News Analysis

How a populist party has divided the Spanish bishops

When a party widely seen as far-right entered one of Spain’s regional parliaments last month, it posed a dilemma for the Catholic Church during a time of tension over the Socialist government’s secularisation programme.

“This result shows attacks on religious freedom don’t go unpunished – those seeking to divide Spain and create a world without God will have to pay a political price,” said Bishop Demetrio Fernández González of Córdoba. He was reacting to the success of Vox in regional elections in Andalusia in December, following disputes over immig­ration, education, abortion and other issues under premier Pedro Sánchez’s government. He said the “spectacular” advance of the party, which took 12 of the 109 seats, had ended a per­iod of “seemingly insuperable inertia” and made Andalusia “a pioneer of the social changes now expected in Spanish society”.

However, the bishop’s remarks were repudiated days later by Bishop Luis Argüello García, secretary-general of Spain’s bishops’ conference, who said he was “deeply conc­erned” by Vox’s success, as well as at the ensuing “violent protests”. “Polarisation and extremism alarm us,” said Bishop Garcia. “We are people of the Lord’s Prayer, children and brothers, who uphold each person’s dignity.”

Formed on a patriotic platform in 2014, Vox opposes Sánchez’s moderate policies on immigration and separatism, as well as controversial government plans to rebury Spain’s former ruler, General Franco, and has vowed to fight “the dictatorship of the politically correct”.

The party’s regional success ended the 36-year reign of the Socialist Party and opened the way for a right-wing government in Andalusia for the first time since the end of Franco’s 40-year dictatorship. The rise of the party is widely equated with populist advances elsewhere in Europe and is seen as a reaction to the failure of Spain’s centre-right parties to block Socialist reforms and help ease poverty and unemployment.