For some time now it has been impossible to switch on the radio or glance at a news site without being plunged into a sense of crisis, be it political, economic or moral. This morning is no exception. The situation in Spain is grave, and many who have commented on it in Britain seem to have reduced everything to the simplest of opposites: democracy versus authoritarianism, independence versus coercion, republicanism versus constitutional monarchy. One of the oddest things to me has been the obvious failure of most commentators to read the Spanish Constitution or even to explore the backgrounds of the principal protagonists, Mariano Rajoy and Carles Puigdemont. To pontificate from a position of ignorance is tempting, but it does not make for understanding — and understanding is necessary here as never before.
I am not myself going to attempt a lesson in history or constitutional law but I would like to suggest two points I think worth thinking and praying about.
There has always been a strong sense of regional identity throughout Spain. It is not only Catalonia that exults in its difference. Mr Rajoy, for example, comes from Galicia, which has its own language and culture. I would say he is not a hardliner when it comes to Spanish unity but he is very aware of the importance of maintaining the Constitution. I was a post-grad student in Madrid when the first democratic elections were held after Franco’s death and I remember listening to older Spaniards voicing their hopes and fears for the future. There was a determination to overcome the terrible rivalries and divisions of the past, for it must not be forgotten that during the Civil War there were atrocities committed by the Republicans as well as by the Nationalists. For many in Spain, and in Catalonia as well, maintaining the unity of the country is the best way of maintaining its status as a democracy and a constituent member of the E.U. Fracture the one and the other goes, too. That, I suspect, is why the response of the E.U. has been strongly in favour of maintaining the status quo. That, and an awareness that Catalonia is, as it rightly says, the wealthiest and economically most productive of all Spain’s regions.
My second point is linked to the first. The monarchy in Spain is widely seen as the guarantor of the people’s freedom. Don Juan Carlos proved a much better king than I think any of us expected when Franco died. His rejection of the attempted coup in 1981 and subsequent defence of Spain’s democratic institutions has played an important role in the development of the country. King Felipe VI’s televised statement on the situation in Catalonia has continued that tradition.
Today Spain faces a crisis greater than any of the past forty years. The economy is not doing well; young people face high levels of unemployment; immigration has produced social tensions unknown in earlier times; and, in an increasingly secular country, the Spanish Church has not provided the leadership it might have done. Those of us who are what one might call concerned onlookers have a role to play in helping both Spain and Catalonia to achieve a workable solution to the problems they face. We need to pray, as I said, but we also need to think before we take sides in a conflict that has the potential to be both bloody and long-running. I know that my own sympathies incline me to want Spain to remain united. I am therefore making an effort to try to understand more fully not only the aspirations and grievances of people in Catalonia but also the implications for the rest of Europe. A crisis is literally a turning-point. Good may come from the most unpromising of situations provided we are prepared to let go of our own fixed ideas. For a Christian letting go ought to be part of our daily experience, part of our metanoia, and for a Benedictine, in particular, an expression of our conversatio morum.
I’ve been asked to recommend something on the Spanish Civil War. I think the best background ‘read’ is still Gerald Brenan’s, The Spanish Labyrinth, but someone more expert may wish to update that. My glancing reference to the atrocities of the Civil War has also stirred up a little ill-tempered storm. The Republicans were responsible for some hideous violence towards monks, nuns, priests and anyone known to be a supporter of the other side; Franco’s Regulares, the troops he brought with him from North Africa, were also notorious for their cruelty. Sad in both cases.