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Civil War-memorial feud deepens in Spain

06 August 2021

Government plans to secularise cemetery, but abbey might stay


A monk walks in front of the Valle de los Caídos memorial in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain. It contains the graves of 34,000 victims of the conflict

A monk walks in front of the Valle de los Caídos memorial in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain. It contains the graves of 34,000 victims of the confli...

CHURCH leaders in Spain have criticised Socialist-backed legislation to secularise a Civil War memorial near Madrid, which houses a Benedictine abbey and the world’s tallest cross.

“We don’t know in detail what the government wants to do”, the Archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra, said. “But we must remember the Church and the Benedictine community there have always stood for reconciliation and for all victims, while the cross symbolises love and dedication.”

The Cardinal was reacting to the approval last month of a new law by the Socialist-led government of the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, which will redesignate the Valley of the Fallen, known in Spanish as Valle de los Caídos, as a “place of democratic memory”, and require the removal of elements deemed to extol the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975).

Meanwhile, government plans were also attacked by the Archbishop of Valencia, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, a former Vatican prefect, who warned of deepening divisions in the traditionally Roman Catholic country.

“We face a historical memory which reopens wounds already healed,” the Cardinal wrote in a weekly letter. “All this is being led by false shepherds and guides, who disperse people instead of gathering them, who exploit and instrumentalise rather than serve the common good.”

The remains of Franco, who ruled Spain for four decades after the 1936-39 Civil War, were reburied at the El Pardo cemetery in Madrid, in October 2019, after being exhumed from a pontifical basilica at the Valley, which also contains the graves of 34,000 victims from the conflict and is dominated by the 460-foot stone cross.
Under the new Democratic Memory Law, which will also offer reparation to “victims of fascism”, the site is to be redesignated a civil cemetery, and stripped of Catholic fixtures.

An Association to Defend the Valley, however, has called on church leaders and the Vatican to oppose the changes as an assault on religious liberty.

Presenting the draft law, a minister of the presidency, Félix Bolaños, said that it would require the exhumation of other right-wing figures from the Valley, including the former Prime Minister Miguel Primo de Rivera (1870-1930), but suggested that the pontifical basilica could stay open if it reflected “democratic values”.

The prior of the Benedictine community that has run the Valley since 1958, Fr Santiago Cantera Montenegro, vowed to remain, and said that it would take “months, even years” for the law to secure final enactment and royal assent.

“Although this draft law provides for the extinction of our foundation, it says nothing about our community’s disappearance,” Fr Montenegro said in a letter to fellow-Benedictines. “So we’ll continue our life tranquilly and normally, knowing God and our heavenly Mother are watching over us”.

The RC Church makes up 62 per cent of Spain’s 47 million inhabitants, 2020 data show, and has also criticised government-backed laws allowing same-sex marriage, the secularisation of education, and the facilitation of state-funded euthanasia and abortion, as well as a draft “trans law”, which will allow over-16s to re-register their gender through a court declaration without medical or legal procedures.

Mr Sanchez’s Socialist Party is also reviewing a series of 1979 agreements with the Vatican, and plans to adopt a “Statute of Secularism”, enforcing “strict separation between politics and religion, law and morality, crime and sin”.

A bioethics working group of Spain’s Evangelical Alliance criticised the government’s new euthanasia law in a report in mid-July, warning that its vagueness risked placing the country on a “slippery slope” towards wider liberalisation.

In a follow-up message, however, the Alliance’s president, Manuel Rodríguez Domínguez, told Mr Bolaños that Protestants would collaborate willingly in “advancing decidedly on a path towards full freedom and religious equality”.

Meanwhile, in a lengthy statement last week, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference warned that government attempts to “deconstruct and dismantle the Christian worldview” and “replace a political framework which has given Spain great stability” had “filled society with alarm and uncertainty”, and risked a new confrontation between “the two Spains of dramatic memory”.

“Legislative initiatives by this coalition government reflect a global deconstruction project, whose development puts freedom at risk and impedes essential unity,” the Conference continued.

“With its prophetic mission, the Church is obliged to denounce these attacks on freedom and justice, and act as a channel of encounter and reconciliation. . . Yet Spaniards are no longer living in a culture inspired by the Christian faith. For many, Christian truths have become incomprehensible.”

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