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A Church-State Schism in Spain

Parishioners celebrate the Eucharist in Madrid's Inmaculada Cathedral. Four out of five Spaniards call themselves Catholic but half are non-practicing.
Parishioners celebrate the Eucharist in Madrid's Inmaculada Cathedral. Four out of five Spaniards call themselves Catholic but half are non-practicing. (By Santi Burgos -- Bloomberg News)

"This is why the Vatican cannot understand same-sex marriages and adoptions, abortions and all those issues," Bueno said. "They are asking, 'How is it possible that Spain, such a Catholic country, is experiencing this?' At the same time, there is a fear that other countries of Hispanic and Catholic tradition, particularly in Latin and South America, could follow Spain's model. So I think the Holy See is playing very strongly in Spain, because it considers it a fortress of the faith."

Officials on both sides of the issue agree that the government is trying to change a relationship forged by Spain's 1978 constitution, which restored democracy to the country after four decades of Franco's rule. The new constitution abolished Catholicism as the official religion of Spain -- but granted it favored treatment, with generous state funding and other perks.

"The Spanish church should start a trend toward self-financing," said Moraleda, the government spokesman, noting that the state currently gives the church about $3.9 billion a year. "It's the best-treated church in Europe," he said.

In the meantime, about 400 same-sex marriages were performed in the first six months after such unions were legalized last April, Moraleda said. Because of extensive economic and social studies required for adoptions, no child has yet been awarded to a same-sex couple.

Those and other changes were needed, he said, because the Spanish people, in their lifestyles and attitudes, "had gotten ahead of their government." He added that "the hierarchy of the church has to adapt to the speed of society, not the other way around."

Many Spaniards say they are caught in the middle, eager to support the church but wanting to curtail its powers. Opinion polls show that about 80 percent of Spanish parents want their children to study religion in school, according to Alejandro Munoz Alonso, a professor of public opinion at Madrid's San Pablo University CEU and a senator from the opposition Popular Party.

Other polls show that two-thirds of Spaniards approve of the government's decision to legalize gay marriage.

As in the United States, the Catholic Church in Spain has suffered from declining attendance, fewer men joining the priesthood and sexual scandals. Spanish society has at the same time experienced a rise in HIV and AIDS, abortions, acceptance of homosexuality and other phenomena that strike at church teachings.

"The state has fallen behind its people and needs to reform and modernize itself, and it's time to get the church out of the schools," said Ana Carballeira, 40, a social worker visiting Madrid from Ferrol, a small port town 380 miles northwest of the capital. At the same time, she said, "the church -- its monuments, cathedrals and artworks -- are part of the Spanish patrimony and should continue to be funded by the state."

"The church is doing a good job in the schools, but they try to exert too much influence on the government, and they shouldn't," said Carlos Solans, 32, an economist with Telefonica, Spain's biggest telecommunications company.

"The church ought to be more tolerant, but the government ought to meet them halfway," particularly because so many of Spain's new immigrants are Muslim, said Jose Moya, 40, a flower vendor on Barcelona's famed La Rambla pedestrian boulevard.

Other people were less compromising. "The government is trying to modernize, but the church is against divorce, abortion -- everything!" snapped Maria Campo, 69, a tourist from Seville who was visiting the Barcelona Cathedral.

"The church is not against the government -- it's defending its values," said Ignacio Arsuaga, a 32-year-old Madrid attorney and founder of (which means, roughly, Listen up!), a pro-church Web site that last summer helped to organize a demonstration in Madrid against gay marriage that drew 500,000 people, including 20 Catholic bishops.

Special correspondent Pamela Rolfe contributed to this report.

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