The Catholic Church in Spain—The Abuse of Power
“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”—Edmund Burke.
THE man who wielded the greatest power in 16th-century Europe was Philip II, king of Catholic Spain. His vast empire, “on which the sun never set,” stretched from Mexico to the Philippines, from the Netherlands to the Cape of Good Hope.
But his ambitions were religious rather than political—to defend Catholicism in Europe and to spread the faith throughout his empire. Reared by priests, he was convinced that the Catholic Church was the ultimate bulwark of his monarchy and of civilization itself. Above all, he was a child of the church.
To further the cause of Catholicism, he gave his blessing to the cruel methods of the Inquisition; he fought against Protestants in the Netherlands and against Turkish “infidels” in the Mediterranean; he reluctantly married Mary Tudor, an ailing English queen, in a fruitless attempt to provide her with a Catholic heir; he later dispatched the “invincible” but ill-fated Armada to wrest England from the Protestant fold; and at his death he left his country bankrupt—despite huge infusions of gold from the colonies.
The Inquisition—Three Centuries of Repression
Next to the king, the most powerful man in Spain was the inquisitor general. His duty was to keep Spanish Catholicism undefiled and orthodox. The unorthodox kept their opinions to themselves or went into exile, provided the agents of the Inquisition did not find them first. Everyone, with the possible exception of the king, was vulnerable to the Inquisition’s power and abuse thereof—not even the Catholic hierarchy was above suspicion.
The archbishop of Toledo was imprisoned for seven years on the flimsiest of evidence, despite repeated papal protests. Nobody in Spain dared to speak in his defense. It was argued that ‘it is better for an innocent man to be condemned than for the Inquisition to suffer disgrace.’
The Inquisition accompanied the conquistadores to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. In 1539, just a few years after the conquest of Mexico, Aztec chief Ometochtzin was accused of idolatry, on the evidence of his own ten-year-old son. Despite his plea for freedom of conscience, he was condemned to death. In the colonies, as in Spain, the Bible in the vernacular was forbidden. Jerónimo López wrote in 1541: “It is a most dangerous error to teach science to the Indians and still more to put the Bible . . . into their hands. . . . Many people in our Spain have been lost that way.”
For three centuries the Inquisition kept its narrow vigil over Spain and its empire until it finally ran out of money and victims. And without victims, who were obliged to pay heavy penalties, the whole machine ground to a halt.a
Winds of Change
With the demise of the Inquisition, 19th-century Spain saw a growth in liberalism and a gradual decline of Catholic power. Church lands—until that time they constituted a third of all the cultivated land—were confiscated by successive governments. In the 1930’s, socialist prime minister Azaña declared: “Spain has ceased to be Catholic,” and his government acted accordingly.
The church was completely separated from the State, and subsidies to the clergy were abolished. Education was to be nonreligious, and even civil marriage and divorce were introduced. Cardinal Segura lamented this ‘severe blow’ and feared for the survival of the nation. It seemed that Catholicism was destined to an inevitable decline when, in 1936, a military uprising rocked the nation.
Civil War—A Cruel Crusade
The army generals who led the coup were motivated by political considerations, but soon the conflict took on religious overtones. Within a few weeks of the uprising, the church, whose power had already been undermined by recent legislation, suddenly found itself the target of widespread and vicious assault.b Thousands of priests and monks were killed by fanatical opposers of the military coup, who equated the Spanish church with a dictatorship. Churches and monasteries were plundered and burned. In some parts of Spain, just wearing a priest’s cassock was enough to sign a man’s death warrant. It was as if the monster of the Inquisition had returned from the grave in order to engulf its own progenitors.
Faced with this threat, the Spanish church turned once again to the secular powers—in this case the military—to champion its cause and to restore the nation to Catholic orthodoxy. But first the civil war had to be sanctified as a “holy war,” a “crusade” in the defense of Christianity.
Cardinal Gomá, archbishop of Toledo and primate of Spain, wrote: “Is the war in Spain a civil war? No. It is the fight of those without God . . . against the true Spain, against the Catholic religion.” He called General Franco, the leader of the insurgents, the “instrument of God’s plans on the earth.” Other Spanish bishops expressed similar sentiments.
Of course, the truth was not that simple. Many on the Republican side of the conflict were also sincere Catholics, especially in the Basque region, a traditionally Catholic stronghold. Thus, the civil war found Catholics fighting Catholics—all in the cause of Spanish Catholicism, according to the bishops’ definition of the conflict.c
When Franco’s forces finally overran the Basque Provinces, they executed 14 priests and imprisoned many more. French philosopher Jacques Maritain, writing about atrocities committed against the Basque Catholics, observed that “the Holy War hates the believers that don’t serve it more fervently than the unbelievers.”
After three years of mutual atrocities and bloodletting, the civil war came to an end, with a victory for Franco’s forces. From 600,000 to 800,000 Spaniards died, many of them because of the harsh reprisals of the victorious forces.d Unfazed, Cardinal Gomá asserted in a pastoral letter: “Nobody can deny that the power that has resolved this war has been God himself, his religion, his statutes, his law, his existence, and his recurring influence in our history.”
From the establishment of the Inquisition in the 15th century to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), with few exceptions, Church and State had made common cause. Doubtless, their mutual interests had been served by this unholy alliance. Nevertheless, five centuries of temporal power—and the accompanying abuses—had seriously undermined the church’s spiritual authority, as our following article will show.
a The last victim was a hapless schoolmaster who was hanged in Valencia in 1826 for using the phrase “Praise be to God” instead of “Ave Maria” in school prayers.
b According to a church report by Canon Arboleya in 1933, the working man considered the church an intrinsic part of the rich and privileged class that was exploiting him. Arboleya explained: “The masses fled from the Church because they believed it their greatest adversary.”
c Some Catholic priests actually fought in Franco’s armies. The parish priest of Zafra, Extremadura, was especially notorious for his brutality. On the other hand, a few priests bravely protested the killing of suspected Republican sympathizers—and at least one was executed for this reason. Cardinal Vidal y Barraquer, who tried to maintain an impartial position throughout the conflict, was obliged by Franco’s government to remain in exile until his death in 1943.
d Exact figures are impossible to obtain, and calculations are approximate.
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The Spanish Civil War—The Bishops’ Pronouncements
Soon after the outset of the war (1936), Cardinal Gomá described the conflict as a fight between “Spain and anti-Spain, religion and atheism, Christian civilization and barbarism.”
La Guerra de España, 1936-1939, page 261.
The bishop of Cartagena said: “Blessed are the cannons, if the Gospel flourishes in the breaches they open.”
La Guerra de España, 1936-1939, pages 264-5.
On July 1, 1937, the Spanish bishops issued a collective letter outlining the Catholic position on the civil war. Among other things, it stated the following:
“The church, despite its peaceful spirit, . . . could not be indifferent to the fight. . . . In Spain there was no other way to reconquer justice, peace, and the benefits that derive from them than through the National Movement [Franco’s Fascist forces].”
“We believe that the name National Movement is appropriate, first because of its spirit, which reflects the way of thinking of the large majority of the Spanish people, and it is the only hope for the entire nation.”
Enciclopedia Espasa-Calpe, supplement 1936-1939, pages 1553-5.
Catholic bishops in other countries were quick to support their Spanish colleagues. Cardinal Verdier, archbishop of Paris, described the civil war as “a fight between the Christian civilization and the . . . civilization of atheism,” while Cardinal Faulhaber of Germany exhorted all Germans to pray in behalf of those who “defend the sacred rights of God, that He may grant victory to those who fight in [this] holy war.”
Enciclopedia Espasa-Calpe, supplement 1936-1939, pages 1556-7.
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From this monastery-palace complex of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Philip II ruled over his empire, “on which the sun never set”