Catalan Independence and the Catholic Church

by Krisztina Nemes

Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey

The Benedictines of Montserrat maintain a publishing house, A Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, dedicated to enhancing awareness and appreciation of Catalan culture. The publishing house boasts more than 3000 books in areas such as history, art, language, literature, religion, and music. In addition to monographs, the Abbey also publishes important periodicals. One of these is Qüestions de Vida Cristiana. Founded in 1958, it was the first periodical granted permission to print, despite a general prohibition on publications in the Catalan language. The journal never limited itself strictly to religious themes, but attempted to address topics of contemporary concern from the perspectives of theology, philosophy, literature, and so on. When, in 2013, supporters of Catalan independence formed a living chain 400 kilometers long along the Catalonian border (Via Catalana), the editors of the journal decided to devote their 247 issue (from 2014) to the question of Catalonian independence. Catalans today believe that the right to determine their destiny should be included among the list of human rights. College professors, theologians, politicians, sociologists, writers, and historians express their opinion on this question in the volume. This review considers contributions especially interesting from the point of view of the church and theology.

One needs to know that Catalans, who have wanted to expand the scope of autonomy granted them in 1979, did not express a desire for separation until 2012. However, they have never been satisfied with the way they are designated in the constitution, according to which those of Catalan nationality (nacionalitat) belong to the one and indivisible Spanish nation (nació). The modification of the 2006 basic law on autonomy uses the term nation to identify Catalans. This means, according to Josep Maria Forné i Febrer, a professor at Leida Seminary, that even without their own nation-state Catalans can think of themselves as belonging to a general human category, equal with other nations rather than a subcategory of Spanish or Hispanic – although this is contrary to the way one might understand their status as currently identified in the constitution. On the basis of developments in recent decades, says the professor, we might think that the world is moving toward unification, and that globalization is increasingly erasing differences. We can also see, however, signs pointing in the opposite direction by looking at demands emphasizing local particularities. Such, for example, is the desire for Catalonian independence. According to the professor, Catalans ought not to strive for homogeneity within the framework of the new state they hope for. Some of those who support independence believe their language and culture is threatened by the Spanish language, and they would like to be free from it. Those native Spanish speakers who immigrated to Catalonia in the Franco period agree that the “country” which received them and supplies their bread and butter ought to be free to dispose of the goods it produces and use them according to its needs, in order to ensure a more just distribution of goods and a stronger safety net for its citizens – states the professor.

Salvador Cardús i Ros, a sociologist at the University of Barcelona, examines the position on independence of the Catalan church and Catalan Catholics. He states that the Catalan Church has not adopted an official position on this question, but we do know, on the basis of a statement given on the radio by Barcelona’s auxiliary bishop (Catalunya Radio, October 2012), that “the Church will stand with the people, if events take place peacefully and Catalans choose independence.” Numerous statements from the Spanish Bishops Conference, however, make clear that the Conference considers the unity of Spain “a moral value to be protected” and that it presumes “fraternal unity among all citizens living in the territory of Spain.” The Standing Committee of the Spanish Bishops Conference, which has four Catalan members, announced in a statement issued after demonstrations for independence in 2012 that “proposals to dissolve this unity (of Spain) fill us with great discomfort.” Although it is typical of the hierarchy of the Spanish Church, states Cardús, to accommodate easily to the order dictated by the political and administrative hierarchy, this characteristic may have advantages. If the Vatican were to recognize Catalonian independence, the Catalan and Spanish bishops would need to accommodate the decision. The sociology professor calls attention to institutions not tied to the hierarchy of the Catalan church, in particular the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat and its abbot Josep Maria Solert, who does not want to make the institution he leads a political, rather than spiritual, focal point, but who also nurtures a living connection with the Catalan experience and who has expressed sympathy with current developments. On the eve of the Via Catalana living chain, he stated that he “would like to see Catalonia’s national rights recognized and protected.” The abbot supports the national consultation, “so that we can acquire real and objective knowledge, because legal objections should never serve the purpose of rejecting dialogue.” The Spanish state has ruled this out completely from the start of the independence movement [the Spanish government’s rejection rests on the view that the constitution does not allow Catalans to enter into a national consultation on the question of independence – K.N.]. The abbot, therefore, does not take a position on the question of independence, but he supports the position now held by the majority of Catalonians, namely, that the Catalans should determine the question of their political future with a referendum. Cardús believes, based on early indications, that the Catalan church will experience change as fast as the country itself.

Reverend Father Joan Costa i Bou writes an article for Qüestions about the concept of nation found in the statements and speeches of Pope John Paul II. In the Holy Father’s understanding, the nation is the family in a broader sense, the place where a person comes to experience culture and education, and where the first step in learning is the acquisition of language. Efforts to protect and develop national culture reflect general human experience. According to John Paul II, this is the sovereignty with which every nation rightly defends its own culture, and he admonishes nations against renouncing this right for the sake of political or economic interests. The author draws a parallel between the statements of the Pope and the thought of Josep Torres i Bages [Bishop of Vic, the most important clerical representative of nineteenth century Catalanism – K. N.]. According to Bages, nations are not an artificial construct designed arbitrarily by human beings, but a history and culture given by God. According to John Paul II, language is not simply an instrument of communication, but much more. Because our thoughts are formed with language, language gives fundamental expression to the social bonds which tie us to each other. The responsibility we feel for our homeland extends to the protection of language, and to the history, traditions, and common experiences transmitted through language. Nations have a right to determine their destiny in order to fulfill their responsibility.

One can read in this issue an interview with Joan Rigol, a Christian Democratic politician and leader of the movement, National Pact for the Right to Decide. In his opinion, modern day Christian Democracy does not have much to boast about, if judged by the principles Pius XI laid out in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. The decisive thought for today, also, is that politics should move beyond conflicts of interest to serve the whole community, something which can be realized through good governance. In his book Political Compromise and the Meaning of Christianity (Compromís polític i sentit cristià) Rigol reflects on how to exercise power while remaining true to ethical values, and how to use institutions for the benefit of the people rather than the benefit of political parties. The Catalan people are the ones who have upheld the country since the eighteenth century; it would therefore be a mistake to think this task can be entrusted to structures. The foundation of the current political movement for independence is a demand from below, and Madrid needs to understand how Catalonia arrived at this point. Then, perhaps, it would understand that the question cannot be dealt with by beheading the movement. The Catalans do not simply want an independent parliament for themselves; they want a more vital, innovative, and humane society. It is not only the tax office which shapes the character of the state, but also the common denominator of Catalanism, which forges the different members of society together. The author believes the task of the church is to support local initiatives, to establish relations with the young, who don’t know what to do with this bureaucratic and hierarchical system, and to practice the rituals of faith. The author believes more space ought to be given to personal expressions of faith.

Oriol Junqueres, the leader of the independence party Catalonian Republican Left, also writes in this volume. He recounts how he once studied in a mission school run by Italian nuns. There his teachers were members either of the Italian Communist Party or the Italian Christian Democratic Party, two parties that had reached a “historical compromise” with each other. The communists had broken with the Soviet Communist Party, while the Christian Democrats, led by Aldo Moro, were speaking out in defense of the achievements of the welfare state and seeking to strengthen the social role of the church. Junqueres calls the ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity” general values. They are as much Christian as republican ideals; liberty corresponds to Christian free will, equality to equality before God, and fraternity to Christian charity. He considers important the acts of love and assistance which equally inspire communist and Christian democratic thought. In the case of Catalonia, he emphasizes the integrative role of Catalanism, which is an open and welcoming cultural process achieved through the educational system. The Catalan approach is much more successful and efficient than the German or French models, which often leave even the third generation of immigrants on the periphery. When it comes to integrating immigrants, the Catalan educational model is a success story, one with which the Catalans are contributing to the culture of the European Union.

We learn from the interview with Francesc Homs, a government spokesman, that Catalans are unequalled in Europe for their optimistic, confident, grass-roots initiatives. However, this member of the governing Christian Democratic Party does not consider workable the constitutional platform of Sister Teresa Forcades of Montserrat [Forcades represents the most radical version of the current movement for independence; she wants to reorganize the new Catalan state economy on a non-capitalist basis – K.N.]. Demands to implement principles of just distribution and to organize society on the basis of the church’s social thought are taking form in a concrete movement because a large segment of Catalan society truly wants change. Confident in its strength, Catalan society believes the current political status quo can be changed, and sees the chance of creating a better, more just social order.

Agustí Colomer, of Valencia, and Miquel Angel Llaguer, of the Balearic Islands, call attention to the difficulties which, in the event of separation, would arise with the autonomy of sister regions; that is, territories traditionally related to Catalan culture by language, but falling outside the territory of the principate. Colomer refers to a model for society and politics offered by the Holy Trinity, a model which rises above the exclusiveness of the nation-state. The Trinity is the perfect model of unity and diversity, because it avoids equally the isolation of persons and their dissolution into each other. This unity in diversity, this personal as well as communitarian philosophy, functions as a foundational principle of the European Union as well.

The Catalans are at a point where they consider a “third way” impossible, that is, a solution where they live out their diversity within a monolithic Spanish nation-state. They want their own independent nation-state, which is the only way to possess complete sovereignty within the present political system. The European Union, built on a model of a social organization representing unity in diversity, considers this question an internal Spanish matter. It seems the right of nations to self-determination exists only for those who have the strength to achieve it.


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