What “Catholic Spain” Really Looks Like

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What “Catholic Spain” Really Looks Like

Kathleen Reeves

Jason Webb creates false divisions by placing the Church at the center of political discourse in Spain—by depicting it as a great force that you’re either for or against.

A Reuters FaithWorld blog post assesses Zapatero’s proposal of a less restrictive abortion law, making some curious assumptions along the way.

The first sentence:

In a country like Spain, where a large majority still identify themselves as at least more-or-less Catholic, you’d think the government would shy away from taking on the Roman Catholic Church.


Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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The linked portion of the sentence leads to a Wikipedia article on “Roman Catholicism in Spain,” which indeed states that 90% of Spaniards are baptized Catholics. But the same article cites a 2006 survey that found that only 19% of Spaniards who call themselves religious go to Church every Sunday. (Missing even one Mass is a mortal sin for Catholics.) The phenomenon of the lapsed Catholic is not unique to Spain; people all over the world have different ways of self-identifying when it comes to religion, and it’s hard to tell from a person’s religious “status” what their religious beliefs are.

But when speaking of Spain, it’s also important to consider that the Catholic tradition is particularly strong, which is perhaps what the writer of the Reuters post, Jason Webb, was getting at. It’s unsurprising that 90% of the population is baptized. Therefore, though, it’s also unsurprising that many of these baptized Catholics may not be practicing Catholics at all, but that, according to national or family tradition, they may identify as “religious” or “Catholic.” 

There’s a second question of the relationship between religious beliefs and political beliefs. As in America, religious people are capable of forming political or social beliefs independently from clerical influence. Some practicing Catholics don’t agree with the church on every issue. Others, perhaps more importantly, do not believe that their personal, religiously-held beliefs should be legislated. They may think gay marriage and abortion are wrong, but they won’t vote that way because they don’t think all of their countrymen and women should have to agree with them. Or they won’t make these issues their bottom-line issues.

The legacy of Franco, who aligned himself with the Catholic Church, certainly plays a role in the way Spaniards think about church and state today. But Jason Webb’s allegation that Zapatero is driven by the desire to upset the Catholic Church is misguided. He accuses Zapatero of proposing the abortion law as a distraction from Spain’s troubled economy, and of orchestrating an increasingly polarized political scene:  


Only one thing is now missing for the manoeuvre to attain political perfection, i.e. to lure the main opposition Popular Party, traditionally allied to the Church, into aligning itself with the religious authorities.  From there, thanks to the historical closeness of the Church to the former dictator Francisco Franco, it is but a short rhetorical jump for the Socialists to accuse the PP of being on the extreme right and out of touch.


Webb doubtless has in mind Zapatero’s other big social policy initiative, the legalization of gay marriage in 2005. It’s wrong, however, to classify the support of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights as church-baiting. Webb creates false divisions by placing the Church at the center of political discourse in Spain—by depicting it as a great force that you’re either for or against. In Spain, a country with room for both religion and secularism, the Church does not have to be our frame of reference in debates over abortion and same-sex marriage.

Finally, Webb’s dark prophecies about the law—he calls it a “miscalculation”—are unconvincing:  


Even more damagingly, Socialists don’t seem to like the law either, with one poll showing 56 percent of Socialist voters against allowing 16 year old girls to abort without parental consent.


Similarly, according to a poll released in May, less than half of Americans identified as “pro-choice,” but as numerous analysts have pointed out, polls sometimes oversimplify or misunderstand complicated issues. And there have been very important policy initiatives, in Spain, the US, and elsewhere, that the majority of the public is not initially behind. My prediction: the abortion storm that alarmists are forecasting in Spain will blow over very soon.