News Focus

Can Catholics keep Spain united?

A pro-unity rally against Catalonian independence is held in Barcelona (Getty)

If you were a Western leader, whose help would you seek in negotiating a major political crisis? Asking a bishop and an abbot might sound like something straight out of medieval Europe, yet that’s exactly what the Catalan president has done.

As relations with Madrid broke down over last month’s illegal independence referendum, Carles Puigdemont suggested that the Archbishop of Barcelona and the Abbot of Montserrat mediate talks with the Spanish government.

The action will confuse many. Why those two clerics? And can the Church really do anything useful anyway?

Anyone who has read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia could be forgiven for thinking of the region as a hotbed of radicalism and rebellion. The latest attempt at independence, so the story goes, is yet another example of that.

Certainly Barcelona has spawned numerous radical beliefs. During the Spanish Civil War it was the spiritual home of anarchism, anti-clericalism and violent revolutionaries. That spirit is alive today in okupas – the original Occupy Wall Street movement – whose flags and banners adorn buildings across the Catalan capital.

Yet there is another Catalonia, one where Church and nation interweave, where religion sanctifies politics and homeland.

The abbey of Montserrat, perched high in the mountains outside Barcelona, has been the symbolic home of Catalan nationalism since the rule of General Franco. The monks and nuns offered sanctuary to dissenting politicians, artists and students fleeing persecution.

Today, devout young nationalists still flock to the basilica, some even discovering their vocations and adding to the ranks of this most patriotic of monasteries. Montserrat is a popular girls’ name even among secular Catalan families, such is the regard for the abbey.

Puigdemont’s decision to invite the abbot to join Barcelona’s archbishop in chairing talks with the Spanish government is therefore not only symbolic – it is a shrewd political move to shore up public support as the region descends into chaos.

Yet can the Church answer the call? One source suggested that the Archbishop of Barcelona had rejected the idea of mediation. Besides, the question is academic for now: Madrid has ruled out any negotiations.

On Catalan independence, the Church is as divided as the rest of Spanish society. Opus Dei press officer Jack Valero, who was born and grew up in Catalonia, says the situation has never been so bad.

“Things are very tense. Families have split in half, friendships have broken. Neither side seems willing to compromise,” he says. “Everyone is divided, including my own family, between those who want independence and those who want to remain Spanish.” The Church is no different. Some bishops in the rest of Spain have harshly condemned Catalan separatism. Archbishop Jesús Sanz Montes of Oviedo accused nationalists of using “lies” and “violence”, while Cardinal Antonio Cañizares of Valencia described their actions as “sedition, fraud and betrayal”.

Yet many Catalan clergy strongly disagree. The youthful and charismatic Bishop Xavier Novell of Solsona, in rural Catalonia, is unafraid to show his nationalism. As police stormed polling stations across the region, Bishop Novell made sure the cameras captured him casting his ballot. He later put out a statement backing “self-determination” for the “Catalan nation” and likened Spanish police to a terror group.

An elderly priest in the village of Vila-Rodona, meanwhile, became an internet celebrity after pretending to celebrate Mass to provide cover while people used his church as a polling station. Footage of the congregation singing the hymn to Our Lady of Montserrat as officials counted the ballots went viral and turned the priest into a nationalist hero.

But Bishop Demetrio Fernández González of Córdoba, in southern Spain, says these actions in support of the separatist cause show a “deterioration in the moral life and a desire to banish God”.

The chances of the archbishop and the abbot actually chairing talks may remain remote, yet individual clerics have the influence to bring the region back from the brink, by calming the polarised rhetoric on both sides.

Perhaps, to start with, Spain’s bishops could sit around a table and talk to each other about Cataln independence. That might be a first step towards encouraging politicians to do the same.