There is a movement that can summon tens and even hundreds of thousands of its followers onto the streets of Spanish cities, and I am not talking about the 15-M protestors camping in squares and blockading parliaments. The Catholic Church has mobilized multitudes in recent years; against abortion reform, the legalization of gay marriage, and now it is again frowning with disapproval at government proposals to clarify the rights of terminal patients, even though the draft reform could by no means be called a euthanasia bill.
"When we say that the legalization, directly or indirectly, of euthanasia is intolerable, we are not questioning the democratic organization of public life, nor are we trying to impose a private, moral conception on society as a whole," the head of the Spanish synod, Bishop Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, said this week. But he added that laws are "not fair merely because they are supported by majorities," while calling on the faithful to disobey any law which infringed on the "right to life."
15-M wants to reform and purify the political system, creating a more transparent reflection of the popular will. The bishops want to put a straitjacket on legislators, arguing that a moral force - that of their professed faith - stands above the will of society in general.
The bishops went even further in their attack on the so-called "dignified death" bill, saying that "such laws call into question the legitimacy of the governments which draft and approve them."
15-M says a popular majority must be sovereign; the protestors express their disgust at self-serving politicians ignoring the needs of those they represent once in power. The Church argues that politicians cannot simply form parliamentary majorities and merrily dispatch reforms without taking into account "the right to freedom of conscience," which, it argues, "cannot be reduced to mere tolerance of religious practice." Legislation must be based on liturgy. How to avoid being reminded of the other religious fanaticism whose malign influence has so scarred the first decade of the 21st century?
15-M says the powers comprising the state must be separated. The Church does well to keep its counsel on matters of institutional relations. The movement's chief bone of contention is the malign influence of party politics on the judiciary, whose independence is seriously compromised and constantly questioned, and the tendency of administrations (local and national) to stuff public and semi-statal bodies such as savings bank boards with cronies. But could this aim to re-found the state also be trained on the cozy relationship between government and the Catholic Church?
In a supposedly non-confessional state, the Catholic Church gets six billion euros in state funds a year, half of which go to maintaining state-subsidized private religious schools. But public money also pays the salaries of bishops and priests, as well as Catholic teachers who work in public schools, military, hospital and prison chaplains, and even goes toward the restoration or maintenance of the enormous patrimony of the Spanish Catholic Church, the second-biggest owner of real estate after the government. All this despite the principle, included in the 1979 agreements between Madrid and the Holy See, that the Church was to advance towards self-financing.
Last November, three days after Pope Benedict XVI's most recent visit to Spain, Zapatero's Socialist government shelved its promise to strengthen the lay character of the Spanish state with a new Religious Freedom Law, thus preserving the special status enjoyed by the Catholic Church above any other faith. Mass power prevails. Or does it? Despite the fact that 70 percent of Spaniards polled recently by Metroscopia described themselves as Catholics, the bishops are the lowest valued of any institutional power in the country - below banks, multinationals and even the political parties. For now, 15-M is at least winning the popularity contest.
Photograph by Uly Martín.