MADRID -- For centuries, the Vatican considered Spain the most Catholic country of Europe. The Spanish defeat of the Muslims at Granada in 1492 consolidated Roman Catholicism's hold on the continent, and the Inquisition rooted out those who failed to adhere to the strict Catholic line. Spain's conquest of the Americas extended the Vatican's reach. And Spain gave birth to such pious religious orders as the Dominicans, the Jesuits and Opus Dei.
But just as the Catholic Church has seen its political and moral influence waning across an increasingly secular modern-day Europe, so, too, has Spain -- intensely Catholic Spain -- been slowly but steadily shaking free of the church's once ironclad grip. Spanish society is changing, and the new Socialist government, in power for one year, has been pushing through a series of new policies -- from easing restrictions on divorce and abortion to recognizing gay marriage -- that it says reflects those changes.
A nun and a young boy look at a statue of Pope John Paul II outside La Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. Only 14 percent of young people in Spain describe themselves as religious, according to surveys, and church attendance has fallen.
(Manu Fernandez -- AP)
For the next pope chosen by cardinals to replace John Paul II, the question of how to stem the Catholic Church's erosion in Europe looms as one of the most daunting challenges. Its traditional bastion in Europe is in decline, and its doctrines are under threat even in such predominantly Catholic countries as Italy, with its debate over artificial insemination, and in Ireland, which has eased some restrictions on divorce. John Paul tried, and failed, to have a reference to Europe's Christian heritage included in the new European Union constitution, which instead refers to the continent's Roman and Greek heritage.
Regular church attendance in Spain, like elsewhere in Europe, has steadily fallen, and today only 14 percent of young people describe themselves as religious, according to surveys. The number of priests and monks has been shrinking. Divorce has risen. And despite the Vatican's official ban on contraception, Spain has one of Europe's lowest birth rates.
Catholicism remains deeply embedded in Spanish culture -- religious holy days are national holidays, most Spaniards still appreciate lavish church weddings and a child's First Communion remains a rite of passage. But increasingly for many younger Spaniards, these traditions have become devoid of religious meaning.
"Sociologically speaking, Spain is Catholic, though practice is decreasing in the last 15 or 20 years," said Jose Ignacio Viton, a Jesuit professor of theology at Pontificia Comillas University, a Jesuit-run school in Madrid. Spaniards, he said, "don't feel very close to the regulations, the dogma, the morality of the church. They feel respect for the church. They agree with the values the church defends. But they don't have the ability to show it in their ordinary lives, to live according to the precepts."
He added: "In the majority of churches, you find old people, and only a few young people. You will find classical concerts. You will find people visiting for the art. But not anymore a place for prayer."
Pontificia Comillas University, with 13,000 students, itself might be called indicative of the change in Spaniards' view of the church. Originally founded as a seminary to instruct candidates for religious orders, the school is now known for its programs in law, business, engineering and economics. Viton teaches an introduction to religion class, which is compulsory, and the class is filled. But he said his advanced-level courses on theology and religion, which are optional, attract only a small number of students.
Viton said that the students who come here to study are more likely to be religious than young people in the general Spanish population. But he said only about half the students chose this university for its religious curriculum.
Rosa Cernada, 22, a law student at Pontificia Comillas, said she considered herself "more faithful than practicing." In her class of about 50 students, she said, only about 20 percent are practicing Catholics, meaning they regularly attend weekly Mass. Most of her friends came here, she said, because "in Spain, there is a traditional view that Jesuit education is very good."
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been targeting those young people with a series of measures considered popular in Spain's fast-changing society, but which pose a challenge to the church hierarchy and its traditional power.
Zapatero's Socialist Workers' Party won elections last March, and one of the government's first acts was to begin pushing through legislation to legalize gay marriage. The law is expected to be finalized this summer, placing Spain with the Netherlands and Belgium as countries in Europe where gays enjoy full matrimonial rights, including adoption rights.
"I'm convinced that with respect to moral issues, the church is speaking to a vacuum -- no one is listening," said Beatriz Gimeno, 42, president of the State Federation of Lesbians, Gays and Transsexuals.
The government has also promised new laws to ease restrictions on divorce by reducing waiting times, and on abortion, which is already legal in Spain, with some conditions.