In a recent column George Weigel launches into a rant against Spain and the in particular, the socialist Spanish government of Zapatero. His thesis is that “Spain is now Ground Zero in the European contest between Catholicism and the dictatorship of relativism.” Much of his evidence for this is his biased reading of Spain’s recent efforts to come to grips with its own history: the legacy of the Civil War and the 40 year dictatorship of Franco. He writes:
“Textbooks were being re-written to enforce the government’s leftist view of modern Spanish history; students aiming for admission to prestigious universities would be required to give the “correct” answers about such traumas as the Spanish civil war in order to pass their entrance exams. Street names were being changed to eradicate the memory of the politically disfavored from Spain’s past.”
The problem seems to be that Spain is finally challenging the historical narrative that Weigel prefers: Franco, for whatever his excesses, saved Spain the Church from the ruthless grip of Stalinism. Though in an earlier column Weigel concedes that “just about everyone behaved badly during the Spanish Civil War, and there are atrocity stories to spare on both sides” it is clear that his sympathies lie with Franco and the Nationalists. He refers to the Republican government as “Stalinists” (though the communists received almost no support in the election of 1936) and wildly inflates the numbers of priests and religious murdered during the first year of the Civil War. (Weigel says “tens of thousands of priests and religious” were murdered; Hilari Raguer, one of the leading Spanish authorities on the Church and the Civil war, cites studies putting the number below 10,000.)
I am not uncritically defending the Spanish Republic, though I will be frank and say that my sympathies lie with them rather than Franco. But Weigel does neither Spain nor the Church any favors by clinging to a reading of history that, in the end, absolves Franco and lays the onus fully on the Republic. Spain is finally coming to grips with the legacy of 40 years of fascist dictatorship; the Catholic Church needs to do so as well. In this regard it is worth quoting extensively from the conclusion of Raguer’s book Gunpowder and Incense: The Catholic Church and the Spanish Civil War”:
[A]t the Joint Assembly of Bishops and Priests, held in Madrid in September 1971, one of the issues discussed was the need for the Church, publicly and as a body, to ask for forgiveness for the attitude she had adopted during the Civil War. The following proposal was put to the vote:
‘If we say that we have not sinned, we make him [God] a liar and his word is not in us’ (1 Ep. John, 1.10). Therefore, we humbly recognize and ask forgiveness, for we did not know at that time how to be true ‘ministers of reconciliation’ in the breast of our people, divided as they were by a war between brothers.
The text obtained 137 votes in favour, 3 null and void, 78 against, 19 ‘iuxta modum’* and 10 blank. Since the majority did not amount to the two thirds demanded by the rules of the Assembly, possible changes were debated and put to a new vote. A single word had been added: ‘we did not always know’. This time, however, either because some of the proponents of asking for pardon had back-stepped or, more probably, because the weak- ening of the phrase by the addition of ‘always’ displeased others, the number of votes was less, although a majority was still obtained: 123 said ‘yes’, none were null and void, 113 said ‘no’ and 10 were blank.30 Nevertheless, that vote was an historic landmark.
The Joint Assembly was a high moment of sincerity and self-criticism for the Spanish Church. It has not been repeated. Since then, regarding, for instance, the beatification of the martyrs of the Civil War, they have talked about giving pardon but not about asking for pardon, as the bishops of other countries have done in assuming their historical responsibilities.