Catalonia crisis: the Church needs to speak out – and fast

Independence supporters gather outside the Palau Catalan Regional Government Building (Getty Images)

When you have a Church that seems to have a view on everything from Medjugorje to migration and is determined to speak out on all the issues of the day, including those which have no immediate connection to matters of faith, then it can be a little embarrassing when something major comes up and you find it difficult to formulate a position.

And so it is with Catalonia. The Catalans, or at least some of them, declared independence just when the Vatican was holding a conference on the future of Europe. However, Catalonia was not mentioned at the conference, and those who asked questions about the Catalan situation were slapped down. As Ines San Martin says over at Crux, in this report, Catalonia has become ‘the elephant in the room’.

Nevertheless, as this magazine reports, the Spanish bishops have spoken about Catalonia, but only in the most general terms using language that no one could possibly object to, but which at the same time says very little that is concrete. On the other hand, certain lay groups in Catalonia have been quite forthright, placing themselves clearly on the side of those wanting independence, and thus against the position of the Spanish government. They have been honest and clear, but at the same time divisive. And divisive is the one thing the bishops clearly do not want to be.

Difficult as it is, the Church does have to say something about the Catalan situation. First of all, not to say anything for fear of offending one side or another looks like cowardice, and would lead to the Church losing credibility. Secondly, many of the faithful may be confused, and may want guidance from their pastors. Their pastors are obliged to give it to them.

One thing that should be fairly easy to work out are a few theologically-based presumptions, which may aid the doubtful person in making his or her mind up about what to do in this situation. Here are my attempts.

Firstly, if there is a clear majority for independence in Catalonia – and it really would have to be a clear majority, expressed in a legal and transparent referendum – then, given that the central government could not, either practically or morally, continue to govern Catalonia against its will, it would have to concede Catalan independence. Government depends on consent. So the real problem here is mathematical: what percentage of Catalans want independence, and how is that percentage to be measured?

The second thing is this: should a rational person choose independence for Catalonia? Here the Church can reasonably point out to persons of goodwill that Catalonia already enjoys the advantages of being part of Spain (and the European Union) along with a huge degree of autonomy. It is having its cake and eating it. In addition, the Church could point out that independence is not per se preferable to the current state of “interdependence”, and that the status quo may be far more in keeping with the common good than independence. In other words, the future of Catalonia should not be considered without reference to the good of the whole of Spain.

Finally, the Church, as a repository of collective memory, ought to point out to people that the history of Catalonia is perhaps more nuanced than many would give it credit for. The era of General Franco was only one period, and a relatively short one at that. Catalonia has prospered in the past as part of the Kingdom of Aragon, and later as part of the Kingdom of Spain. Since the restoration of democracy, it has prospered a great deal. The Spanish identity of Catalonia, which is dear to many, is not to be demonised.

My own position on Catalan independence is one of neutrality. The Church in Spain and elsewhere could adopt the same posture, and avoid descending into sectarian arguments. But at the same time, it has a duty to invite people to think carefully about the issues at stake. A reasoned conversation about the future of Catalonia is at this point greatly to be desired.