Pope John Paul II today postponed his first visit to Spain until after the national elections on Oct. 28 in the hopes of ending criticism of the church's role in the campaigning.
The decision was taken after consultations with the president of the Spanish Bishops Conference, Msgr. Gabino Diaz Merchan. The trip has been reset to begin Oct. 31 or Nov. 1 and will include the original itinerary, Diaz Merchan announced after returning from Rome.
The long-scheduled papal visit became an issue after Spanish Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo announced Aug. 27 that parliament would be dissolved and set elections for Oct. 28. The Socialists are expected to win the election, returning to power for the first time since the civil war.
Left-wing political parties accused Calvo-Sotelo's center-right government of choosing the date to capitalize on the trip, which had been scheduled for Oct. 14-22.
The leftist parties had charged that during his trip John Paul would be bound to speak on topics such as the extent of religious education in schools, recently enacted divorce legislation and existing bans on abortion. His views on those subjects would favor positions taken by rightist parties in this predominantly Roman Catholic country, the leftists argued.
In addition, the 16-city tour is scheduled to include trips to the Basque country and to Catalonia in the northeast where the pope is expected to speak in the vernacular languages of Basque and Catalan. This could be interpreted as backing for the local nationalist parties, which seek varying degrees of separation from Madrid.
The links between the Catholic Church and rightists in Spain were cemented during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, which was viewed by Gen. Francisco Franco's insurgents as a Christian crusade against communism and atheism. Franco continued this close alliance with the church and enjoyed wide powers over the appointment of bishops.
Following the Second Vatican Council meeting of church officials from 1963 to 1965, the Spanish church deliberately sought to loosen its close identification with Francoism. The archbishop of Madrid spoke out following Franco's death for democratic freedoms.
The prospect of the pope being greeted in Spain by a socialist administration is welcomed by both progressive church officials and by the left-wing parties. Both see it as a sign that the Spanish left has dropped its traditional opposition to the church and that the Spanish church plays a pastoral role that transcends political options.
Initial reaction to the postponement came from the Socialist Party spokesman who termed it "a victory for common sense."