MADRID The center of this city was nearly shut down recently by two competing events, each of which drew hundreds of thousands of people.
The first was organized with the backing of the Roman Catholic Church and the conservative opposition party to protest government-sponsored legislation that would allow same-sex marriages. Nineteen bishops and a cardinal took part.
The second event, on the same day, June 18, was a concert by Carlinhos Brown, the Brazilian samba star, on the Castellana, Madrid’s major thoroughfare. It had no overt political message, beyond Brown’s exhortations for personal freedom and mutual respect, which were met with jubilation by the dancing crowd.
Religion is rapidly losing strength and influence in politics here. Even though this country was once the global bastion of conservative Catholicism, gay marriage is expected to become legal this month, under the most liberal such law in Europe.
This is a troubling challenge for the Roman Catholic Church, whose new pope, Benedict XVI, has expressed a strong concern about the decline of religious feeling in Europe.
Northern Europe has a long history of secularism, but southern Europe is catching up, with the changes in Spain swift and sometimes jarring. The church here was deeply intertwined with the state during most of Spanish history, until well into the last half of the 20th century.
In comparison, France has had a forceful tradition of secularism in the two centuries since its revolution, while in Italy the church has witnessed rising secularism without the level of rancor here.
In Spain, said Alfonso Perez-Agote, a sociology professor in Madrid who studies religion, the leaders of the church were finding it difficult to let go of their power. “This has been a very publicly political church,” he said.
The church leaders blame the Socialist Party, which took power shortly after the terrorist bombings here on March 11, 2004. But the government’s policies have wide public support. Two-thirds of the Spanish public have supported the gay marriage law in recent polls, according to the Center for Sociological Investigation, a nonpartisan, government-supported research organization. And while 80 percent of Spaniards refer to themselves as Catholic, only 20 percent regularly attend church.
“For the majority of Spaniards, in everyday life and in politics, we have almost a shameful situation,” said the Reverend Leopoldo Vives Soto, who heads the secretariat on family and life for the Spanish Conference of Bishops.
Spaniards have been shedding traditional Catholic doctrine from their private lives, and from the law, since the 1970s, the last days of the Franco regime, which was closely allied with the church hierarchy. Divorce and abortion were legalized in the 1980s and early 1990s under a Socialist government, although those early changes included many legal caveats that deferred to Catholicism.
The new century began with the conservative Popular Party in power and closely aligned with the church. But the pace of change picked up once the Socialists regained power last year.
A mandatory separation period before divorce has been scrapped, laws on in vitro fertilization have been loosened and the previous government’s attempt to make Christianity a mandatory subject in school has been replaced with the option of studying other religions, including Islam – and by making religion an extracurricular activity.
For the church, the government’s policies are confounding. “They want religion to disappear in public life,” Vives, the reverend, said. “They want the voice of the church to disappear.”
But Spaniards themselves are rejecting the role of the church in dictating personal mores.
A poll taken in the spring by the Center for Sociological Investigation found that Spaniards’ hopes for the new pope were that he would help the poor, at 60 percent, and open up to changes, at 45 percent. Only 5 percent hoped he would defend strict moral values.
Church leaders say this secularism began in force with the consumerism that started in the 1970s. Church leaders also note that there has been a long strain of anticlericalism among the leftists in Spain.
The turnout in Madrid two weekends ago showed, at the same time, that significant numbers of Spaniards still cared deeply about the church as a font of moral values.
Fernando Lobo, a 30-year-old chemist from Seville who attended the rally with his wife and two young children, said gay marriage was wrong. Still, he noted that it was too late to stop the law. “The battle is lost,” he said.
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