This is a land where two thousand years of Christianity have left a rich spiritual tradition which may be found, if you seek it out in the lives and writings of the great mystics: Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila among many. Catholic Christianity will continue in hidden places, no matter what the sociologists may say, but it is not the religion of the country any longer.

Spanish pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago at Burgos cathedral 2020.

4 thoughts on “Has Covid-19 shown that Spain has abandoned Catholicism?

  1. This article of yours, dear Gareth, is one of the most thought provoking that I have read for many years. In the west, whether one is “religious” or not, there has been an ever increasing pereceptible decline in followers of the established relgions – except Islam. Now that would be an interesting subject for discussion!

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  2. Thank you Frank. As one or two traditionalist Catholic blogs still link to my blog, I am braced for less favourable comments! I think the main danger we all face at present is the kind of unintelligent tribalism – magnified by social media – in which no nuances are allowed. The Sermon on the Mount was not a single issue campaign.

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  3. Interesting — for comparison, the situation in France is that a sense of ordinary public Catholicism lingers locally, though it seems absent in much of the country.

    I wonder if the same may not be true to a degree in Spain ?

    I have come across several good priests in Spain, including in Catalonia last year. Though as Santiago pilgrims, one cannot help but see that the Camino itself has become more and more secularised over the decades.

    I have OTOH seen signs of some revival in the south of France, as there was more priestly and generally Catholic presence last year between the Italian and Spanish borders than I had found in the Mediterranean on my previous pilgrimage from home in 2005 (elsewhere, the Catholicism in Gascony and the Basque Country was vibrant in 2005, and was a clear presence in the communities between Lourdes and the Somport in 2014).

    As for myself, I’m not really a “traditionalist” and never have been — IMO, traditionalism and liberal-“progressivism” are political factions within the Church, whereas the Catholicity of the Faith is centred in orthodoxy and, yes, tradition. But I don’t think every traditional Catholic is a “traditionalist”. In fact, some positions of the “traditionalists” appear to contradict the Tradition of Holy Church as such.

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  4. Yes, Julian, I know what you mean about that ‘lingering’ Catholicism in rural France, as I experienced it in my classic 2008 Compostela pilgrimage when I walked the whole length of France from north to south. The area around Tours and Bordeaux stands out, as does the whole route between Vezelay and the border picking up the Le Puy route, which I remember from an earlier pilgrimage on bcycle. In Spain a more dynamic situation in the post-Franco period has led to increasingly aggressive attitudes towards the Church. I feel that the current widespread critique of the monarchy will also have a spin-off effect on Spain’s last lingering connections with Catholic faith.

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