October 24, 2011

Note to Americans: Is Spain _Really_ Catholic?

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" But even fewer foreigners seem to expect a secular Spain. When my wife and I were living in the United States, it was annoying, even kind of painful, the number of times people would ask her if she or her family was Catholic, or would just assume it. (They are not.) Perhaps one of the biggest (false) cultural stereotypes about Spain is that people here are _deeply_ religious and _very_ Catholic. The real story is a bit more complicated.

El Greco's Christ Carrying the Cross, ca. 1580s
First some facts and figures. With the recent (August 2011) visit of the Pope to Madrid for the Catholic World Youth Day (a.k.a. "Jornada Mundial de la Juventud" (JMJ)), statistics about Spain's declining Catholicism are readily at hand. Only 10% of Spain's youth (between the ages of 15 and 29) consider themselves "practicing Catholics," which doesn't necessarily mean going to church regularly. 50% are non-practicing Catholics, which from my personal experience means they rarely if ever go to church, maybe for Christmas or Easter mass, every now and then. I have a lot of friends whose Catholicism seems to be completely limited to baby baptisms and church weddings, a more social faith than religious one. And that leaves 3 out of 10 young Spaniards, or almost a third, who consider themselves "non-believers" or atheists. So among the young, Catholicism is a pretty marginal experience in Spain.

This is not to say that Spain is not a "Catholic country." For starters, there are cathedrals and basilicas _everywhere_, and they form a central part of the iconic imagery of Spanish tourism (not to mention the Hemingway paradigm). Much of the cultural heritage of the country is religious in nature, from famous paintings by El Greco or Velázquez to the Sagrada Familia Cathedral by one very religious Gaudí. When Hemingway visited here in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps he had cause for believing it to be a _very_ Catholic culture. Having recently seen photos of early 20th-century Spain, in all the photos of different Spanish towns and cities, the only ancient buildings that were well-maintained were cathedrals. So I can see why Hemingway would characterize the country as devoutly Catholic… then.

Gaudí's La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona
This is not true today. Local governments have taken to restoring historic castles, bridges, and other heritage sites, such that now historic centers don't emit a particular religious feel. And cathedrals in town centers are as likely to have tourists in them as practitioners. Today, culturally and politically, contemporary Spain is not so particularly Catholic. Constitutionally, the government is committed to a separation of church and state, though in practice Catholicism has had some history of favored status. Catholic politics seep to the surface regularly here, such as arguments over abortion (which is legal here) or over gay marriage (which is also legal here).

In this respect, asking if Spain is Catholic is like asking if the U.S. is Christian. Saying yes doesn't do justice to the very significant non-Christian part of its society, but saying no ignores the clearly Christian component to its history and politics. Much of what to outsiders would seem like deeply rooted Catholic tendencies to locals is probably better understood as unconscious vestiges or lingering habits of an earlier Catholic culture. Like the widespread (almost ubiquitous) use of biblical names like "María" and "José," or unconscious routine language like "adiós" (meaning "goodbye," but literally "to God") and saying "Jesús" when someone sneezes (just like we say "bless you").

The bottom line is that you should not assume the next Spaniard you meet is Catholic. Chances are that, especially if they're young, they are not.

A famous recurring sketch from the British TV comedy series Monty Python.


Tumbit said...

I'm going to seriously fall out with this blog for not bringing itself to my attention sooner. Some interesting stuff going on here!

An Expat in Spain said...

Thanks Tumbit! I've only been on for a short time now, but I'll try and keep it engaging. By the way, your blog is a riot! Good stuff.

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