Thousands of yellow-and-white Vatican flags have already been draped throughout Madrid ahead of Pope Benedict's four-day visit this week, unfurled by early arrivals from around the planet taking part in this year's Catholic Church-organized World Youth Day between August 18 and 21. More than one million young people are expected in the capital.
A huge stage has been erected at the central Plaza de Cibeles, one of Madrid's most emblematic sites and where the Real Madrid soccer team traditionally celebrates its victories. The traffic circle, surrounded by buildings dating back to the late 18th century, will host three of the four main events during WYD: the opening Mass on Tuesday, the papal welcome two days later and the Stations of the Cross ceremony on Friday, which will feature 15 carvings from the Spanish Holy Week processions.
The government says it would prefer the pontiff to stick to the spiritual domain
Opposing the visit are 150 lay and atheist groups, plus some Christian societies
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people will be entertained by pop groups at the Cuatro Vientos airbase southwest of the capital, where the pope will hold a "Prayer Vigil" in the evening. The young pilgrims will spend the night under the stars at the airbase with duvets and rugs on a vast esplanade the size of 48 football fields. Pope Benedict will celebrate Mass there on Sunday at a white altar almost 200 meters long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol "tree," made of interwoven golden rods to protect him from the brutal August heat.
But Benedict XVI is not visiting Spain in a purely spiritual capacity. He will be welcomed as a head of state by the king and queen - besides paying a private visit to the royal family at its official Zarzuela residence just outside Madrid - and will also meet Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero at the papal nunciature in the north of the city.
While accepting the accordance of state honors on the pope, the government has already said that it would prefer the pontiff to limit his comments to the spiritual domain. But Pope Benedict will not miss the opportunity to share his opinions with the faithful on the problems that Spain faces. He is due to make some nine sermons over the course of his stay, and will doubtless bemoan secularism and the relativism that he believes has overtaken Spanish society. He will also back up the country's bishops in their outspoken criticism of recently passed laws benefiting homosexuals, fast-track divorce and abortion rights.
Led by the outspoken archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio María Rouco, Spain's Catholic clergy have taken part in demonstrations and marches against these laws, annoying the government and angering public opinion, which overwhelmingly supports the legislation.
Rallying round a campaign slogan of "No money to the pope from my taxes," around 150 lay and atheist organizations, along with religious groups such as the Christian network, the Priests' Forum, and the John 23rd Association of Theologists, held a protest last Wednesday about what they see as the Vatican's interference in matters of state, as well as to criticize the government for its support of the papal visit, which is being financed to the tune of 50 million euros. They say they are acting in defense of "democracy, freedoms, for the separation of Church and state, and the end of legal, symbolic, political, fiscal, and economic privileges that the official Catholic Church enjoys in Spain." A protest march is planned for Wednesday.
The prelate of Toledo, Archbishop Braulio Rodríguez, the head of the Church in Spain, responded to the critics of Catholic privileges by calling them "yokels," and describing their views as "radical secularism that represents a moral danger." Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, the spokesman for the General Synod of Bishops, went even further, calling the organizers of the demonstration "parasites." On Saturday, the organizers issued the following statement: "An important part of the Catholic Church behaves with worrying arrogance that at times borders on defamation. Furthermore, some of the comments they make could incite fundamentalists to carry out acts of violence." A letter has been sent to the Attorney General's Office detailing these accusations.
Campaigners for a greater separation between Church and state have called on "the authorities and the relevant politicians" who represent them "independently of their beliefs and personal convictions" to avoid taking part in "ceremonies and events of a purely Catholic nature that call for intolerance and that do not respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and laws approved by parliament."
Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005 shortly after his 78th birthday. This is his third trip to Spain as Benedict XVI. In 2006 he visited Valencia to attend World Family Day (the financing of the trip is now subject to judicial scrutiny as part of the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts network involving the Popular Party administration in Valencia). In November of 2010 he visited Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona. During the plane trip he said that Spain was in the grip of "aggressive anticlericalism" and compared the country's mood to that of the days of the Second Republic prior to the Civil War. The Catholic Church gave unconditional support to Franco's uprising and subsequent dictatorship, describing the illegal actions of the military as "a crusade."
The government expressed its surprise at the comparison, but avoided making an issue of it. Zapatero was in Afghanistan when the pope arrived, and was then criticized for not attending a Mass celebrated by the pontiff in Barcelona. Eventually, the Socialist leader did travel to Catalonia to see the pope off. Since then, there have been no further incidents between the government and the Catholic Church; due principally to the government's U-turn on a number of electoral promises such as regulating euthanasia and changing the law to offer greater inclusion for other religions, as well as further limiting religious education in schools. Zapatero has been criticized for "allowing his arm to be twisted by the pope, Cardinal Rouco, and other hard-line Catholics." The government has so far refused to be drawn, and will be hoping that Benedict XVI does not stoke the flames of controversy during his stay. Which is unlikely.
During the 2004 election campaign, the Socialist Party promised to regulate euthanasia if it was voted into office. Almost eight years on, it has yet to keep that promise. The draft bill presented to Congress, too late for it to be approved, avoids the term "euthanasia," which comes from the Greek for good death.
Indeed, when Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba in his capacity as the then-deputy prime minister announced the draft bill, he referred to it in terms of palliative care and a dignified death. "It is not a euthanasia law," he insisted. In effect, all the government has done is to provide further guarantees that the legislation on palliative care, and respect for the last wishes of the dying that has already been passed, be respected.
The government has reneged on its commitment to legalize euthanasia under pressure from the Catholic Church, blaming Spanish society in the process by saying that people were not "mature" enough to deal with such a law. "It's our politicians who are not mature enough," said Salvador Pániker, one of the founders of DMD, the organization set up to defend the right to a dignified death.
Surveys show that more than 60 percent of Spaniards approve of legalizing and regulating euthanasia. Recent studies by DMD put the figure at 77 percent.
If the government thought it could avoid confrontation with the Catholic Church by backing down on its pledge to legalize euthanasia, it was wrong. Scenting that he had the administration on the run, the General Synod of Bishops described the government's measures as "a text that could open the door to euthanasia practices. If it is approved as it stands, it should not be recognized."
"Give the bishops an inch and they'll take a yard," said the European Secular Association at the time, referring to the government's other climb-down in the face of Catholic Church hostility to electoral promises: reform of the 1980 law on religious freedom. The government has prepared the new legislation, which further removes the Catholic Church from any role in political life: for example Catholic state funerals for victims of terrorism, even when victims are not Catholic; the presence of a crucifix when ministers are sworn into office, regardless of their religious beliefs or absence thereof; the continued presence of religious symbols in public buildings, and so on. "The reform is a good idea, but it is not urgent," said Zapatero shortly after meeting with Pope Benedict in November 2010. Zapatero now says his aim is for a "fluid relationship" with the Vatican, based on the Catholic Church's influence in a country that is nominally secular.
The current government's first term produced several bruising confrontations with the Catholic Church, including reform of the divorce law; legalization of same-sex marriage; stem-cell research; giving children the option to study civics instead of religious education; and abortion on demand. The country's senior Catholic clergy led street protests, which were supported by the Popular Party.
Some commentators have suggested that the Catholic Church's new militancy is due to the government bending over backwards to accommodate the Vatican: few governments in recent history have been so generous to the Catholic Church; Zapatero has said that the state will continue to finance it, overturning an agreement made 30 years ago that at some point in the future the Catholic Church would have to fend for itself.
In 2007, without consulting Congress, the Foreign Ministry and the Vatican agreed a new financing arrangement for the Catholic Church, eliminating the state's direct payment, but implementing a 34-percent increase in the amount that Catholics can divert from their annual tax return from 0.52 percent to 0.70 percent, bringing the Catholic Church in some 250 million euros a year.
Thus, Catholics do not have to pay more than atheists for the maintenance of their Church, as happens, say, in Germany. Instead, to the delight of the Vatican, a Socialist Party government has buried the idea of a religious tax forever, something that previous governments, some of them presided over by practicing Catholics, had refused to do.