Church and State on a collision course in Spain
Cardinal Juan José Omella, new president of Spanish bishops' conference, will face tense discussions with fledgling left-wing government.
A procession during Holy Week at the Beatriz Galindo School in Seville in March 2015. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP)
Cardinal Juan José Omella of Barcelona, considered one of Pope Francis' strongest allies among European bishops, has been elected president of the Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE).
Omella, who has headed the Church in the capital of Catalonia since 2015, was chosen on March 3 to replace Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez Pérez of Valladolid who could not stand for re-election.
The new CEE president will be 74 in April. He was seen as the front-runner going into the election and was considered the pope's preferred candidate.
His election comes at a crucial moment in Church-State relations in Spain.
As the country's 87 Catholic bishops cast ballots for their new leader, its fledgling left-wing coalition government was due to approve an education bill that calls into question the importance of Catholicism in the Spanish school system.
The proposed law is expected to increase tensions between the government and the bishops.
It calls for a review of the system for distributing pupils between public and private schools, the vast majority of which are Catholic.
"The authorities will first of all fill the public schools," said Pedro José Caballero, president of the Concapa, the federation of parents of Catholic schoolchildren.
He and many other Spanish Catholics believe the government's real aim is to move towards a "nationalized education" system.
"Left-wing politicians don't want the Church to be involved in education," said Caballero, who is elected by the parents but approved by the CEE.
"State education at the expense of the parents"
"The attack on private schools is an attack on the Church," said Oscar Rivas Pérez, director of communications at the Educatio Servanda Foundation.
The foundation was created in 2006 as a reaction to the "indoctrination laws" and "aggressive monocultural secularism" of the then socialist government. It has a dozen Catholic schools in Spain, according to its director Juan Carlos Corvera.
Educatio Servanda is run by lay people, but the local bishop is a de facto member of the board of directors.
Marianist Brother José Maria Alvira is general secretary of Escuelas catolicas, a federation of some 2,000 Catholic schools. He says left-wing governments tend to priortize "state education at the expense of parents".
"They (the government) operate through ideology and lies," he says.
"They want to dominate and control education according to the Marxist ideology of nationalizing everything," he says, pointing out that for first time since 1939 a communist is a minister in the Spanish government.
Antonio Gómez, president of the Europa Laica association, takes the completely opposite view.
His organization promotes the secularization of Spain, which was officially declared non-confessional in the 1978 constitution.
And he believes it is the Catholic schools, or at least some of them, that young people are being "indoctrinated".
"They see themselves as the pure in a society that doesn't understand them, and they are recruited," he says.
Gómez believes Spanish society is better off the the less the state has to do with Catholic education.
The Church's financial resources
Nevertheless, the distribution of students is not the only are of conflict between the Church and the Spanish government.
The latter wants to make the teaching of the Catholic religion optional and not for credit. It has been compulsory in public schools since in 1978 under agreement with the Holy See.
At present, this subject counts towards the general average, and students who do not wish to take it must choose another course of study, either religious or civic.
"It's not a question of catechesis, but of religious formation that helps us ask the fundamental questions," Brother Alvira says.
"It should be obligatory not because of an international agreement, but for its educational value," he adds
The Marianist says he's open to allowing administrators to play a role in selecting religion teachers. That is currently the responsibility of the bishops, even the state pays the teachers' salaries.
The issue of education is symbolic of Church-State tensions at present. But it is not only the issue.
The left-wing government coalition intends to tax Church buildings not dedicated to worship. Especially since the CEE announced that it received more than 122 million euros last year in "income from inheritance and economic activities".
The Church also receives donations from the faithful, religious tax revenues from the government. This last source of income is so important that, in addition to funding religious activities, it subsidizes the CEE-owned television channel, Trece.
"The Church should strip itself of all ties to power"
"The Church is very good at raising funds and the majority's plans for taxation remain unclear," says Gómez, not without bitterness.
Redes Cristianas, a progressive Catholic association that is very critical of the bishops, agrees with the president of Europa Laica.
"The Church is privileged," said its three spokespersons in unison.
"It should strip itself from all ties with the authorities because they are chained to power and this prevents the Church from being truly prophetic," said Raquel Mallavibarrena, one of the spokespersons.
A priest, who has held high office in the Archdiocese of Madrid, disagreed with that.
"The Church does not have privileges, but rights and duties," he said.
In particular, he emphasized the importance of Catholic institutions for Spain's health care system.
"If Catholic hospitals were closed down, half of the Spanish population would be left unprotected; the same goes for retirement homes," he said.
He said tax exemptions and Church revenues could be fully justified because of this societal good.
Euthanasia is a third issue that is seen as a battleground between the Catholic bishops and and the left-wing government.
There currently is a bill that would allow people suffering from serious and incurable illnesses to request euthanasia, provided they are autonomous, informed and conscious.
The Association of Christian Health Professionals (Prosac) would not comment, but referred only to documents the bishops have issued.
As is often the case in Spain, the CEE has has once again sought to strictly control the Catholic reaction.
It will be interesting to see how its newly elected president, Cardinal Omella, decides to do that.