Catholic Church still a cornerstone of Spanish culture

MADRID – On a recent Sunday here, Christina García, 21, busily prepared for the Feast of Corpus Christi, a Catholic observance that honors the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

To mark the holy day, one of Madrid’s big cathedrals, the Catedral de Santa María de Real de la Almudena in Madrid, halted street traffic leading from the cathedral to the Puerto del Sol, one of the city’s largest and busiest plazas, to clear the way for a processional of congregation members.

Part of the Archdiocese of Madrid, Catedral de Santa Maria de
Real de la Almundena possibly sits on the site of a mosque
destroyed in the 11th century, pointing to the layers of history
and the religious contests that have played out in this capital city.
(Photograph by Jason Huynh)

As a member of the processional, García wore a traditional black dress and ceremonial headdress. She is also a member of a youth group that meets once a week for worship at the cathedral.

The church is counting on younger adherents such as Garcia, who said she made her own choice about following the faith of her family. She chose to be confirmed, and she chooses to participate in such tradition-rich ceremonies as those associated with Corpus Christi, she said.

About 70% of Spain’s population identify themselves as Catholic, according to the World Population Review, but only 37% say they regularly attend religious services. This puts Garcia in the minority.

“While some Madrileños would say that they are practicing Catholics, that may just mean that they believe in the teachings of the church but that they do not attend mass regularly or by follow specifically what the church is saying that you should do,” said Victor Gonzales, a native of Cuba who has lived in Madrid off and on for 17 years.

(Not) handing off the baton

These shifts are not new, and they aren’t unique to Spain.

“It is not a new trend that Spaniards are perceived to be culturally Catholic while they may not be practicing Catholic,” said Dr. Jonathan D. Snyder, a professor of Spanish literature and culture, who lives and works in Madrid. He said Spanish families have self-identified as non-practicing Catholics since the 1960, though they may be at least culturally Catholic.

Madrid native Elizabeth Sanchezt said she comes from a practicing Catholic family yet self-identifies as “not Catholic at all.” And it is this generational shift by which the church is losing some of its numbers.

“Madrid seems to be filled with living contradictions when it comes to Catholicism in the city,” said Dr. Francisco Seijo, a professor of political science in Madrid with several affiliations also in the United States.

Sanchezt is a good example of such contradictions. Though she is not Catholic, she pays to send her son to a private Catholic primary school, “because here in Spain, those kinds of schools are better than public schools,” she said.

As for her son’s faith decision, however, she said she would leave that entirely up to him.

“He will take the [Catholic] communion if he decides that is what he wants to follow with the Catholicism,” she said. “But if he does not, that is not a problem. It is not my life.”

Government subsidies

One reason Catholic schools are seen as superior is their funding, part of which comes through subsidies provided by the church.

“The atmosphere and education available through the local public school system does not compare due to the financial support that the school receives from the church,” Sanchezt explained.

More than 30 priests representing approximately 50
congregations attended Corpus Christi festivities in Madrid
this year, according to Antonio Garcia, a Spanish Catholic
studying to join the priesthood. (Photograph by Jason Huynh)

Ironically, at least some of this funding can be traced back to the state, which is responsible for the quality of Spain’s public schools. State funding helps to pay for, among other things, the salaries of priests, renovation and reconstruction of sacred buildings and sites, and tax exemptions.

But many such accommodations may be coming to an end for the Catholic Church in Spain.

What was “once an untouchable institution in some parts of Europe” is being criticized for these government subsidies, according to a September 2012 article in the Washington Post, an article written in the midst of an economic crisis that continues today. “The Catholic Church has come under fire for its government subsidies at a time when the continent’s economies are faltering and the population is subject to painful cuts in jobs, benefits and pensions,” according to the article.

In 2014, Spain’s unemployment rate is 26%.

Love-hate relationship

Seijo went so far as to call Spain an “anti-clerical country.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Church has become a target for possible taxation. Ricardo Rubio, a city council member in Alcalá de Henares, has attempted to have the government impose a tax on all church property that is used for non-religious purposes, according to the Washington Post article. 

Such policy changes could take a devastating toll on the church, affecting millions of Spaniards, including María Alvarez, 52.

Alvarez said that of course she is Catholic; it is a part of her identity. Born and raised Catholic in Madrid, Alvarez said she came from deeply religious lineage with multiple uncles who committed themselves to the church by becoming priests.

A member of the Iglesia de san Gines de Arlés congregation, she said she attends mass each and every Sunday.

“Such strong Catholic roots are something that the current generation of Catholic children are not used to as the generation after [mine] has moved away from the church,” she said. “It is different for the children raised by my generation. It was a requirement for me to be Catholic. As a child I went to mass everyday with my parents, there was no decision.”

Making the choice

For the younger Catholics of Madrid, there is a decision to be made once they have reached the age of Confirmation, traditionally between 16 and 18 years of age.

“While my grandmother and mother were both Catholic, it was not assumed that I would be, too,” Christina García said. “I would consider myself a practicing Catholic on my own with the guidance of the generations before me.”

Garcia had a choice. During the Franco regime, however, Spaniards were required to profess to be Catholic.

Catedral de Santa Maria de Real de la Almundena in Madrid
hosted several events as part of the Corpus Christi holiday
celebrated on Sunday, June 22. (Photograph by Jason Huynh)

Catholicism was the official religion of the country, a status that led to a mandate that all religious instruction at all educational levels conform to the Catholic church.

It has been quite difference since the death of Franco in 1975. Antonio García, 27, for example, made a very conscious choice to devote his life to the church. He is a deacon studying to become a priest after being born into and raised by a Catholic family in Madrid.

While Catholicism might not be vibrant in other cities in Spain, Garcia said Madrid has stayed true to its heritage and tradition.

“There are roughly 70 seminaries in Spain, most of which are located in Madrid,” he said. “There are many young Catholics in Madrid but it just depends on where you look. You may not always find them in the cathedrals or in the seminaries, but they are there.”

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