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  • October 2004: Church-State relations

Over the last years, the issue of religion and, in more concrete terms, the problems in Church-State relations were at the forefront of the news. This was primarily due to the role and political action that the Catholic Church, and some ultra-conservative groups within it, was able to exercise with the support of the neo-conservative government of the Popular Party (Partido Popular). The importance of this support, unequalled since democracy was re-established in Spain in 1978, provoked a confrontation between the Partido Popular government and the more progressive groups of society. Dissensions within the Catholic Church also surfaced, between the reformers and the conservatives, which was manifested in the marginalisation of the reformers and the rise of the conservatives to the highest levels of ecclesiastic power.
In order to face all of the issues it inherited, the current socialist government is trying to reduce the Catholic Church’s influence in the political decision-making process. Furthermore, the proposal of several legislative measures intended to increase the level of equality within society provoked great hostility from the Church. The government retorted by rekindling the issue on the funding of the Catholic Church, which has always been favoured in this domain.
Added to these various problems was the issue on mosques. The progressive increase, even more so during the last decade, of the Muslim population was followed by an increase, without order or control, in the number of underground mosques. The 11 March 2004 terrorist attack reinforced the fear in certain members of the media and the government that these underground mosques could be a place where future terrorists could be recruited and trained. For this reason, a political debate was opened on the need for some way of controlling the places of Muslim worship.

  • October 2004: Religion in school

Religious instruction in State schools was one of the first subjects of confrontation between the Catholic Church and the progressive political parties of the new Spanish Parliament. A provision inserted by the Partido Popular government into the Ley Orgánica de Calidad de la Enseñanza, Law on the Quality of Education of December 2002, declaring the obligatory nature of teaching "religion" (Catholic) or "religions" as an alternative to the first, sparked a debate.

When the Socialist Party was in power (1982-1996), religion, which was an optional course in the State education system, had no academic value and was therefore not included in the students’ evaluations. The PP’s reform project was aimed at finding a solution for this situation by giving the subject academic status. It answered the bishops’ preoccupations regarding the deterioration of this type of instruction and more generally, the de-Christianisation of Spanish society (El País, 10 de marzo de 2004: "La asignatura de catolicismo perdió este curso un 6% de alumnos en ESO [Enseñanza Secundaria Obligatoria]"). With the proposed reform, religion acquired a status that was equivalent to that of the other subjects and would be included in the academic evaluation of students. The alternative "religions" course seemed so denominational in nature that many political and social stakeholders were afraid it would be used as an instrument under the influence of the Church (El País, 9 de febrero de 2004: "Lo que los obispos quieren enseñar").
The PP government made no concessions and the reform was adopted. After the PP’s defeat in the elections of March 2004, and the advent of the Socialist Party, the reform movement was frozen.

The new government was therefore confronted with a new, enduring, controversy on whether it is necessary or not to include "religion" as a subject in the Spanish academic curriculum. The government chose to restore the optional aspect of "religion" with no academic value and proposed the creation of a new subject on "public values" as an alternative for students who do not wish to take the religious instruction course.

Furthermore, this controversy also reopened the debate on the instruction of other religions present in the State. If the Catholic Church demands that "its" subject continue to be taught in State schools, then why shouldn’t other religions do the same? According to the agreements of 1992 between the State and the Evangelical, Muslim and Jewish faiths, these three religions have the right to insist on having their own religion courses taught in schools that request them. However, nothing or very little has been done on this subject and Jewish, Protestant and Muslim children develop their religion outside of the school. What is more, unlike the Catholic Church (religion teachers may be chosen by the bishops but they are paid by the State), the other religions do not receive any subsidies for this type of instruction. Moreover, the president of the main opposition party, a member of the government up until the last elections, showed himself to be entirely against the idea of "financing the instruction of religions that do not belong to our culture" referring to religions that "have ‘penal or moral standards’ or that treat women with scorn" (El Mundo, 24 de agosto de 2004). Despite this, the socialist government designated a small portion of the State’s overall budget to finance minority religions, three million euros per year to divide among the various religions. As for the Catholic Church, it will receive approximately 141 million euros (El País, 5 de octubre de 2004).

  • October 2004: Extension of abortion rights and the simplification of the divorce process

Other legislative initiatives of the socialist government heightened the degree of confrontation with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Among them, extending the circumstances that give women the right to abort and simplifying the administrative and legal procedures necessary in obtaining a divorce.
Until now, Spanish legislation restricted abortions to several specific circumstances, which had already been the subject of an intense opposition from the Catholic Church. Today the socialist government wants to widen these circumstances, probably to the point where justifying the reasons for abortion would no longer be necessary as long as the abortion is carried out within the stipulated timeframe.
With regard to divorce, the socialist government proposed that when there is mutual agreement, the divorce does not need to be preceded by a period of separation. The justification of the prior period was in the assumption that the couple was not in agreement regarding the definitive nature of their separation. With the proposed reform, couples who wish to separate temporarily could do so and couples who wish to separate permanently would not be subject to this timeframe.
These reform proposals angered bishops who qualified them as attempts to destroy the family. The Church seems to think that certain regulating standards in the everyday lives of Spaniards are of its sole competence. The Church defends the idea that the Spanish Civil Code has the duty to follow its vision of the family and relationships of the couple.

  • October 2004: Same-sex marriage

The legislative initiative that brought on the most criticism from the Catholic Church was without a doubt the one intended to legalise same-sex marriage. The socialist government justified this initiative - in October 2004 the draft bill was approved – by the need to meet the requirements of equality for all citizens and non-discrimination on the basis of sex outlined in the Constitution of 1978.
For the Spanish Conference of bishops the legislation on this form of marriage would lead to the devaluation of what it considers "real marriage", a union between a man and a woman before God and the Church. It argued in a comment that was made public: "Two people of the same sex do not have the right to enter into marriage. As for the State, it cannot recognise this inexistent right, unless it acts arbitrarily in a manner that oversteps its prerogatives and would do serious harm to public interest." (A favor del verdadero matrimonio. Nota del Comité Ejecutivo de la Conferencia Episcopal Española. Madrid, 15 de julio de 2004). The full text is available on the website of the bishops’ conference.
In this text, the bishops’ Conference assigned procreation as the fundamental purpose of marriage. As a result, since two people of the same sex cannot procreate, granting them marriage rights would mean stripping marriage of its essential meaning. In the same way, the Conference refuses the government’s right to legislate on issues that it considers to be under its scope of competence. The Church thus shows its refusal to recognise the religious neutrality of the State and denies one of the foundations of the democratic system, which is the legitimacy of legislative power, representing the people, to regulate their lives through law. In this way, the Catholic hierarchy itself made the issue regarding the necessity of initiating the separation between Church and State reappear at the centre of the political debate.

  • September 2004: Financing the Church

Faced with the constant oppositions from the Catholic hierarchy regarding its reform propositions, the government was forced to approach the issue of funding the Catholic Church, an integral part of the debate surrounding Church-State relations. Since the Concordat that was signed with the Spanish government in 1979, the Catholic Church has been primarily financed by the portion of the State budget that each government in power has allocated for this purpose. The entire hierarchy of the church, from cardinals to the village priests, receive a proportional percentage of that money. Moreover, each taxpayer can voluntarily contribute to financing the Church by allocating a portion of their income tax to this purpose on their yearly tax return form. The Catholic Church is the only civil institution that can receive this direct contribution by means of the tax return form. This situation is partially the result of the political community’s desire, during the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy, to maintain an understanding with an institution like the Church, which because of its social influence could make the establishment of the new regime more difficult. For this reason, the role and privileges of the Church were never questioned (the Catholic Church, among other things, does not pay taxes).
The persistence of the Catholic hierarchy of Spain to deny the legitimacy of legislation to regulate aspects that the Church considers to be of its competence, the warlike language it uses, going as far as to brandish a threat of a mobilisation of the masses (El País, 24 de septiembre de 2004: "La Iglesia anima a los católicos a manifestarse contra el Gobierno") provoked the Government to threaten the financing system of the Catholic Church. The debate is still open but the last budget presented in Parliament still attributed the Church its usual financial subsidy.

D 21 October 2004    AFernando Bravo López

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