The newly elected left-Republican and Socialist coalition in June 1931 further provoked the religious with controversial articles in the new Constitution, Spain’s first experiment in democracy. This went much further than a legal separation of Church and state. It extruded the Church from education, restricted its property rights and investments, and dissolved the Jesuits, who played a role in liberal and leftist mythology equivalent to that of freemasons, Jews and Marxists in the demonology of their opponents. This last measure was a bitter pill to swallow in the homeland of St Ignatius Loyola. Civil marriage and divorce were legalised, while the agreement of the authorities was henceforth necessary for any public celebration of religion – another indigestible measure in a society where religious processions were a highly developed art form. A supplementary law in 1933 nationalised all Church property, including secularising the cemeteries by putting them under local authority control and dismantling the walls which separated the dead religious from their non-believing fellows. Having nationalised Church property, thereby ignoring the wishes of those who had donated it, the government then taxed the clergy who used it. Measures against Church charities simply hurt poor people. The government also closed all religious schools, which since they educated 20 per cent of Spanish children, and were not replaced by secular alternatives, sat oddly with the Republic’s expansion of education.
Although these measures were implemented with varying local intensities, there can be no doubt that preventing the ringing of church bells, removing religious symbols from classrooms, and bureaucratising the procedures for those wanting religious funerals grievously irked many Catholics. Officious insistence that dying people fill out forms to get the send-off they wanted failed to charm their friends and relatives. These measures were condemned by Pius XI in the forceful 3 June 1933 encyclical Dilectissima nobis, which, while carefully professing indifference to forms of government, stressed the hypocrisy of these measures in terms of ‘those declared principles of civil liberty on which the new Spanish regime declares it bases itself’. These laws were the product of ‘a hatred against the Lord and His Christ nourished by groups subversive to any religious and social order, as alas we have seen in Mexico and Russia’. Republican Spain had become part of a ‘terribile triangolo’ whose object was the eradication of religion. Anticlericals in the Cortes responded in kind, with snide remarks about the ‘Mercantile Society of Jesus’, while the Socialist leader Azaña crowed that with these 1931–3 measures Spain had ceased to be Catholic.
Of course, things had been tending that way far longer than the wave of measures introduced in 1931–3 may suggest. In 1881 the Churches had lost control of the universities. In 1901 religion had become optional within the curriculum leading to the school leavers’ certificate. In 1913 non-Catholic parents could exempt their children from religious instruction. With a few exceptions, the arts and intelligentsia were dominated by secular-minded people. The Catholic presence among the urban working class and the southern rural poor was also exiguous. In 1935 a Jesuit calculated that, taking the eighty thousand parishioners of a Madrid working-class suburb, 7 per cent attended mass on Sundays; 90 per cent died without the benefit of the sacraments; 25 per cent of children were unbaptised; and of couples marrying, 40 per cent could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. Similar levels of indifference and ignorance were revealed in studies of Bilbao and Barcelona. The Church was also like an alien presence in the villages of Andalucia, with anarchist and Socialist activists converting peasant indifference or quasi-pagan superstition into outright hostility. Churches were falling into disrepair, when they even existed, and priests were poorly paid with government stipends equivalent to the lowest grade of janitors. The priesthood was not an attractive career option, with recruitment for seminaries falling by 40 per cent between 1931 and 1934.
Is the lash or the backlash the driving force of history? Who was the Prime Lasher?