By Wendy Williams
FOR centuries the Vatican considered Spain the most Catholic country in all of Europe.
It came after the Spanish ‘reconquest’ of Granada in 1492 cemented the church’s hold on the continent… and the Spanish Inquisition notoriously quashed any opposition in the centuries that followed.
Spain became credited as the birthplace of the Dominicans, the Jesuits and the infamous Opus Dei religious orders. And the legacy of all this is a country full of churches, cathedrals, not to mention numerous statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ.
And that is not all… get an invite to any Spaniards home and, chances are, you will quickly spot the rosary beads and a classic religious effigy hanging on the wall.
So the recent news that Spain is trying to market itself as a great place for ‘religious tourism’ comes as little surprise.
To many tourists, Spain is already seen as an overwhelmingly Catholic country where the Church has a firm hold and its numerous religious festivals, particularly at Semana Santa, are famous the world over.
Now Spain’s official tourism website (www.spain.info) has launched a campaign to promote the most important religious routes around the country to boost tourist numbers.
Including the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage of El Rocio and, of course, Semana Santa – for the pious among us, there is a lot more in Spain than sand and sangria.
But while religious tourism may be on the up, a closer look at the country suggests that religion is actually on a down.
Indeed, all recent research suggests that the country is actually becoming as secular as much of the rest of modern-day Europe.
According to Spain’s leading newspaper El Pais, 46 per cent of young people in Spain declare themselves as non-religious.
The younger generation are clearly distancing themselves from the church and even older Spaniards – 73 per cent who consider themselves Catholic – are no longer participating in religious worship.
Indeed, another recent study showed that of those who declared themselves religious only 15 per cent actually go to mass every Sunday (in the UK this is around 10 per cent).
And most people, especially those of the younger generation, are dismissive of the Church’s strict moral doctrines on issues such as pre-marital sex, abortion, homosexuality and contraception.
Even the political arena has seen a drastic move away from the Catholic Church.
Since coming to power in 2004 José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s socialist government has prompted a new chapter in Spain’s relationship with Catholicism, introducing controversial bills concerning same-sex marriages, express divorces and the reform of the abortion bill.
Despite all this, you cannot easily erase the marks left by centuries of enforced religion, and this is where the contradictions start to seep in.
Whatever the current popular beliefs, Catholicism remains deeply embedded in the Spanish way of life, both culturally and politically.
Spanish taxpayers can still tick a box on their income tax returns giving a portion of their taxes to the church, with the government making up the shortfall with direct subsidies.
Religious holidays – and there are many – are national holidays that see the streets filled with constant processions of marching bands.
And a child’s First Holy Communion remains a rite of passage.
Despite distancing itself, the government is still wary of offending the Church, like a rebellious teen that fears its parent.
In fact there are many examples of the non-denominational government bowing to the Catholic Church at the same time as trying to move away from its religious past.
None are more indicative than the recent furore that surrounded a request by Madrid based atheist group AMAL to stage a public demonstration on Maundy Thursday.
The Government’s regional representative actually produced 11 reasons to prohibit what it called an ‘atheist procession,’ centred on the fact it coincided with various Catholic processions and alluded to an anti-religious sentiment.
But surely in a truly secular nation there would be no reason why Catholicism should be given priority or why anti-religious sentiment should be seen as so threatening.
Of course for most of Spain (weather permitting) Semana Santa, is a time of popular religious expression that sees daily processions of crucified images of Christ.
It is fair to say that the Catholic Church is allowed to practically take over the country, with pretty much everything else shutting down.
For many, this religious tradition serves as the highlight of the year, but for the vast majority it has almost transcended religion (if one can ignore the overwhelming catholic iconography).
While some participate to show their love of God, for most people these days it is more a cultural than religious tradition.
One friend, who is a member of a brotherhood and participates in Semana Santa, confirmed this, explaining that it is ‘a lot more than the church’ and mostly today about the ‘culture’.
He added: “It is a disgrace to ban the atheist demonstration, I think it is important to respect everybody’s beliefs and I don’t think they should have cancelled it.”
And the fact remains, denying the demonstration can be seen as a violation of the fundamental right of public demonstration, enshrined in Spain’s legal system.
Luis Vega, president of AMAL, insisted the ban was ‘worrying’ and meant ‘a withdrawal of the country’s liberties’.
He added that the government was using the very same arguments as the religious authorities to forbid the demonstration.
It certainly widens the debate about bowing to the church at the same time as respecting people’s beliefs.
Looking at Spain’s constitution that was completely changed after Franco’s death in 1975 there is undoubtedly confusion.
Article 16 states that ‘no faith shall be the state religion’, yet, in the paragraph below it almost contradicts itself with the ambiguous insertion: ‘The authorities take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society, and so remain in a state of cooperation with the Catholic Church and other faiths’.
Confused? I am. And I think the crux of the matter is that Spain is too.
In the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, the character Keaton, played by Gabriel Byrne says: ‘I don’t believe in God, but I am afraid of him,’ and I think in many ways this encapsulates the relationship Spain has with the church.
Sure, the younger generation is becoming less and less religious and the current government has brought in a raft of new anti-Catholic laws. But when it comes to dismissing the church completely, Spain cannot go all the way.
There is still a sense that the Church is above criticism, which comes from centuries of answering to the Pope.
And for the time being, the idea of actually being atheist still seems very threatening, even to those who don’t believe in God.
Change is certainly coming, but that won’t stop Spain being a great place to visit if you enjoy cathedrals and religious history.