The bombings exposed deep divisions within the Catholic community, says Jonathan Luxmoore.
And now the country’s bishops must come to terms with an unsympathetic new Socialist government
When Spain's Catholic bishops expressed horror at the Madrid railway bombings on March 11, their initial reaction was to blame the Basque separatist organisation, ETA. “ETAis an intrinsically evil organisation, whose roots are found in totalitarian nationalism and idolatry,” the bishops’ conference said in its statement. “It considers the Basque country’s political independence an absolute value, and to obtain this end it has not ceased to devalue and destroy the very foundations for peace and the common good.” Three weeks on, with the weight of evidence firmly fixed on Islamic extremists, the bishops haven’t issued a correction — a sign perhaps of the Church’s exasperation with Spain’s home-grown terror movement, and of its conviction that all such groups are capable of the same destruction.
Yet ETA’s confrontation with Spanish democracy has fuelled tensions among Catholics, who nominally make up 82 per cent of the country’s 40 million inhabitants. They could worsen under a new Socialist government committed to an anti-Church agenda.
Formed in 1959 by dissenting members of the Basque Nationalist Party, ETAachieved its greatest publicity coup in December 1973, by assassinating premier Luis Carrero Blanco, in another spectacular Madrid bomb explosion. Carrero Blanco, the designated successor of dictator Francisco Franco, was on his way to Mass. In the three decades since, ETA has killed 850 people, mostly in the Basque country which borders France on Spain’s northeastern Atlantic coast.
When democracy was restored after General Franco’s death in 1975, the central government invested heavily in the region, granting the Basques wideranging autonomy. But in the 1980s, when the attacks continued, Spain’s security forces launched a “dirty war” against ETA, using hit-squads on both sides of the French-Spanish border. The direct-action strategy backfired, fuelling support for separatism; and when the centre-right Popular Party won Spain’s 1996 elections, the new premier, JoseMaria Aznar, swapped it for a policy of using “only the law, but all of the law”.
Aceasefire followed in 1998-9. When ETA called it off, Aznar initiated his own clampdown, this time tabling legislation to ban ETA’s political wing, Batasuna, after police reported “direct evidence” linking it to armed operations. Outlawing Batasuna in March 2003, the Supreme Court barred 1,500 candidates from contesting Basque elections. Meanwhile, at Madrid’s urging, ETA was placed on banned terrorist lists by the European Union and the American government.
By the end of 2003, with dozens of members captured and just three police officers killed in a year — ETA’s lowest “score” for three decades — Aznar proclaimed that the movement was “on the road to definitive destruction”.
If ETA had been behind the Madrid railway bombings, Aznar’s claim would have been discredited. But even without large-scale atrocities, the movement remains active and dangerous — a reminder that constitutional democracy, however exemplary, is no guarantee against violent subversion.
Significantly, the Basque region is also Spain’s most religious, with weekly Mass attendance averaging 40 per cent, twice the national level. It provides a substantial share of Spain’s 18,600 Catholic priests, at a time when one in five clergy are past retirement and half the country’s 68 seminaries have no admissions. Church leaders have regularly deplored ETA’s attacks; and in April 2001, the bishops’ conference president, Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela, threatened members with excommunication. Yet the situation is a lot more complex. Many first-generation ETA members came from devout Catholic backgrounds, often holding their “assemblies” on Church premises. Meanwhile, as guardians of Basque culture, many of the region’s priests had been radicalised by Franco’s repression. Not surprisingly, prominent Catholic clergy, then and now, have publicly backed Batsuna, whose present deputy leader, Inaki Esnaola, is himself a former priest.
This has created scope for conflict, and it exploded into the open two years ago over Aznar’s plans to prohibit the party. In a May 2002 pastoral letter, published in the Basque-language Deia daily, the bishops of Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria warned that most local Catholics, irrespective of political views, believed the move would have “grave consequence”.
When Spanish newspapers reported that more than 350 Basque priests had declared solidarity with their Church’s leaders, Aznar responded furiously, denouncing the letter as a “moral and intellectual perversion”, and demanding condemnation from the bishops’conference. His Foreign Minister, Josep Pique, explained the government’s “opposition and disquiet” to the Vatican’s nuncio in Madrid. The Basque bishops’letter, he pointed out, had “made no reference to the suffering of victims”. It sought only “to compensate the hangmen”.
However, the Portuguese-born nuncio, Archbishop Manuel Monteiro de Castro, declined to condemn the letter, noting only that it contained “premature elements”. Meanwhile, although the bishops’ conference distanced itself from the initiative, it also defended the Basque bishops’ “exclusive responsibility as shepherds of their own local churches”.
“This pastoral letter contains a clear and categorical condemnation of terrorism,” the Church’s executive committee insisted. “We invite everyone to bear in mind that terrorism always supposes a grave perversion of moral conscience. Its rectification will not be made easier by running down institutions like the Church, which plays an essential role through its mission of illuminating, shaping and strengthening the moral conscience of people and social life.” When the Pope visited Madrid in May 2003, he warned against a “spiral of violence, terror and war”, and urged Spaniards to build peace “through deep internal conversion”.
Not everyone heeded the call. During the same month, ETAwarned against “groundless speculation” that it could renounce violence. “Legitimate targets” the group added, would now include not just politicians and security officials, but also members of Opus Dei judged to have links with Aznar’s government. “Our armed actions will have a special significance during these days when our people are being repressed,” the statement said, “and a liberation struggle is being waged against the acts of those oppressing the Basque homeland.” This helps to explain why the Spanish bishops so readily accepted Aznar’s assurances that the Madrid atrocity was ETA’s work, with even Bishop Juan Maria Uriarte Goiricelaya of San Sebastian accusing the movement of an “immense crime against humanity”.
Some Catholics think a follow-up correction would be in order, to ensure the quest for truth isn’t overshadowed by divisive passions. For one thing, the Church will have other worries under Spain’s new Socialist premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero — a man committed, in the words of the liberal El Pais daily, to “establishing a new style of politics”.
Having vested high hopes in Aznar’s Popular Party back in the 1990s, the bishops’conference had grown deeply disillusioned by the start of this year. In a lengthy report this February, the bishops lamented that Spanish society had “declared itself post-Christian” and opted for “a process of hedonistic banalisation”. As for Aznar’s ostensibly pro-Catholic government, it had “reacted with only partial measures”, the bishops added, to “marginalise the truth of the Gospel and offer a phoney liberation”.
The traditional hostility of Socialist Party members could compound tensions like these. Last October, Socialist MPs unveiled plans for French-style legislation to remove crosses and religious symbols from Spanish schools, while in February, they threatened constitutional court action to curb the Church’s dominance. Zapatero himself has now given notice of his government’s attitude. “The time has come for a lay vision,” the 43year-old premier-elect confirmed last week, “where no one imposes his beliefs — whether on schools, on scientific research, or on any domain of society.” In a statement two weeks ago, the bishops’ conference warned the government against attempts to “negotiate with terrorism”, and told Zapatero he could count on unhesitating Catholic support in the “absolute priority” of fighting against it. But the Socialist government could have its own ideas about ETA. In 2002, party leaders criticised Aznar’s hardline policy towards Basque separatism, arguing that the British Government had achieved more in pursuit of peace by attempting to negotiate with the IRA in Northern Ireland.
Come what may, the coming months will bring some tough challenges. This summer, the Church is planning an exhibition, “Christus Splendor”, to mark 2,000 years of Spanish Christianity, as well as two major European pilgrimages to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. They will be occasions for reminding this battered but unvanquished country of the richness of its Catholic heritage, and of the need for unity and clear-sightedness in ensuring that heritage is defended.