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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Szendrő

The Catalans and the Church

Why do some Catalan protesters oppose the Catholic Church? A true account from Barcelona.

In the confines of Barcelona’s gothic quarter, music pours out of a dimly lit bar. Amidst a packed sea of people, voices fire back and forth in a host of tongues - Spanish, Portugese, English, Catalan. Topics of conversation vary, but the lingua franca is political. The heart of the matter: Catalan independence.

Under the raucous noise of conversation, an old man named Jordi speaks in muted fashion. The Catalan question makes Jordi prickly. He bristles at mispronunciations of his name. He claims not to have an interest in politics, but overflows with opinions.

“We are the only people on Earth who still live under a fascist government,” he says.

Outside, the bar sits amongst a cramped space of old buildings where protestors congregate in every open area. Bright yellow flags draped across the bodies of demonstrators clash against their stark grey surroundings - the stone streets, the aged infrastructure, the cloudy sky.

The complaints against the Spanish government have amplified since the 2017 referendum; after a near-unanimous decision from the Catalonian population to form an independent state, the Spanish crown declared the vote illegal and dismantled much of the Catalonian parliament - leaders have faced jail time and exile for their role in the vote.

“We have a king and no right to protest,” Jordi says. “It is not a democracy.”

It’s about money, in part; Catalonia outproduces the rest of Spain. The Spanish government relies on the region to boost its economic numbers. It’s also about history. Catalans pride themselves in their distinctiveness. They exist in the space between French and Spanish, not aligned with either. In the Museum of Catalan History, a particularly separatist view of affairs stresses that the Catalans faced repeated conquest by several unsympathetic parties, and the Spanish happened to win out by sheer chance.

“The culture was forced on us,” Jordi snaps. “We don’t fucking want it - the language, the Flamenco, the religion — ”

“What’s religion got to do with it?”

“Everything! Where does a king get their power? The church appoints the monarch.”

The Catholic Church remains the most predominant religious institution in Catalonia. Even against the rising tide of the irreligious, it retains a majority of the population as adherents. At the same time, memories linger; the Catholic Church has, historically, sided with the Spanish monarchy.While Catholic parishes resisted fascists in Latin America, they fell in line under the heels of their European counterparts.

During the latter stages of the Cold War, Political Scientist Samuel Huntington noted that a “third wave” of conversion to democracy had taken place in Latin America. Throughout this process, the Catholic Church had resisted autocratic rulers and allied themselves against flimsy authoritarian regimes, many of which survived only due to American backing. These regimes became useless as the Cold War dwindled, and thus could not endure on their own.

The Church showed a much different mode of operation in Europe.

Historically, the Spanish crown derived its authority from the Catholic Church. In the early days of the modern nation-state, secular authorities depended on religious authorities to lend them credence. During this era, the Catalan region changed hands repeatedly, but always between Catholic-majority countries. Although the Catalan identity evolved with an independent spirit, it also grew intertwined with Catholic heritage.

By the eve of the Industrial Revolution, the Spanish had consolidated control over the region. In the decades that followed, traditional religious authorities increasingly ceded their sovereignty to their secular counterparts. By the mid-nineteenth century had waned, the state had so eclipsed the church that the Catholic Church in Spain now relied on the national government to maintain its legitimacy. Spain declared Catholicism the official state religion.

The centralization of the secular, sovereign authority mirrored the centralization of the church. The doctrine of consolidated power became the justification for suppression of secessionist movements. It also developed the basis for the exploitation of the common class. Capitalist growth in Spain lent much of its success to Catalan labor. The Spanish crown reaped much of the benefits of Catalan productivity.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Catalonia shied away from capitalism when given the chance. As Spanish sovereignty disintegrated over the course of its Civil War in the 1930s, Catalonia experiment with decentralized rural collectivism. Committees sprang up in small jurisdictions, redistributing land, factories and farms.

The Spanish Civil War coincided with a broader rise of fascism throughout the industrialized world. The ascent of such leaders spoke to a disillusionment with the modern nation-state. What Durkheim had termed “anomie” - the apathy that resulted from the loss of traditional social networks - morphed into what Arendt called “atomization,” in which socially dislocated individuals gravitated toward violent strains of nationalism.

To rectify this disenchantment, the fascists coopted the Church where possible, and the Church ultimately played ball to whatever extent necessary. This does not necessarily reflect the true preferences of the Church; as a politically pragmatic entity, the Church has resisted autocrats where possible, cooperated where beneficial and submitted where necessary. In Spain, the Church lent credence to Franco’s rule, and enjoyed legal privileges as a result. The Franco regime, in turn, repressed expressions of Catalan identity as a threat to its consolidated power.

Today, the Catholic Church has, in muted fashion, sided with the Spanish government in the Catalan dispute. During the independence referendum, a handful of Catalan Bishops spoke out in favor of independence, only to meet reprisal. The overarching opinion of the Church branded the move undemocratic in that it occurred with unilateral authority by the Catalan parliament. In effect, democracy depends on consolidated sovereignty.

The threat of secession shows the weakness of consolidation; both the Church and the State have good reason to see this as a threat. It may also present an opportunity. The relationship between religion and state has reversed over time; still, it remains in flux. If the state appears weak, the Church may step in to fill that role. These opportunities have proven far more limited in Europe, where the state has remained stable over time, than in Latin America, where states have struggled to maintain their monopolies.

For Barcelona, the reminders of Spanish coercion linger from every corner. Banners denouncing the imprisonment of Catalan leaders hang from every apartment building, in spades. The city moves to the rhythm of protest - on this particular day, truckers on strike drive in circles around Plaça d’Espanya, the Plaza of Spain. They sound their horns with a consistent phrasing.

“Somebody’s always protesting something here,” says Liam, an English-born resident, “I have no idea what it’s about.”

As a coastal city, Barcelona has become more open to transnationalism than the metropolitan areas of Spain proper. Middle Eastern food dominates the late night eateries. Tourists, particularly Americans, fill much of the nightclubs. For a city that prides itself on linguistic separatism, it displays an abundance of diversity.

“Barcelona has changed,” Jordi says. “There are more people here. People from America, people from Britain, people from [the] Middle East.”

In the age of populism, nationalism and globalization backlash, the Catalans may have more sympathy from the outside world than ever before. As dreams of a border-free Europe fragment, unity between two disparate peoples becomes a less popular idea. And in the wake of demographic changes, reasserting self-identity becomes not only a norm, but an expectation.

Of course, the free Catalan movement bears far more similarities to radical liberalism than to national particularism. Catalonia is a famously insubordinate region; having flirted with non-capitalist economics in the past, and has been subject to capitalist exploitation in the decades since. Continued attempts by the State to bring the region under heel speak to the continued desire to expropriate Catalan labor for the benefit of the regime. Catalan tradition, as such, stresses a decentralized approach to free labor. The centralized structure of the Spanish crown mirrors that of the Church; both stand in direct opposition to the culture of Catalonia.

“We will be free,” Jordi concludes. “You cannot control people forever.”

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