Wednesday, June 29, 2005

El Cid meets Ralph Reed

The Catholic Church in Spain refuses to die. Like it's troublesome founder, the Church rises from the death of irrelevancy. Controversy ensues. Especially within the Roman Catholic Church of SpainJohn Allen ("The Word from Rome") of the National Catholic Reporter has this close-up. Spain under the socialists has clearly tilted hard to the left. Spanish Catholics faithful to the magisterium have clearly been frustrated by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's seeming contempt for Tradition. The well-reported rally in opposition to Spain's Gay "Marriage" bill clearly delivers the message that Catholics will not roll over on the issue. The trouble for many Spanish Catholics, though, is whether such apparently partisan efforts will disrupt the unity of Catholics. The memory of Franco's national Catholicism still lingers among older Spanish citizens. Some may fear that an aggressive and political Catholic Church may remind too many Spaniards of those dark days. That could ultimately cause the Church's public efforts to backfire. Mr. Allen discusses the complexities right out of the gate:

In the highly polarized context of Spanish politics, strong rhetoric is par for the course. Even by that standard, however, the church-state clash that has gripped the country for more than a year has been nasty. Catholics angered by what they see as a Socialist onslaught in favor of gay marriage, divorce and other hot-button issues have accused the leftist government of seeking the “destruction of the church”; not to be outdone, the left has accused the church of never getting over its nostalgia for Franco and Spain’s version of a Fascist police state.

Since necessity is sometimes the mother of invention, observers across the Catholic world have been waiting to see if this crisis might stimulate Spanish Catholics to invent a new model of resistance -- a new battle plan, so to speak, for the struggle against what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism” in the secular West.

That model made its debut on the streets of Madrid June 18 -- and to judge from the experience, it was as if El Cid had hired Ralph Reed.

On Saturday, throngs of Spaniards (organizers claimed 1.5 million, Spanish police said 166,000, and most estimates settled on around 500,000), along with 19 bishops, showed up in Madrid to demonstrate in favor of the family, and against a new gay marriage law. The most galvanized participants seemed to blend a robust, uncompromising defense of their country’s Catholic roots, in the manner of the legendary crusader El Cid, with the grassroots political savvy of America’s religious right, associated with former Christian Coalition strategist Ralph Reed.
At a glance
Nowhere are the culture wars hotter than in Spain, where the ruling Socialists are pursuing an ambitious program on gay marriage, divorce, euthanasia and other issues. Catholics are fighting back, and brought a half million people into the streets of Madrid June 18. Some Spanish Catholics believe this campaign, with parallels to the American religious right, is too partisan and divisive. The debate will have broader implications for the political role of the church under Benedict XVI.

In Rome, there’s keen interest in Spain, in part because Vatican officials worry that the Italian left may come to power in looming national elections and, to some extent, take their cues from their Spanish cousins; in part because Spain is key to Pope Benedict’s desire to reawaken the Christian roots of Europe; and in part because Spain is an important point of reference for Latin America, where almost half of the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world today live.

What is coming into focus in Spain may therefore hint at the broader political and cultural strategy of the Catholic church under Benedict XVI, and the tensions inside and outside the church that strategy might generate.
Some Catholics, however, including a portion of the country’s bishops, weren’t so thrilled with this kind of counterattack. To them, the muscular Catholicism on display June 18 seemed excessive -- too partisan, too confrontational, too reminiscent of the not-so-distant days of the Civil War, when church-state disputes in Spain often ended in blood.

The result is division among Spanish Catholics about the best way to defend the church’s message on life, the family and marriage. How that division is resolved, and the lessons learned from it, could have implications for Roman Catholicism everywhere.

He then makes a fair summary of the issues that the Spanish Church faces:

The Spanish experience thus throws several hard questions into relief:

* How to influence public affairs without becoming identified with a partisan political option, thereby alienating broad sectors of public opinion and aggravating divisions within the church.
* How to construct a comprehensive pro-family movement that would be as articulate about health care and housing as it is about gay marriage.
* How to ensure that street protests and political debate do not distract the church from evangelizing society from the bottom up -- since, among other things, political programs that don’t reflect a genuine social consensus seem destined to fail.

The Spanish scenario raises questions for the Church's engagement of Europe. Small wonder that the Vatican supports the rallies and the general approach of the groups that organized it. In the highly socialist world of Western Europe, there can be little effective evangelization of the culture without a corresponding prophetic cry to the Elite powers that govern the Nation-states. Not to mention Brussels! There's certainly the risk that the Catholic Church may inadvertantly initiate a backlash. What, however, are the long-term consequences of such boldness? Mass attendance is at record lows. Aside from the Italian referendum on IVF, etc. the Church had a terrible losing streak in European politics. True, state subsidies could go under attack. This pales in comparison to the consequences that will happen should the Church do nothing.

Catholicism is irrelevent to many elites. This attitude has filtered down to the average blokes over the last twenty-forty years. One of my brothers-in -law in Portugal attends Mass. The rest don't bother themselves, including my youngest nephews over there. They are the norm of Portugal, and Portugal is the norm of Western Europe. The Church needs to shake things up. She needs to convince Europeans that only the Gospel will satisfy the yearning of their hearts. They must demonstrate how relevent a person's relationship with Christ through his Body on Earth truly is. She must stand for those laws and policies that support the Truth about human dignity and the Common Good. She must boldly oppose those that don't.

If the Church fails to evangelize, then why should Europeans bother to change? If the Church comes off as not seeming to care about the Gospel, why should they? If the Church is to evangelize, then it must do so culturally and politically. If She fails to do either, she fails to do both.

This is certainly not the hierarchy's fight alone. In fact, evangelization of the world falls to the Laity. However, Catholics in Europe that want to work at turning back the tide need to know they're not alone. The encouragement, support and, where appropriate, leadership of bishops and priests will ensure that the laity evangelize with confidence. The Church in Italy and Spain have modelled how this can be done. The rest of Europe's Catholics should follow.