The countdown is on, only a few days until World Youth Day in Madrid. A mammoth event that will require the utmost commitment from all involved. This is exactly what the government and the Catholic Church in Spain seem to have taken to heart.
Cooperation could not be better, stresses Madrid's archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela. The words of praise for the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero may come as a surprise to some. After all, in recent years the relationship between church and government has been marked by numerous conflicts. For years, Spaniards have been accustomed mainly to criticism from Varela, who as president of the Spanish Bishops' Conference repeatedly came down hard on the socialist government's "anti-clerical" legislative initiatives.
In the view of the Catholic Church, there were plenty of reasons for criticism. First, Prime Minister Zapatero passed the so-called express divorce in the course of his social reforms. Shortly thereafter, the new marriage law legalizing same-sex marriage and granting homosexual couples the right to adopt caused controversy. The reform of the abortion law, which gives minors over the age of 16 the right to have an abortion without the consent of their parents, had a high potential for conflict. The dispute between the Spanish bishops and the government escalated to such an extent that even Pope Benedict XVI. Called on both sides to show restraint.
No peace in the long run
A few days before World Youth Day, on the other hand, it seems that the harmony between the government and the Church could hardly be greater. There is virtually no criticism in the Spanish press, either from one side or the other. One reason for the government's reluctance is the parliamentary elections in November, before which it does not want to anger Catholic voters. The church, on the other hand, is keeping quiet because it relies on help from the government to host the mass event.
However, the truce does not seem to be permanent. "We have by no means forgotten the conflicts, nor have we stopped drawing attention to them," Cardinal Varela told the Catholic News Agency (KNA). The Church does not seek conflict, but will not refrain from communicating the Gospel message in the future. He said the government's anti-clerical legislative reforms are aimed at transforming society. The Church is extremely critical of this "secular orientation". In any case, secularization in Spain is progressing ever faster, Varela said.
Hoping for the WYD effect
Surveys by the government polling institute (CIS) seem to confirm that. According to the report, the number of professing Catholics in Spain has fallen by ten percent in the past ten years to 71.7 percent. Only about half of newborns are baptized, less than half of all marriages are performed at the altar. Fewer and fewer parents are reportedly enrolling their children in religious education classes, which are now voluntary.
While Spain is still considered one of Europe's core Christian countries – Pope Benedict XVI. will not have an easy homecoming, however, when he sets foot on Spanish soil next week. Nevertheless, Cardinal Varela hopes the Pope will have a positive influence on Spaniards. "His visit will be an incentive for many to take Catholicism, which is part of the Spanish tradition, more seriously again."