The eclipse of God

One of the many things that fascinated, astonished and intrigued me when I first arrived in Seville, nearly seven years ago, was the way religion - or rather Catholicism - is intricately interwoven into every aspect of life, from names of hospitals, schools, streets, shops, restaurants and bars, to people's names (every other woman seems to be called either Maria Jose, or Maria something, while men are frequently Jose Maria, or Francisco, or Javier, or another saint's name), swear words, and of course the ubiquitous photos of preferred virgins (in Seville, your loyalties lie either with Triana or Macarena). But in the years since I arrived in the city, the Catholic Church in Spain has faced a mounting number of threats to its age-old stranglehold on the moral and spiritual life of its sheep: abortion, gay marriage, quick divorce, the international child abuse scandal (Spain continues to hide its darkest secrets on that account, which demonstrates how much power the Church still has over some sections of society here). And now, worst of all - or best, depending on which side of the gold retablo you sit on - the Ley Organica de Libertad Religiosa (Law of Religious Freedom), still in its draft stage. Now this is too huge and controversial and emotive a subject to address properly in a little blog post like this, but it's also a Very Big Deal, so I want to mention it, at least. Pretty revolutionary, it seeks to strike at the very heart of the institution, as part of the PSOE's ongoing war against Spain's religious hierarchy. In case, like many, you've been too wrapped up in the World Cup for the last few weeks (and will hopefully continue to be so, Villa, Villa, maravilla!), and too listless from the soaring summer temperatures, to notice the rest of the news, here's what it's all about. Under the new law, among other secularising changes, two key visual elements would be banned: face-covering Islamic veils (burkhas and niqabs, where you can only see the woman's eyes) when worn in public, and religious symbols in public buildings. In fact, face veils have already been banned from public buildings in Coin, in Malaga; also in Barcelona and some other towns in Catalonia, on the grounds that they hinder personal identification. And, no less potently but with a much wider relevance, the crucifix is a ubiquitous religious symbol throughout Spain - schools, hospitals, local government offices - think of all the places where you see Jesus on his cross. One exception to this is where they're deemed to have historical, artistic, architectural or cultural value. Private institutions which carry out a public service will also be excluded from the ban. The reaction from the conservative press has been predictable: "religion is fundamental to all people" - er, no it isn't, not to me, or practically anyone else I know. Or most of the younger generation in Spain, for that matter. "The number of Catholics (yes, but what does that mean? Baptised non-believers, or practicising Catholics? Big difference.) in Spain is considerably greater than the number of people from other faiths." True - there are one million Muslims out of 47 million total population in Spain. This commentator, a bigwig of a major publishing company, states that there is an "anticlericalism, which has come about due to past acts, sometimes misinterpreted, of the Church." Yes, well, for me, that says it all. Denial is a river in Egypt. "The first question we have to ask," he goes on to say, "is whether society demands such a law. In my opinion, no." You don't say. Well thank the stars that you're not a politician, matey, or we'd all have no choice as to whether to give 0.7% of our Declaracion de la Renta to the Church. Then, last week, the Pope announced the setting up of a Pontifical Council for New Evangelisation, which is aimed at "revitalising faith in countries which are going through a progressive secularization of society and a sort of 'eclipse of the sense of God'". "There are regions in the world in which the Gospel put down roots a long time ago," he said, "giving place to a true Christian tradition, but where in the last centuries - with complex dynamics - the process of secularization has produced a grave crisis of the sense of the Christian faith and of belonging to the Church." Maybe it's partly due to his strangulated Germanic-Italian, or a strangulated translation of this, but the version in the Spanish press was vastly different: I would translate it as "revitalise faith lost through reduced strength, due to intellectual laziness on the part of the hierarchy in administrative tasks, and external cultural hostility." My journalistic antenna went crazy when I read that last phrase, but nowhere in the full original statement by Pope Benedict could I find reference to "external cultural hostility". Let's just rephrase it as "extreme paranoia and insecurity", shall we? Yup, that's Spain. But it's too late, Your Holiness. The damage is done. The more cynical are saying this is a way to distract attention from the stories about abusive priests - sort of a papal "Back to Basics" campaign: forget the kiddie-fiddlers, let's talk about GOD. I have my doubts about whether it will work, but then you should always keep an open mind, right?
Blog published on 5 July 2010