Spain’s secularization continues as some want Catholicism out of schools

Story by Charlie Wolfson and Irvin Zhang

GRANADA, Spain — Javier Chavarino Lorano is sitting in his office as rain taps on the windows and noisy children mill about in the hallway. He’s the director of Colegio Publico Luis Rosales, a primary school where religion is integrated into the curriculum, as it is at all Spanish public schools.

As his assistant director shoos kids from the doorway, Lorano explains why he doesn’t think religion should be taught anymore in the public system.

“I believe in God, but I think teaching religion in public schools is not right,” Lorano said. “It should be taught at churches.”

Lorano is not alone. For decades, the Spanish public has been ebbing away from entrenched Catholicism. Church attendance has plummeted. Social issues such as divorce, gay marriage and abortion have found support and understanding among the people. And most recently, a vote in February by Spain’s legislature has recommended that public schools remove religion from school curriculum — a single act that has signaled a definable shift from the indoctrination that was once demanded in this country of Cathedrals and Sunday communion.

Fernando Casal Bértoa, a political science professor at the University of Nottingham, points out that secularization is part of a broad, historical movement for Spain, a movement strengthened by the 2014 financial crisis and pressure from activists of other social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, to stray from the restrictive policies of the church. He also noted that this trend is not confined to Spain, but that other countries’ movements are motivated by the economy more than religion.

“This is a process that’s not only in Spain,” said Bértoa, 41, who lived in Galicia, Spain, until he was 26 and now teaches in England. “Of course [it’s happening in] Spain because it was a very Catholic country, but Italy is the same, Portugal is the same. The process of secularization is a global process … Of course, in some of these countries, it is not connected with religion at all. It is a crisis of traditional values. This is more of a revolutionary movement.”

A crucifix is positioned over a portrait of André Manjón y Manjón, the founder of Ave Maria Casa de Madre, a semi-private Catholic school in Granada. The two hang between the windows of the school counselor’s office. Photo by Ellie MacLean

Lorano’s view reflects the country’s shift over the past couple of decades away from its devout Catholic past under former Prime Minister Francisco Franco, a conservative dictator whose reign spanned from 1939 to his death in 1975, when 95 percent of Spaniards identified as Catholic.  By 1980, a study found that 82 percent of the country identified as Catholic. That number has decreased to 68.5 percent, according to a 2018 study done by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research. Perhaps even more tellingly, 59 percent of people who identify as Catholic today say they barely ever celebrate Mass.

It’s that increasing disconnect from the church that experts believe led to the vote on Feb. 21, when the Spanish Congress approved a non-binding proposal that urged the government to take religion out of public school curriculums. Now, there are currently two options parents and students can choose from: They can opt for a religious course based on the religious demographic of the school, which is typically Catholic, or they can choose a non-religious course on “civics and ethics.”

“There are a lot of those who don’t have such traditional respect for the church,” Bértoa said. “You shouldn’t forget, Franco was supportive of the Catholic church and the Catholic church supported Franco. Those who fought for the Republic are traditionally also anti-clerical because the church took Franco’s side.”

The proposal was pushed forth by Unidos Podemos, a leftist political party known for having an anti-clerical agenda. The proposal was heavily contested, passing by one vote.

As Lorano voiced his opposition to teaching religion in public schools, a colleague settled into the desk on the other side of the room. The assistant director and tutor, Manuel Gentil Adarve, disagreed and favors the status quo.

“I think it’s important that religion is taught at schools because of its values,” Adarve said.

The notion of religion taught for its values, such as peace, charity and forgiveness, is common in Spain and shows how deeply cemented religion is in Spanish society. Bértoa explains why many Spaniards, even those who are not practicing Catholics, are OK with religion in their children’s classrooms.

“Religion has of course been important in determining the way people vote and I think still, despite the fact that people don’t practice so much, they still have their beliefs,” Bértoa said. “This of course determines the way you think about many things like education, abortion, importance of family values.”

In Spain, there are three types of schools students can attend: free public schools, semi-private schools, which are free until the last two years of high school, and private schools that require tuition all the way through.

Within public and semi-private schools, students are given the course options mentioned above. In either course, students are supposed to receive an education in values and ethics, with or without religious themes. The act passed by the Spanish Congress encourages schools to eliminate the religious offering, leaving the secular values and ethics course as the only option.

Myriam Viaja Real, a psychologist and counselor at Ave Maria Casa de Madre, a semi-private Catholic school in Granada that teaches 12- to 18-year-olds, illustrated why religion and values are central to Spanish education.

“I think there is a big difference between teaching religion as a subject here in school and what is taught at church and by parents,” Real said. “Christian values are also universal values like love and respect. For me, it’s very important that we work on values at school. I don’t mind if it’s called religion, ethics, citizenship education or whatever.”

Furthermore, the director of Ave Maria, Maria del Carmen Gonzalez Moles, stressed that it is important to have religious education in more than one place.

“I think it’s very beneficial if religion is taught in schools (in addition to churches),” she said. “It’s a collaborative effort.”

Maria del Carmen Gonzalez Moles, the director of semi-private Catholic school Ave Maria Casa de Madre, sits beneath a large portrait of the school’s founder. Photo by Ellie MacLean

On a chilly March day, a group of college students — all products of the Spanish education system —  were resting in a park after participating in a women’s rally. They sat on a bench in a mostly empty plaza, decked out in purple shirts, hats and face paint, the color of International Women’s Day. They were upbeat, and said they were headed back to the march after a break.

Irene Contreras Fernandez, 26, attended both a public school and a semi-private Catholic school. She said religion should have no place in schools, and her half-dozen or so friends at her side agreed.

Fernandez also said the non-religious class — the values and ethics course — was not a real alternative. “In practice, all of the non-religious classes were just free time,” Fernandez said. “You didn’t really do anything.”

Elena Isabel Meron Wilke, a first-year business and law double major at the University of Granada, said many students at the semi-private Catholic school she graduated from did not practice Catholicism strictly. Out of her class of 30, she said only two went to Mass every Sunday and most stayed away from religion all together unless they were forced. “Sometimes we went to events with religion and they were like ‘Oh we have to go because it’s obligatory.”

Even so, she still believes it would be a mistake to remove mandatory religious instruction from schools.

“I think it’s fine to have a Catholic school,” she said. “I think it’s good. It’s fine because parents, if they believe in God, they can send their kid to that school and try to keep going with that.”

Across town, on a different day, Ricardo Vernaza watched his kids, a boy and a girl, climb and slide the cloudy but pleasant afternoon away at a playground in the Realejo San Matias neighborhood. He said he wants his children, Matio and Manuela, to receive the values that come with a Catholic education.

Vernaza moved to Granada from Uruguay at the beginning of February. He said he intends to raise his children in Spain because of the deeply entrenched Catholicism practiced here.

“I’m a Catholic and for me, it’s not that I want them to go to a Catholic school, but most importantly, I like what is underneath the Catholic religion, those certain values,” Vernaza said. “We want to put them into a school where they get that from their class, classmates and the whole environment.”

As the sun shone through the clouds, a welcomed break from rain, Matio toppled off a playground tower. His father jolted to attention, but after seeing his son wobble to his feet unfazed, returned to his musings on his children’s education.

A small statue of Mary stands in the corner of the school’s courtyard. Photo by Ellie MacLean

“I would try to say ‘yes’ when you ask me if religion is important because I don’t want my kids exposed to just ethics,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what they mean by ethics. Myself being an open-minded Catholic, I would rather have them in a school … that gives them certain values that are common to Catholics.”

A couple blocks away, Raul Rodriguez pushed his 2-year-old son in a stroller down a narrow cobblestone lane. Rodriguez, who also has a 9-year-old at home, has views that differ from Vernaza’s. Rather, he aligned with Chavarino, the public school director, in wanting religion to be available but not in schools.

“For me, it’s OK to not have religion in schools because if they want to learn religion, they can learn outside of the school,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not like they need to be forced in schools.”



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