Inside the Church during WWIIThe Church and the Spanish Civil War

In many respects, the war that ripped apart Spain between 1936 and 1939 was the testing ground for the fate awaiting the Church across Europe during the Second World War. Here were all the ingredients that marked the Church’s experience between 1939 and 1945. Spain had long been torn between liberals and conservatives, and one of the hallmarks of a liberal ‘progressive’ viewpoint was a pronounced anti-clericalism. Almost invariably, this meant that the Church in Spain, as in so many other countries, believed itself forced to side with the forces of the right.

I write ‘believed itself forced’ as this was not actually the case. Successive Popes since Leo XIII had been constructing a Catholic social alternative to both Marxism and Capitalism, and their position made uncomfortable reading to the adherents of a politically conservative world view. The emphasis on the rights of workers, the increasing emphasis on the status of St. Joseph as a workman, and the growing acknowledgement that conservatives had contributed to the polarization between the classes caused discontent amongst the forces of the right. Indeed, in countries where Pope Leo XIII’s teachings were fully implemented, countries like Belgium or Holland, the threat of Communism was almost invisible, and there was no need to placate far right dictatorship.

On the other hand, it has to be acknowledged that the Church’s leadership had been slow to react to the propaganda from the left, which had succeeded in identifying the Church as right-wing and anti-progressive in the minds of many. It also has to be acknowledged that many in the leadership of the Church, both in Rome and at a national level, came from the landed aristocracy or from backgrounds in which a more right-wing worldview was the norm. In Germany, aristocrats occupied many an episcopal see, and included amongst their number that inveterate opponent of the Nazis, Bl. Clemens August Cardinal von Galen.

Not all men who led the Church came from this background, however, and the opposing political stance of two Cardinal Archbishops of Paris from this period illustrates just how much background influenced their politics. Jean Cardinal Verdier was born into a very modest family and rose through the ranks of the Church on merit. He was to prove a tenacious opponent of the extreme right, which was so prevalent in France in the period. When the Nazis invaded France, Verdier took a strong stance against the aggression, but also against their ideological view.

His successor, Emmanuel Célestin Cardinal Suhard, became Archbishop in 1940. His own background was rather more middle class, and his pre-occupations mirrored this. Unlike Verdier, Suhard was to support the Vichy regime of the devoutly Catholic but virulently anti-Semitic Marshall Pétain, at least until 1942, when the Cardinal protested against the deportation of the Jews. The difference between the two cardinals is a subtle one; both maintained the Church’s strict denunciation of racism and Social Darwinism, but their backgrounds proved formative with respect to their willingness to co-operate with right-wing politicians.

In Spain, the episcopate shared the hallmarks which I have just pointed out. However, there the Church faced additional problems. One of these was the fragmented nature of Spanish society. The Church equated Spain with the ruling cultural group in the country, the Castilians. However, Catholicism was also closely identified with the national identity of the Basques, whereas amongst Catalan speakers the clergy were frequently regarded as enemies of their nation. The poison of extreme nationalism divided believers in the country along ethnic lines and the Church was to pay a severe price for this. Many of the clerical victims of the revolution and the Civil War were Catalan servants of Our Lord.

Added to this already volatile mixture of nationalism, secularist liberalism, anti-clericalism, and a Church led by men whose instincts were to choose sides rather than suggest a radical alternative, was the spectre of anarchism. This movement had been particularly successful in Spain, and its nihilist creed had little time for the certainties of the Church. All these different strands collided in 1931, when the monarchy was abolished and a new constitution proclaimed. It was marked by a strong anti-clericalism, a marked pacifism and a widespread reform of landownership.

It is of the greatest importance to note this mixture; the Church, or at least some in the Church, saw the combination as anti-Catholic and sided with the opposition. They need not have done so, but could have opposed those elements of the new regime that were inimical to the Church, and support those which coincided with the teachings of the magisterium. However, one has to consider the provocations of the new republic, too. The banning of the Jesuits was an outright challenge to the effectiveness of the Church in Spain, and the attempts to remove Church involvement in education hit at the heart of the Church’s attempts to maintain a specific system of education through which the message of Jesus could be conveyed.

It would be naïve to suggest that the Church should have allowed itself to be intimidated in this fashion. Its critics at times seem to deny the Catholic Church the right to defend its engagement with its community, a denial rarely extended to other organizations. Whilst one certainly would not want to hide the fact that some clergy were closely aligned with the landowning classes, or were overt monarchists, or strong supporters of the Castilian dominance of Spain, it will not do to suggest that all priests and all religious in that country were interested in only defending their own positions. Indeed, the position of an ordinary parish priest over much of what was then a deeply impoverished country was hardly something to fight for.

When the Church did enter the fray, many of its servants did so because they knew that they were defending their role as the proclaimers of Salvation, a task entrusted to them by Jesus and, therefore, a non-negotiable task. For them, the silencing of the Church was anathema. It was this that motivated Pope Pius XI to publish his Encyclical, Dilectissima Nobis. This was a very measured response to the provocations, and his Holiness was careful not to align the Church with one party or another:


“Universally known is the fact that the Catholic Church is never bound to one form of government more than to another, provided the Divine rights of God and of Christian consciences are safe.”

This is surely the key sentence from the Encyclical: the Pope clearly states that the Church is not taking a party-political position, but that he is defending the right of the Church to proclaim salvation – the Divine rights of God – and the civil liberties of individual Catholics. It is a theme we shall encounter time and again in this series. All over Europe, the Church attempted to safeguard what it considered to be its role as the disseminator of Truth and Salvation, as well as the freedom of Catholics to practise their Faith and adhere to its strictures.

That this freedom was endangered is beyond dispute: the figures speak for themselves. Twenty percent of all clergy in Spain were murdered during the civil war; 13 bishops, 4,172 priests, 2,364 monks and friars and 283 nuns and sisters. Against this, one has to place the fact that the Church was not persecuted in all Republican controlled regions. In the Basque country, for example, many clergy supported the Republic, which they saw as a means to further the national aspirations of their flock. Yet it is little wonder, if rather unedifying, that the Church saw Franco as a tool of salvation: he re-instated all previous privileges and provided it with a central role in the Spain over which he ruled.

This was to be the position of the Church in Spain for several decades. It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Papacy managed to enforce a more critical attitude amongst the Spanish episcopate, and, towards the end of the Franco regime, the Church actually became one of the dictator’s fiercest critics. The current Bishops’ Conference in Spain has acknowledged that its predecessors should have been much more critical of Spain’s right-wing dictator, and that they had plenty of guidance to help them reach this conclusion. Yet it bears repetition, if only because the fact has been ignored so frequently: the Republic constituted a real and grave danger to the Church and its message of hope and salvation. This is not an excuse for siding with dictators like Franco, but it does explain why this happened.

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