When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Spain this weekend he will find a society facing an economic crisis and the social implications of growing secularization and indifference to religion.
The Pope’s Nov. 6–7 pilgrimage will concentrate on Spain’s Catholic landmarks in an effort to inspire and renew a shrinking local Church and help Spaniards rediscover their deep Christian roots.
Salomé Adroher Biosca, a dean at the Pontifical University of Comillas law faculty in Madrid, said the Pope will find a Spanish society facing a host of challenges — an economic crisis, the threat of domestic terrorism from ethnic Basque separatists, and an increasingly individualistic public morality.
Spain has been among the countries in Europe hardest hit by the worldwide economic downturn. With more than 5 million Spaniards out of work, government assistance programs are being stretched to their limits and social unrest is growing.
The implications of the economic crisis have had ripple effects throughout Spanish society, Androher Biosca said. "If a society is not capable of providing work and giving a decent life to its people, something is going wrong,” she added.
The Spanish family is also suffering. Adroher Biosca said there has been a real “ideological turn” in the family policies of the socialist Prime Minister Jose Louis Rodriguez Zapatero. This can been seen in abortion legislation approved last June that permits abortions for unborn children with apparent "grave anomalies which are incompatible with life" at any time during a pregnancy.
The government has established a standard in which the "rights" of the woman trump those of the child and even those of her husband or partner, she said. The right to abortion is now considered to “take precedence over other rights worthy of protection."
In the past, abortion was illegal in all but a few cases. Now, it is categorized as a mere "health provision."
The family in Spain is seeing other consequences of widespread individualism and secularism in society, she said.
She pointed to rising levels of domestic violence, more divorces, more children being born outside of stable homes, and a difficulty in finding homes for orphaned children.
"This perhaps should be read from a Christian perspective, to ask what we're doing with our families and how the consumerist society and individualism is unsettling the family customs of many people in such a major way."
The Pope is expected to take up these issues —especially the rights of the unborn and the handicapped — during his brief trip. On the second day of his visit, he will be visiting an institution in Barcelona that offers assistance to disabled and poor children.
The encounter will take place after he consecrates the Church of the Holy Family, an extraordinary work designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi, whose cause for sainthood is currently being considered by the Vatican.
In Barcelona, the Pope will confront a deep skepticism about religion and a rising tide of moral relativism.
Many in Spanish society are living in a sort of "absence of God, not exactly for an ideological reason, but as part of a lack of concern, of trivialization and loss of meaning," said Josep Miró, president of E-Christians and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
Pope Benedict has spoken out frequently against what he calls the "dictatorship of relativism," in which individuals and societies deny the existence of moral truths. He has also decried a sort of “practical atheism,” in which people live as if God does not exist.
Jesuit Father Josep Benitez observed that Spanish society, in the name of rejecting the "moralizing asphyxiation" of the past, has wound up with no points of moral reference or meaning.
But he and other Spanish Catholics have high hopes for the papal pilgrimage.
The Pope’s tour will connect the ancient and the modern. He will start in Santiago de Compostela, an ancient pilgrimage site that holds the remains of St. James the Apostle, who is credited with bringing the Gospel to Spain. And his trip will end at Holy Family, Gaudi’s masterpiece of modern Catholic architecture.
Father Benitez, former head of the history department at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, expressed confidence that the Pope’s visit "will bring about a renewed appreciation for that which has been the Catholic tradition in Barcelona."
Miro agreed. The pilgrimage, he said, is "a reason not only for happiness and thanksgiving, but also for hope that his visit will be a strong impulse to help our Church be reborn."