Tue, Dec 23, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Religion divides new Europe at birth

As the European Union integrates more closely the role of God in the planned superstate is becoming a seemingly intractable problem

AFP , Madrid

Spain, along with fellow Catholic partners Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Poland, wants Europe to formalize its Christian heritage in a future EU constitution.

Avowedly secular France doesn't agree.

French President Jacques Chirac backs legal moves to ban the veil in schools.

But in Spain, the ethical message in a predominantly Catholic society is being reinforced after the Spanish authorities issued an official paper last week pinning their colors firmly to the mast in placing religious instruction in schools on a par with other subjects such as mathematics.

The foreword to the program, which will become law next year, does not mince its words in stressing the need for religious instruction in school -- preferably of a Catholic nature.

Students of other faiths -- or atheists -- will also receive up to three hours a week of

religious instruction, but only in the context of the "history of religions" taught by history and philosophy professors.

Previously, such students would study ethics or other activities whose content was largely left to a school's discretion.

Catholic students, the government estimates, have a duty to "know the love of Jesus Christ" and trumpet the "values of marriage" as part of a program laid down for state schools to follow closely alongside the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

"An integrated, and thus quality, education cannot exist unless all of a human being's inherent capacities, including the spiritual, are developed," says the text.

More specifically, "a pupil is going to discover [their spiritual capacity] in the language of the Bible, in Christian models of identification and notably in the presence of Jesus Christ," says the text, which also implicitly recommends Catholicism as the path to follow.

Blissfully untouched by the rumpus which has surfaced in France over the desire of some Muslim students to wear the veil as a cultural and religious symbol, which could be banned under a new French law, Spain is ramping up the Catholic element of its state education system.

For example, following a law passed last June by the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar marks in catechism classes will count towards a student's overall results, determining if he or she can move on to the next year cycle and ultimately go to university.

Marks obtained in the history of religion for non-Catholics will count in the same manner.

The legislation provides for all children receiving, from the age of 12, instruction such weighty matters as the "finality of sexuality," as well as "the sacrament of marriage" and "divorce and the problems associated with it."

Youngsters will also be encouraged to learn "how to apply the fundamentals of Christian morality" to their sexual existence in the document drawn up by a committee of priests.

Leftist opposition groups are opposed to the importance assigned to the catechism and the compulsory study of religion which they see as "unconstitutional" given that the 1978 Spanish constitution guarantees the right to confidentiality regarding one's religious views.

The constitution was drawn up in 1978, three years after the death of military dictator General Francisco Franco during whose 36-year rule Catholicism was the official state religion.

Now, while the majority of Spaniards profess the faith, the constitution stipulates that no faith has the character of state religion.

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