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As Spain's people drift from Catholic Church, government cozies up

Spain's conservative government is considering dramatic restrictions on abortion and has already increase the Catholic Church's role in education, revealing a divided society.

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A woman sits in the church following the procession of 'Santo Cristo' during Holy Week in Bercianos de Aliste, northern Spain, March 28.

Andres Kudacki/AP/File

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After years of moving in a more socially liberal direction along with the rest of western Europe, the Spanish government is now doing an about face, seeking to clamp down on abortion and return the Roman Catholic Church to a prominent role in the country's school system.  

Though the church is still losing ground among the faithful, it has powerful friends in the current conservative Popular Party government, which has traditionally had close ties to the Vatican. Now the PP is pushing a controversial bill in parliament that would dramatically restrict access to abortion.

“We see an alliance between the ruling party and the Catholic hierarchy on moral issues. The church wants to press its priorities and it appears to be winning on issues like abortion and education,” says Juan José Tamayo, director of theology at Carlos III University.

But the return of religion to the public sphere in a country that is over 70 percent Catholic is proving divisive. Spain is certainly split over abortion – an April poll published by El País, the country’s leading daily, found that 46 percent of Spaniards don't want the law changed, 41 percent support the government's new restrictive draft, and 10 percent want abortion to be illegal in all circumstances.

Abortion isn't the only place where the church is making inroads. Last month the PP, which has a majority in parliament, rammed a new education law through parliament that requires more religion classes in public schools and diverts public funds to semi-private schools and gender-segregated schools that are mostly run by the Catholic Church.

Why the PP is tilting towards the church isn't clear from the perspective of political advantage, since it appears to be costing it popularity at a time of already heightened anger over the collapse of the economy.

“All governments are hostage to the Catholic Church. But there is a growing voice among Catholics that rejects the ties and that is being echoed in public opinion,” said Dr. Tamayo. “It’s a voice that is being ignored both the Catholic hierarchy and the government.”

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Unpopular reforms

Most Spaniards are against the broader educational system reforms, including the majority of PP voters, although they're not necessarily against the measures benefiting the church. The reforms included several controversial provisions, including weakening the control of regional governments in public education and further cutting of public spending, which have hit schools and universities particularly hard.

The planned abortion law reform is even more controversial and has brought out some splits within the PP, with officials publicly disagreeing about how profound the limits on abortion should be. The previous Socialist government broadened access to abortion in 2010, making it legal for all women within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and limiting it to health concerns after. A draft law from the PP would limit abortion to only situations where it could effect the health of the mother.

The political opposition often accuses the government of taking orders from Antonio Rouco, the ultraconservative Archbishop of Madrid and president of the Episcopal Conference that brings together the country’s church hierarchy.

“The government should negotiate these reforms. It’s useless to legislate on these matters unilaterally,” says Alejandro Torres, an expert in public law who has written about church-state relations. “There will be another reform when the government changes.”

But abortion is politically important for a currently very unpopular PP government. The party is gambling on securing the more conservative vote at risk of alienating the growing number of ideologically ambivalent, centrist voters. “A big number of PP supporters come from the center,” Dr. Torres said.

Faithful backlash

The Spanish Church also risks losing more of its faithful. The number of practicing Catholics has been falling for years, while agnostics, atheists, and followers of other religions have increased, according to official census reports.

“It’s a Spanish contradiction and the result of a demographic change. The majority say they are Catholics but only 10 percent goes to church regularly,” Dr. Torres said.

Parallel to the spiritual transition, there is growing support for more separation between church and state. Ties between the PP and the church are too close, 56 percent said, and only 30 percent said ties were normal, according to the El País poll.

Every year, fewer Spaniards chose the church as recipient of a mandated charity contribution as a small share of income tax, although the government can still choose Catholic charity organizations when it distributes the money of those who selected the second option: “other.”

Catholic Internet forums also expose a divide among the faithful between those who want more or less religion in the public sphere.

But when it ultimately comes down to the division between church and state, “I think we are in paralysis,” Dr. Tamayo said.

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