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Spain Before the Vote: The Battle of the 'Theocons'

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The Spanish go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament -- and the country's Catholics are fighting to push the conservatives back into office. Zapatero's reforms have been a thorn in the Church's side. Madrid's archbishop is leading the fight against abortion, gay marriage and other policies.

Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela: Gay marriage is the "worst disaster in 2,000 years."
REUTERS

Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela: Gay marriage is the "worst disaster in 2,000 years."

A short man in a black habit and a little bright red cap is currently Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's most feared rival. He's the archbishop of Madrid, and he is laying claim to more than just his sway over the souls of the diminishing number of devout Catholics in the churches of the Spanish capital. He is Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, 71, and he is determined to force politics in Spain under the yoke of the church once again.

When Rouco makes an appearance in Spain, it's an almost God-like spectacle -- he performed the crown prince's marriage ceremony with a generous helping of churchly pomp and circumstance, and he routinely baptizes the children of the royal family. He sparkled when he played host to former Pope John Paul II, who had earlier admitted him into the College of Cardinals. And he recently received a show of support, in the form of a live broadcast beamed from the Vatican directly to Spanish voters, from his friend Pope Benedict XVI -- payback for his leadership in the church's opposition to the socialist government.

On Tuesday, Ruoco was easily reelected as head of the Spanish Bishops' Conference, a position he has held twice before, between 1999 and 2005. Zapatero sent him a hasty congratulatory telegram, in which he expressed his hope for "dialogue and cooperation" between the church and the government. But if Spain's most influential religious leader has his way, there will be none of that. Instead, Zapatero and his Socialists will lose the parliamentary elections on Sunday, and the conservatives and Rouco alike will return to power.

Rouco's address to 50 bishops, two cardinals, the leaders of Catholic organizations and thousands of parents and children, who had come together for a "Celebration of the Family" on Plaza de Colon in the heart of Madrid a few weeks ago, sounded like a declaration of war. He said that it troubles the church to realize that Spanish laws have "slipped behind the United Nations human rights declaration." In conclusion, the cardinal demanded nothing less than a completely new "legal civilization."

A Call to Rebellion against the Forces of Modernization

What the Catholics gathered in Madrid heard from Ruoco was no less than a call to rebellion against their secular leadership. The tough priest from northern Spain's Galicia region is directing his attack against supporters of the government, but not just with words.

Since the Socialists came to power in Spain, the confrontational cardinal has been energetically leading armies of black-clad clergy into the streets. The priests and nuns have revived a centuries-old tradition among the Spanish clergy of marching behind crucifixes and statues of the saints, but with a modern twist: Today they walk behind banners and vehicles with loudspeakers mounted on top.

The church is up in arms because Zapatero, a lawyer from León specializing in constitutional issues, has spent his four years in office trying to modernize life in Spain and bring it in line with Europe's most advanced societies. A majority in parliament approved his reforms, which include accelerated divorce proceedings, the recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages, liberalization of regulations governing genetic engineering and the introduction of a civics course in schools. But Spanish society remains divided.

While half of the Spaniards enthusiastically support the Socialists' progressive agenda, the other half has fled into the protective arms of the church. The church, for its part, has unleashed its anger, especially against gay marriage, which the bishops defined as the "worst disaster in 2,000 years."

The Socialists attempted to pacify the priests, but to no avail. They even increased the share of the income tax that goes to the church. Religion has remained a required subject in school, and legislative projects that would have legalized euthanasia and loosened Spain's highly restrictive abortion laws have been set aside. Under current Spanish law, an abortion can be provided solely in cases of rape, a defective fetus or once a doctor has confirmed that pregnancy poses a serious risk to a woman's mental or physical health. The government had initially considered permitting first-trimester abortions with fewer restrictions.

Cardinal Archbishop Rouco, whose name has been mentioned as a possible successor to the pope, is now swinging the Bible against the country's 1978 democratic constitution. It defines Spain as a neutral nation when it comes to religion and as one that is no longer tied to the Catholic religion. But Rouco and his cohorts are seeking to pit "God's law" against the laws of the constitutional state set up by politicians.

To do so, the church last week sent out an unprecedentedly harsh message, with the Bishop's Conference issuing what it called a "moral orientation" for Sunday's vote. It stated that Catholics may only give their votes to those who "defend human life, from conception until its natural end." Although the prelates did not name a specific party, they eliminated all doubt when they complained about the "growing difficulties" of establishing "the unhindered study of the Catholic religion in the lesson plans of public schools." In a country in which 90 percent of the population considers itself Catholic -- and yet only 30 percent attends mass regularly -- this is the equivalent of calling upon Spaniards to vote for the conservative Popular Party (PP), which had promised to establish a separate ministry of families.

Spain has become the setting for a crusade the Vatican launched in the countries (which were formally most loyal to it) against the largely secularized societies of the 21st century. Josef Ratzinger, the German-born pope, has found a zealous ally in Cardinal Rouco, who studied and taught in Munich in the 1960s. Rouco's doctoral thesis, which he wrote in German, is entitled "The State and Church in Sixteenth-Century Spain." It examines a period when Spain, after the expulsion of the Jews and the forced conversion of all Muslims, was a purely Catholic nation. For a time, Grand Inquisitor Cardinal Cisneros even headed the country's government.

Some say that Cisneros is Rouco's secret role model. The combative man of the cloth is more suited than any other church leader to head up Rome's counterreformation against the heretical social laws of the Socialists, which the church rejects as being revolutionary.

The Catholics' Claim to Absolute Power

Another Catholic counterreformation began in Spain half a millennium ago, when Ignacio de Loyola founded the Jesuit order and led it in a campaign to oppose the increasingly powerful Lutherans in northern Europe. Spain's history is filled with examples of the Catholics' claim to absolute power. Not too long ago, General Francisco Franco conducted a civil war as a crusade against his leftist opponents. For four decades, until his death in 1975, the dictator foisted a Catholic nationalist ideology on his country and gave the clergy a monopoly on education in schools.

The Popular Party (PP), the successor to the Alianza Popular headed by Franco's Minister of Information Fraga Iribarne, plans to benefit from what it hopes will be a return to Spain's darker traditions. The "theocons," a term the progressive daily newspaper El País coined -- in reference to the American neocons -- to describe the alliance between the neoconservative right and tradition-minded theologians, are seeking to regain control of the government.

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