Spain Before the Vote The Battle of the 'Theocons'

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.

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.

'An Ideological Hatred of those Seeking to Protect Life'

In the governments he led between 1996 and 2004, former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar supported members of ultraconservative Catholic movements like Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ. Mariano Rajoy, Aznar's 52-year-old successor as president of the PP, who is now running against Zapatero for a second time as his party's leading candidate, has placed arch-Catholic warhorses at the top of his election list, while reducing the influence of liberals within the PP. Former Prime Minister Aznar directs the conservative Foundation for Social Analysis and Study (FAES), which defines his party's platform and develops its campaign strategies. Aznar's think tank combines traditional Catholic values with centralist Spanish nationalism, which is opposed to the autonomy movements among the Basques and Catalans.

In television debates, challenger Rajoy -- working from a neocon-inspired playbook prepared for him by FAES -- attacked Zapatero, and not just because of his government's negotiations with terrorists from the Basque separatist group ETA. The PP also performed a populist about-face on immigration policy, when Rajoy proposed a ban on the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women. Under his proposal, immigrants would only receive a residence permit if they signed an integration agreement. A portion of the right "has transformed itself into a sect," says Gaspar LLamazares, the leader of the United Left party, a possible coalition partner for Zapatero's Socialists.

The Rise of the Theocons

Maria Salom, the PP's deputy parliamentary leader, has become the scourge of the Socialists in the Spanish parliament. An economist and a native of Mallorca, Salom is the PP's leading candidate for the island. Like the Crusaders of long ago, the slim, combative woman refers to Israel, where she was married, as the "Holy Land." She considers Zapatero's policies on women to be the work of the devil. But didn't Zapatero institute a female quota on the boards of directors of publicly traded companies? "A total bluff" that only benefited an elite group of people, Salom shoots back. According to Salom, the government can't afford Zapatero's reformist programs, like child care subsidies, free day care and government funding for home care programs for the disabled and the elderly.

The Socialists "assaulted the Spanish tradition of the family with gay marriage," says Salom, mimicking the bishops' charges. Her party is examining whether it violates the constitution to define same-sex cohabitation as marriage and to grant same-sex couples the right to adopt. For the conservative politician, the new mandatory civics class in schools is nothing but "indoctrination in secularism." Parents, she says, must retain the right to decide for themselves which moral code their children should pursue. Cardinal Rouco has voiced the same demand.

"Theoconservative" politicians like Salom get some of their most effective talking points from a church-owned chain of media outlets. Every morning, the host of a program on COPE Radio, owned by the Catholic Church, dispenses venom and insults against government politicians and defectors from the PP. In the afternoons, housewives tune in to hear talk show host Christina Lopez Schlichting dispense advice on how to lead a life pleasing to God. When homosexuality is a topic on Schlichting's program, she invites people "who have managed to liberate themselves from it and to overcome their problems." A sturdy blonde whose mother comes from Hamburg, Schlichting feels "bound to the tradition of Christian humanism."

At times she even considers the PP's theocons to be too lackadaisical. She promotes purely "natural methods of contraception" and is leading a bitter war against abortion. Schlichting is disappointed that the PP wants to maintain the law as it is now. She thinks that what are already meant to be strict criteria for abortions are being interpreted too liberally. She is convinced that there is "an ideological hatred of those seeking to protect life" in Spain. As an indication of the conservative talk station's anti-abortion stance, COPE's talk show hosts were practically ecstatic when the police shut down two abortion clinics in Madrid.

Thanks to the theocons' campaign, the PP's voters are steadfastly behind Rajoy. But that support isn't enough to secure a victory at the ballot box, and the challenger now hopes that moderate supporters of Zapatero's Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) will be sufficiently alienated to stay at home on Sunday. The governing party still leads by 2 percent to 4 percent in the opinion polls, but it is highly dependent on there being high voter turnout. For this reason, the Socialists hope that the cardinal and his theocons will encourage voters from the left, where turnout is traditionally on the low side, to vote on Sunday. The same thing happened in 2004, when voters were incensed over the Iraq war and the PP's dishonest attempt to blame the Basque ETA for the Madrid commuter train bombings .

On election day, Catholics will be turning their attention to the short man in black once again. They hope that Cardinal Rouco, as the freshly anointed head of the Spanish Bishops' Conference, will deliver a fiery sermon from the pulpit, repeating his recent performance on Madrid's Plaza de Colon.

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