When conservative Mariano Rajoy was sworn in as Spanish prime minister in late December, the country’s Catholic Church was no doubt satisfied.
The Spanish political party closest to the Vatican had put an end to eight years of Socialist rule, during which premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero horrified priests with his reforms, such as homosexual marriage, speedier divorce and easier access to abortion.
During his rule, bishops and conservative politicians attended massive rallies against policies which the Catholic Church saw as destroying the very foundations of society.
But though Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) is now firmly at the helm with an absolute majority in parliament, its relations with Spain’s Catholic hierarchy have been less smooth than its most conservative voters had expected.
The new government has only been in power for about a month, but tensions have already arisen over the 2005 marriage of Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Rajoy’s deputy and the country’s most powerful woman.
The fact that she had married in a civil rather than religious ceremony made her unfit to open Easter celebrations in the cathedral of her native city of Valladolid, as had been suggested by the mayor, Valladolid archbishop Ricardo Blazquez told journalists this week.
He made the comments off the record, but they were nevertheless leaked out and sparked a storm in a country where more than 60 per cent of couples tie the knot in civil ceremonies.
Earlier on, church representatives had also criticized another powerful PP politician, the party’s Secretary General Dolores de Cospedal, for having become a single mother through artificial insemination.
And church leaders have not refrained from giving citizens more general advice, saying homosexuality is not ‘adequate behaviour’ and that Catholics should shun ‘fornication.’
The Santamaria case divided opinions. Former Socialist defence minister Carme Chacon, who is candidate to become the party’s new leader, said she did not accept nor understand Blazquez’ ‘attack’ on the deputy prime minister.
The archbishop’s opinions ‘are based on the Gospel’ and needed to be respected, a commentator countered in the conservative daily ABC.
Blazquez’ comments revealed a widening gulf between church teachings and citizens in the traditionally Catholic country, where papal visits draw millions of people, but where hardly anyone lives as the Vatican tells them to live, other observers said.
About 75 per cent of Spaniards regard themselves as Catholics, down from nearly 85 per cent a decade ago, according to the Centre of Sociological Investigations (CIS).
Spain’s Catholic Church was a pillar of the 1939-75 ‘national-Catholic’ dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when divorce was almost impossible to attain, homosexuals were persecuted and pornography was banned.
Blazquez’ comments coincided with the trial of Baltasar Garzon, Spain’s most famous judge, who is being sued by two Francoist-minded groups over his attempt to launch the country’s first judicial investigation into the dictator’s crimes.
The ongoing trial shocked human rights activists who see Spain as still being reluctant to shed Franco’s legacy.
The church’s alleged interference in people’s private lives is now seen as yet another sign that Franco’s ghost still hovers over the country.
It sparked echoes of a time when ‘the altar and the dictator’ laid down the rules on how people should behave, as the daily El Pais put it.
However, the PP does not want to alienate more staunchly Catholic voters, and the new government has already started working towards cancelling some aspects of Zapatero’s social reforms.
The government will change at least one part of Zapatero’s liberal abortion law, cancelling a rule that allows under-age girls to interrupt their pregnancies without their parents’ knowledge in cases of serious family conflicts, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced this week.
Earlier on, the PP also lodged a complaint at the Constitutional Court against a 2005 law introduced by Zapatero allowing homosexuals to marry with equal rights as heterosexuals.
More than 25,000 gay couples have wed since then, according to the homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals association FELGTB.
Many same-sex couples rushed to marry before the November 20 parliamentary elections, fearing that a future PP government would deprive them of that right.
Will Rajoy cancel the law which placed Spain – a former Catholic stronghold – among the world’s most liberal countries?
The prime minister has so far refused to clarify his position.