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Spanish church assails education reform

First the military. Now the church. After successfully coping with rising military tension by firing an unruly five-star general, Spain's 10-month-old Socialist government has tackled the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

Both sides have geared up for prolonged battles over a proposed Socialist bill to regulate government subsidies to private schools, most of which are parochial Catholic institutions. A tentative truce has been reached in the first clash of what is being called the ''catechism war,'' but sparring seems certain in the coming months.

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The battling began after the Education Ministry banned two catechism textbooks, edited by the Catholic Bishops Conference, that equated abortion with crime and violence. (The Socialists have introduced a bill that will decriminalize abortion, legalizing it in cases of rape, when the mother's physical or mental health is endangered, or when there is a serious risk of fetal abnormalities.)

Explaining the government's action, an Education Ministry official said the passages in question were ''susceptible of creating confusion among school children by comparing abortion with homicide, war, or terrorism.''

The banning was met with howls of outrage from the Catholic Church hierarchy and Christian Democrats of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) which is in coalition with the opposition party, Popular Alliance. ''It is not possible to renounce the content nor accept censorship of our catechism,'' said Elias Yanes, Archbishop of Zaragoza and president of the conference education committee.

The Bishops Conference recommended the use of the banned texts. And with parliamentary debate to begin sometime next week on the Socialist education bill , the Education Ministry was left to decide whether to withdraw government subsidies from disobedient schools or limit infractions to fines.

With both sides hoping to avoid extreme measures, prolonged negotiations led to a compromise: The objectionable catechism books will not be used in public schools, but they will be ''tolerated'' in private religious schools. The Bishops Conference agreed to include a pedagogic memo in the books to ''complement'' the information. But the references to abortion will not be deleted.

In Parliament, Education Minister Jose Maria Maravall said, ''I have never intervened in the doctrine of the Catholic Church nor in moral judgments that correspond to religious beliefs. But it is my competence to supervise what happens within the classrooms and . . . to oversee that textbooks are adapted to constitutional principles and respect the conscience of 10- and 11-year-old children.''

The new bill favors public schools. Private schools receiving state subsidies will have to submit to various controls which include parent, teacher, and student committees. Slightly more than 36 percent of all grade schools are private in Spain, and of these, two-thirds are Catholic religious schools.

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The ''catechism war'' and the battle over the education bill prefigure the parliamentary debate on the Socialist bill to decriminalize abortion, which promises to alienate even further the Socialist government from the Catholic Church.

However, government officials are confident that the deteriorated relationship will improve after Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez has an audience with Pope John Paul II during his October visit to Italy.

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