This paper was written for David N. Hempton’s course, Secularization in Europe and the United States, c. 1780-2000, which was offered in the spring semester 2010.

Contemporary Spain is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Although the 1978 Constitution transitioned the country from a dictatorship to a democracy and abolished an official state religion, 75% of Spaniards still self-identify as Catholic.1 In recent years, however, the number of people who ascribe to no religion has increased, while regular church attendance has decreased. According to a 2009 study, just over 20% of Spaniards are either atheist or profess no belief in any defined religion.2 The marked increase in religious apathy among contemporary Spanish citizens indicates a trend toward secularization.

The current Spanish government, lead by Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has made changes to Spanish laws regarding social norms that put the government at odds with the Catholic church. Zapatero is not the first post-Franco leader to liberalize the Spanish constitution. The changes instituted under his leadership, however, do move much farther from Catholic social doctrine than previous changes and indicate a distinct separation between Spain’s Catholic roots and current social leanings.

Since the end of the Spanish State led by Francisco Franco, the relationship between religion, public policy, and the people has been contentious. During Franco’s regime, from 1936 through 1975, Catholicism “dominated social and civic life;” National-Catholicism, as it came to be called by it’s detractors, created as strong relationship between the government and the Catholic church.3 Shifts during the Franco regime, however, also show changes in the Catholic character of the Spanish State. When he first came to power in the 1930s, Franco worked to reestablish a “national Catholic culture” in order to maintain a cultural hegemony that would both unite the country and reinforce his power as dictator.4 Under Franco’s leadership, Spanish schools and universities were run outwardly by Falange, a fascist political party, but moral formation was still the province of the Catholic church, which held ultimate authority over the educational system. By maintaining control over the education children received, the church was able to instill in them a strong belief in Catholic doctrine in conjunction with allegiance to the state.

The church hierarchy, with some reluctance on the part of Rome, had supported Franco’s Spanish State since its inception in 1939.5 In 1953 Pope Pius XII signed a Concordat giving Franco Rome’s official moral endorsement. The Second Vatican Council, lasting from 1962 through 1965, changed the manner in which the Catholic church related to the modern world, particularly in the realm of human rights. This shift created problems between the church and the Spanish State, which, under Franco’s dictatorship, had severely restricted the rights of Spanish citizens and executed or imprisoned tens of thousands of dissenters.6 Gaudiam et Spes, one of the best known pastoral documents to come out of Vatican II, states, “persons and societies thirst for a full and free life […] in which they can subject to their own welfare all that the modern world can offer them.”7 This level of freedom is not possible within the type of dictatorship that defined the Spanish State under Franco, in which culture was defined and controlled by conservative Catholic values.

Anti-clerical sentiment was evident among Spanish Catholics even before the doctrinal conflict instigated by Vatican II. As early as 1957, close to 90% of Spanish workers considered themselves anti-clerical, while close to half described themselves as anti-religious.8 These numbers, in a country in which over 85% of citizens still labeled themselves Catholic, betray a deep divide between outward labels and private beliefs among Spanish Catholics even during Franco’s regime. After Franco’s death in 1975, however, the shift became more distinct. Franco had arranged to reinstated the monarchy after his death and named Juan Carlos, a member of the exiled royal family, as his successor. Franco believed that Juan Carlos would continue his tradition of autocratic rule. This, however, was not the case, and soon after assuming power, King Juan Carlos set in motion the beginnings of a Spanish democracy.9 A social and democratic constitution was ratified on December 6, 1978, signaling a beginning to the Catholic church’s more direct influence in Spanish politics.10 Although the church, particularly post-Vatican II, “played a major role in demanding respect for human rights and in supporting the whole democratic process,” conflicts arose as the clergy saw the approach of social freedoms in direct conflict with Catholic values.11 Even with the shift towards democracy, Spain maintained some remnants of traditional Catholic social values. This is evidenced by the restrictions placed on abortion in a 1985 law limiting its availability to “cases of rape, if a [fetus] is damaged or if the pregnancy could endanger the physical or mental health of the mother.”12 While this new law decriminalized abortion, its prohibition on abortion at the mother’s discretion demonstrates that the Catholic church did still retain significant influence over matters they considered to hold moral significance.

From the 1980s through the present, the Spanish government shifted farther to the left. From 1982 through 1996, the office of the prime minister was in the hands of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which again gained control in 2004, with the election of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. From 1996 through 2004, José María Aznar of the Partido Popular (PP), a right-centrist party, held office. Although more conservative than the PSOE, Aznar and the PP lead Spain during a period in which apathy towards institutionalized religion soared.13 During his two terms in office, Aznar liberalized Spain’s economy through labor market reform, but his support of “The War on Terrorism,” in addition to the March 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid, hurt his party’s standing, and they lost to the PSOE in the 2004 elections. Under Prime Minister Zapatero’s leadership, Spanish social policy has continued to liberalize, often in direct conflict with church teachings. After more than 40 years of influence over Spanish social policy, progressive social reforms in the areas of abortion, same-sex marriage, and education have angered many traditional members of the church hierarchy.

One of the first changes to Spanish social policy after the shift to a democratic government was the decriminalization of abortion. The bill was first introduced in 1983, to the anger of Catholic groups, who argued that it conflicted with Article 15 of the Spanish Constitution, which states, “Everyone has the right to life.”14 This version of the bill was ultimately declared unconstitutional in 1985, but another version, amended with safeguards to prevent “abortion at will,” was passed later that same year. This version allowed abortion only in cases of “rape, malformation of the [fetus], and grave danger to the life of the mother.”15 In February 2010, Zapatero’s government further liberalized abortion laws to remove restrictions on abortions performed up to 14 weeks of pregnancy and to allow teenagers 16 and older to obtain abortions without parental consent.16 The liberalization of Spanish abortion policy has created tensions between the progressive government and both the Catholic church and more conservative citizens. Aznar’s party, the more conservative PP, accused the PSOE of trying to destroy the family, “one of the pillars of Spanish society,” through “unrestricted abortion.”17 By allying themselves with the Catholic church and its socially conservative viewpoints, the PP speaks both to Catholic Spaniards and Spanish nationalism, highlighting the relationship between the two.

The conflict between traditional Catholic values and socially progressive laws is also evident in the changes to Spanish divorce laws. Divorce is not allowed under Catholic doctrine, but in 2005 Prime Minister Zapatero introduced legislation to make divorces easier and quicker to obtain.18 Although divorce was officially legalized in 1981, the law required a long period of legal separation before an actual divorce could be obtained. This requirement, as well as social stigma, kept the divorce rates in Spain significantly lower than in the rest of Europe.19 Since Zapatero’s government eased the divorce laws, rates have increased steadily, leading the clergy, as well as many social conservatives, to argue that liberal divorce laws are detrimental to society. A leading Spanish family lawyer, however, argues that the law simply allows divorces among people who might otherwise have simply separated before the change.20 Liberalizing Spanish divorce laws does not, in his opinion, drastically impact the number of people who want divorces, but rather makes divorce a viable option to those who would otherwise stay married, but live completely separate lives. Evidence supports the claim that more lenient divorce laws do not significantly impact the number of couples who want to divorce. Additionally, the majority of the Spanish population supports liberal divorce laws. Despite popular opinion, however, Catholic doctrine opposes divorce and the church continues to oppose changes to Spanish divorce law.

In 2005, shortly after current Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took office, the Spanish legislature voted to approve legislation to alter the constitutional definition of marriage. With the addition of one sentence, “Marriage will have the same requirements and results when the two people entering into the contract are of the same sex or of different sexes,” Spain extended full marriage privileges to same-sex couples.21 The extension of marriage and adoption privileges to all couples, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, made Spain’s legislation the most liberal to date. Had it been less progressive, however, it seems likely that the Catholic church would still have reacted strongly to what it saw as the dissolution of the traditional family. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on the Family, denounced the legalization of same sex marriage, and called for faithful Catholics to refuse to enforce the legislation, even if it meant losing their jobs.22 By calling on adherents to endorse the political and social positions of the church over those of the state, the Catholic hierarchy has inserted itself into Spanish politics to a degree that is not often seen on other Western European countries.

In the United States and much of Europe, even those countries with an official state religion, the process of liberalization has had relatively little interference from a religious opposition with legitimized influence or power. While religious groups in the United States do wield some political power over their congregants, churches risk losing their nonprofit status if they become overly involved in political matters. Both Norway and Sweden have state churches as well as laws legalizing same-sex marriage and other progressive social reforms. Although membership in the state church is generally not indicative of church attendance or belief in religious principles, it is important to note that even a state religion is not necessarily a barrier to social progress. Spain’s struggle between Catholic tradition and social liberalization and secularization is representative of the past and present influence of the Catholic hierarchy, as well as remnants of the national Catholicism that Franco promoted during his regime. The reelection of the PSOE, Spain’s socialist party, in 2004 demonstrates the commitment of a plurality of Spanish citizens to maintaining a separation between church and state.


1. “Barómetro de Julio Estudio nº 2.811,” Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, July 2009. p. 19.
2. Ibid.
3. Frances Lannon, Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), pp. 33-34.
4. Lannon 221.
5. Audrey Brassloff, Religion and Politics in Spain: The Spanish Church in Transition 1962-96 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 6.
6. Ibid.
7. Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes. Rome, December 7, 1965.
8. Brassloff 11.
9. Brassloff 80.
10. Brassloff 98.
11. Brassloff 99.
12. “Madrid Anti-Abortion Protest Draws Thousands,” New York Times, 7 March 2010.
13. Brassloff 138.
14. Brassloff 123.
15. Brassloff 124.
16. “Spain OKs new abortion law, angers church,” MSNBC. 24 February 2010.
17. Ibid.
18 Paul Hamilos, “Spain’s divorce rate soars after rules relaxed.” The Guardian, 17 November 2007.
19. Ibid.
20. Hamilos.
21. Renwick McLean, “Spain Legalizes Gay Marriage; Law Is Among the Most Liberal,” New York Times, 1 July 2005.
22. “Vatican condemns Spain gay bill,” BBC News, 22 April 2005.