Catalan Catholic nationalists hope for Benedict bounce

[BARCELONA] Ask an observer about Spanish religion and politics, and most people will mention two Spains: one, left-wing and anti-Catholic, the other Catholic and politically conservative. That polarization existed long before the Civil War, and was reinforced by Franco wrapping himself in the flag of nacionalcatolicismo

And there's still truth to it, symbolized in the socialist (PSOE) and secularist government of the atheist Rodriguez Zapatero, and the Catholic head of the pro-Church Partido Popular (PP), Mariano Rajoy. It was typical that, while Rajoy was in Santiago de Compostela today to greet the Pope, Zapatero was in Afghanistan greeting Hamid Kharzai. 

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But Spanish divisions of religion and politics are in reality far more complicated; and nowhere is that complexity more evident than Barcelona, where nationalist feeling -- catalanismo -- is a wild card which frequently undermines the stereotype. 

I've been here many times, often to do stories about the Sagrada Familia and Gaudi (see recent America article here) -- which is why I'm excited to be here for the consecration of what I've grown to love as a masterpiece of church architecture.

But as a (Castilian) Spanish speaker I've often been wary entering the complexities of Catalan political and religious allegiances.

Today I decided I could avoid the subject no longer, and sat down with an old friend over lunch and asked him to explain. This friend is an active Catholic Catalan, and an excellent communicator.

But even he at one point had to ask for a piece of paper and a pen, to draw three intersecting axes: left versus right, Catholic versus secularist, Catalanist versus anti-Catalanist. Almost any combination -- left-wing Catholic Catalanists, right-wing atheist anti-Catalanists, and so on -- can be found, he said, in Barcelona.

Politically, Catalonia swings left, always voting socialist in national elections. But when it comes to voting for its local Government, it has tended to go with the conservative Catalanist party CiU, which is much more important here than the Popular Party. 

Catalan nationalism used to be very Catholic. Under Franco, who actively suppressed Catalan nationalism, the catalanistas had strong ties with the Church, which was in turn (and remains) very sympathetic to catalanismo. The great monastery of Montserrat, about an hour out of the city, was for many decades the focal point for those seeking autonomy from Madrid. 

But from the 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council, when the Church nationally began to disassociate itself from Franco and prepare the way for a democratic government, those close ties were lost.

"Many politicians of the anticlerical Catalan nationalist left are the children of that catalanismo born in the sacristies," my friend told me. "The secularization of Catalonia can be seen there."

Catalonia is today the least Catholic part of Spain. Out of a population of 8m, only 1m goes to Mass -- about the same number of practising Catholics in the UK.

Right-wing Spanish Catholics, the tradicionalistas, are suspicious of Catalan nationalism and the Catalan Church as undermining the unity of both Spain and the Church -- views which are shared by many in the Spanish bishops' conference. 

"This enables the non-Catholic Catalan nationalists to argue that being a good catalanista means you can't be a good Catholic," explained my friend.

But this idea was refuted, he said, in the widespread Catalan Catholic population which does not necessarily vote for the Catalan parties, but love their language and pray in it.

It is these Catholic Catalans who live in between the two extremes of right-wing anti-Catalan Catholicism and a left-wing pro-Catalan secularism. In that inbetween there's a whole range of attitudes and sympathies, explained my friend. "But perhaps the most novel is the emergence of a group who would think of themselves as happy to be Catholic and happy to express themselves in Catalan."

It's not necessarily the "silent majority". But this attitude is increasingly common, he says, among a new generation of Catalans.

They are delighted that at tomorrow's Mass much of the liturgy will be in Catalan (as well as Latin and Castilian). For them, Antoni Gaudi represents pride in being Catalan -- Gaudi was imprisoned under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in the 1920s for refusing to speak Castilian to an officer -- but dedicated, firstly and above all, to his Catholic faith. 

The names of the leaders of this Catholic catalanismo are the signatories of a manifesto published recently in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, urging the Pope to use Catalan at tomorrow's Mass. The names are headed by the former president of the Generalitat (Catalan government) Jordi Pujol, and include many Benedictine monks of Montserrat.

The important thing, in my friend's view, is that being catalanista should cease to be seen as synonymous with left-wing secularism. The fact that the Pope is coming to honour Gaudi and consecrate his great Basilica -- a symbol of Barcelona, and Spain's most visited tourist site -- is for this group of Catholics a source of great pride.

My friend hopes that the Pope's visit helps to open a space for this Catholic catalanismo, challenging the laicismo which has long been synonymous with Catalan nationalism, and encouraging catalanistas to rediscover their Catholic roots.

A Catholic catalanism, of course, would avoid some of the lurid anti-Madrid rhetoric of rabid Catalan nationalists. But it would also challenge the assumptions of right-wing Catholic Spain that sees a proudly Catalan church as somehow schismatic.

Tomorrow I shall be in the Sagrada Familia for five hours -- three hours of which will be spent waiting for the Pope, after we journalists are bussed in early -- during which I won't be able to report.

But in the meantime, here's a YouTube video reconstruction in 3D of what the cathedral will look like when it's finished in 20 years' time. Perhaps by then, Catholic catalanismo will be a stronger presence in public life. 

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david power
7 years 8 months ago
Thanks so much Austen for these postings.I dont want to short-circuit here but it seems that the main issue will not be addressed here in Spain.Jesus Christ.So often in the past Spain witnessed demogogic papal trips that in the end served the gospel very little.I am sure that the Present Pope is more intent that the lasting impression be The Lord but it will be very hard to overcome the ingrained cultural element of Spanish catholicism as opposed to the evangelical ambitions of the Pope.I lived in Spain for two years and often observed the Spanish way of relating to Faith.
A bounce is often describes as a rise in "vocations" which is clericalism of the highest order.Rants aside ,I would appreciate a more spiritual take on this and I am sure that you are more than capable of it.
It cannot all be Pope and Politics ,the Christian proposal has to sneak in somewhere.
       How are the Spanish people reacting to the Good news?Do percentages do justice to experience?
Is there a Manuel who would care to comment on his relationship with Jesus?
That aside ,thanks so much for the postings as they are all good reading. 

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