Wed, Jul 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Catholics in Spain cheer for pope but shun church

DPA , VALENCIA, SPAIN

Pope Benedict XVI drew large crowds during his visit to Valencia, with believers cheering and waving, chanting and crying.

The scenes were reminiscent of the 2003 visit of his better-known predecessor John Paul II despite the latter being perceived as a somewhat warmer and more approachable figure.

However, the euphoria surrounding the pope's visit was unable to hide the deepening chasm between the church and the people, who have affection for the pope, but who rarely regard him any longer as a moral authority in social matters.

It is hard to imagine a country more Catholic than Spain, the vanquisher of the Muslim Moors and the leader of the counter-reformation, home to Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, famous for its Inquisition, birthplace of the Jesuit order and of the influential organization Opus Dei.

During the 1939 to 1975 dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the Catholic Church was still an important authority. But after the general's death, Spain opened to European influences and transformed rapidly into a modern, consumption-driven and increasingly secular democracy.

The election victory of socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2004 put Spain in Europe's liberal forefront with reforms which would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

A year ago, for example, Spain became one of the world's first countries to allow homosexuals to marry with the same rights as heterosexuals. More than 4,500 gay couples have wed since then and about 50 have applied to adopt children.

Zapatero's government has also shocked the church with other measures, such as facilitating divorce and allowing embryo stem cell research.

It scrapped plans by the previous conservative government to make religion a compulsory exam subject at schools, and would like to curb taxpayer financing of the church, which gets more than 3 billion euros (US$3.8 billion) annually through voluntary tax contributions, exemptions and funds channelled to schools and hospitals.

Spain's Catholic Church has not minced words in criticizing the government, which it sees as attacking the very foundations of human society based on the reason given by God.

"Spanish society is extinguished, dying and does not feel responsible for its future," president of the bishops' conference, Ricardo Blazquez, said a few days before the pope's visit.

Politicians such as Zapatero introduce an "anarchy" which could leave Europe defenseless against the strong values imported by Muslim immigrants, the Vatican believes.

Zapatero has been undazed by the criticism, pointing out that it is parliament that "legislates in a democratic society."

While 78 percent of Spaniards still regard themselves as Catholics, only 17 percent of the Catholics attend mass frequently, according to a poll by the Center of Sociological Investigation.

The number of church weddings and even civilian marriages has gone down, women have only 1.25 children on the average, churches are half-empty and priests have become so scarce that villages sometimes need to share them.

The lack of interest in religion is even more visible among young people, only 5 percent of whom are estimated to follow the church's teaching in their sex lives.

For most Spaniards, religion is a matter of tradition rather than faith, setting the stage for family or collective celebrations such as baptisms, weddings and colorful countryside pilgrimages.

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