The Catholic Church after the Spanish Civil War.

The Catholic Church: The Church triumphant.
On April 1, 1939, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, crusading leader of the rebellious Nationalist forces, triumphantly declared the Spanish Civil War over. 

The Catholic Church was the institution that most benefitted from Franco’s victory.  Its hierarchy had blessed the Nationalist uprising as a crusade and had justified the war to the world as an “armed plebiscite.”  Now it reaped the reward.  Franco quickly abolished all those Republican** measures that had undermined the Church’s spiritual and social roles, and entrusted it with more power and privilege than it had enjoyed since the 18th century.

**The  Second Republic lasted from
1931 to 1939, although for its last
three years it was embroiled in the
Civil War (1936-39)

For the Church, the privileges constituted a spiritual “reconquista” complementing the political “reconquista” enjoyed by Franco and his Nationalists. What the political “reconquista” meant was the return to Castilian centralism and the elimination of other ideologies. The “reconquista” for the Church signified Catholic monopoly over the life of all Spaniards, a vital privilege if society was to be “re-Catholicised”. 

This “re-Catholicisation” was not an easy undertaking keeping in mind that, in supporting the Nationalists during the War, the Church had alienated a large percentage of the population.

How was it possible therefore for the Church to preach peace and Christian love to those it had condemned only a short time before?  For Cardinal Gomá, primate of Spain, the only way was to impose “divine totalitarianism“, i.e. the imposition of Catholic values on all Spanish society. Franco was only too glad to help.

Church Privileges.
The privileged status of the Church was granted immediately following the Civil War. A little later –in June 1941– its rights were outlined in an Agreement between the Vatican and the Franco government, and finally formalised in a Concordat signed in August, 1953.  Amongst the provisions were:

1. recognition of Catholicism as the official religion of the country;
2. mandatory religious instruction at all educational levels in conformity with Catholic dogma;
3. financial support of the church by the state (paying the salary of priests and contributing to the (re)construction of church buildings);
4. guaranteed representation in both press and radio.  To ensure that the Church hierarchy consisted of supportive members, Franco was granted the right to participate in the selection of bishops.  The Concordat remained in effect until December 1979, a year following the implementation of a new democratic Constitution whose provisions rendered the Concordat anachronistic.

The symbiotic relationship between the Franco regime and the Church depended on both parties retaining a shared vision of each other’s role in the destiny of Spain. Each was happy to cocoon the country in a nostalgic, imperial and Catholic past.

But Franco did not let the church dictate the terms of their relationship, and Spain was in no danger of becoming a theocracy.  The same Cardinal Gomá –who had favoured “divine totalitarianism“– was shocked when a pastoral letter of his, which questioned unlimited state power and favoured monitoring the regime’s religious orthodoxy, was banned.  It was a sharp reminder that the Church enjoyed its privileges by the grace of Franco!

For the first ten years or so, things went according to plan.
 There was a healthy attendance at Mass, a high intake of young priests and a robust construction of seminaries and churches. Pilgrimages to local shrines (romerías) were in as were catechism classes.  Mission retreats became very popular, often attended by local politicians. Religious tracts were widely published, and dangerous or offensive books, magazines, photographs etc. were ritually burned in public squares. 

The Inquisition might be dead, but its spirit was still alive in Franco’s crusading Spain.  Religious conformity was demanded, and largely achieved. Those who resisted suffered, especially where jobs often depended on a favourable letter from the local priest.

Change is in the Air.
The power of the Church seemed unassailable.  And yet within twenty years, the Institution was to undergo such radical changes that overturned not only the favours it enjoyed under Franco but the very monopoly over spiritual matters that it had pursued relentlessly for centuries. How could such a startling transformation occur to a seemingly intractable monolith?

Perhaps we can begin by looking outside Spain, specifically to Pope John XXIII who brought profound changes to the Catholic Church.  In 1962 Pope John convened the Second Vatican Council, the purpose of which was to define the role of the Catholic Church in the modern world.

Its conclusions, supporting the defence of human rights and religious and political freedom, rocked the very foundations of both church and state in Spain.  Not only did they alienate the reactionary Spanish church hierarchy from the international body, they also allowed more progressive Spanish priests to air criticisms, drawing their defence on Council documents and papal declarations.  The Spanish Church could hardly accuse its internal critics of heresy etc.!

The destabilising impact of international Catholicism was accompanied too by events within Spain itself.  Catholic intellectuals and even politicians increasingly found contradictions between the blinkered vision of Spanish National Catholicism and the social and economic changes taking place in the 1960s. 

Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation challenged social norms, increasing consumerism fuelled demands for goods and services, and yearly invasions of tourists brought new ideas and new modes of behaviour.  This social and economic transformation was a challenge at all levels, but as a bulwark of the status quo the Church was particularly susceptible.

It was aware of the dangers it faced, especially in the rapidly growing cities, and as early as the 1940s had recognised how important it was to fish in waters that were traditionally anti-clerical.  In those early post-Civil War days, lay Catholic organisations flourished, e.g. the Juventud Obrera Católica (Young Catholic Workers) and the Hermandades Obreras Acción Católica (Catholic Action Workers’ Brotherhoods), carrying the Catholic message to the workers.

But with time as the lay Catholics became more acquainted with the social problems and political injustices faced by workers, so they became more critical of government and employers’ policies.  Gradually they began adopting a more radical, adversarial stance against the government, assuming in many cases a role equivalent to trade unions, officially banned under Franco. Their activities placed the Church hierarchy in a difficult situation.

A consequence of the lay movement was the activity of many of the priests who served as chaplains to the lay members.  Mostly young and idealistic, these priests worked in the barrios to bring the word of God to the workers.

However, in many instances the social awakening of these priests had a greater impact on their own lives than they had on the religious life of those they had been sent to save.  Many of these priests became known as curas rojos (“red priests”), and got engaged in illegal union activities even removing their dog collars as a sign of solidarity with the workers. 

One notable case is Father José María de Llanos, a Jesuit from a wealthy family, who went to work among the poverty stricken peasants from Andalusia crammed into the seething outskirts of Madrid. 

Shocked by what he saw, he soon took up the cause of the poor and dispossessed to such an extent that he admitted that they had redeemed him more than he had redeemed them.  He became actively involved in the workers’ movement, Comisiones obreras(Workers Commission), a clandestine labour organisation and joined the Communist Party. His work amongst the poor of Madrid suggests that his thinking and political activity were much in tune with ideas that were emerging amongst some Catholics, especially in Latin America: liberation theology.

What is ironic about Father Llanos’s activities is not simply a reversal of influence, but also the fact that he had previously had very close links to the Falange** and had even been asked by none other than General Franco to prepare spiritual exercises for him and his wife!

**Falange: Spanish right wing, fascist party.
Founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de
Rivera, son of an earlier dictator, General
Primo de Rivera (1923-30).

The transformation of the Spanish church was also affected by events that took place in Catalonia and the Basque Provinces.  Here religion got mixed with nationalist and linguistic sentiments which led to clashes within the Spanish Church itself.

Even during the Civil War Basque priests had dissented from the mainstream church and had supported the Republic and many were executed by the Franco regime.  In 1960 Basque priests signed letters protesting the abuses of human rights, the suppression of their cultures and the prohibition of their language in their homeland.

In 1964 Catalan priests did the same. Until 1965, priests in these two peripheral areas of the country were even prohibited from giving their sermons in their native languages.  The confrontations between the priests and the Franco regime became increasingly public, and the sight of state police beating priests not only shook the Church but also progressively undermined the legitimacy of the Franco regime.

With pressure from the Vatican, and with the grass roots priests in closer contact with the people, it was only a matter of time before social awareness began to filter upwards through the church hierarchy in Spain. In addition, as older priests and conservative bishops died, younger and more open minded figures replaced them.

Indeed, by 1971  the situation had changed sufficiently for a joint assembly of bishops and priests to issue a remarkable public statement that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.  It was a startling confession in which the Church recognised its failure to be a force for peace during the Civil War:  We humbly recognize and ask forgiveness for the fact that we failed to act at the opportune time as true ministers of reconciliation among our people who were divided by a war between brothers (Rooney. No page number).  It was an important and necessary step towards disengagement from the state.

Franco’s Reaction.
The Franco regime could hardly accept such a declaration without comment.  Almost immediately the caudillo reminded the Church that the Civil War had been fought in defence of Christian civilisation, and that it had been blessed by the bishops as a crusade. 

By now, however, the Church had cast its lot sufficiently with the people to make another radical public statement in January 1973 in which it expressed support for profound changes in our institutions to guarantee fundamental rights for citizens, such as the right of expression and association (Catholic Herald, UK).

Furthermore, the document affirmed that the Church needed no privileges, and that it sought to cooperate with the State but on the basis of a new formula of collaboration that excluded clerics from the state’s political institutions. It also called for reconciliation between Spaniards; no more division into conquerors and conquered.**

**Not all Catholics agreed with such moves.
Right wing groups such as the Brotherhood
of Spanish Priests and Warriors of Christ
the King waged vitriolic attacks on the reformers. 

This voluntary surrender of monopoly over the spiritual life of the people and recognition of freedom of choice was a major step in releasing the Spanish church from its own ghosts. It is one of the defining moments in the history of the Church in Spain. The institution that had fought so long for the soul of Spain had finally recognised the anachronism of battle when it purported to serve the Prince of peace. The crusades were finally over!

This is not to say that the Church abandoned its spiritual responsibilities nor its interests, but in becoming a Church for all Spaniards, it became too a voice of reason and moderation.  In this capacity, and under the guidance of the broad-minded Cardinal Tarancón, it contributed to the transition to democracy in the months following the death of Franco in 1975. 

It still haggled vigorously over the omission of any reference to the Catholic Church in the draft version of the new Constitution (1978) and was rewarded with a brief declaration (Article 16) that the state would maintain appropriate relationship with the Catholic Church and other confessions.  But this was really not much more than a nod to its historic role; the article grants it no more privileges or powers than to other confessions.


Has the Church abandoned its historical role as moral guide and sole guardian of “traditional Spanish values”? Events  in the 1980s and 90s showed a deep rift between State and Church, especially after the election of Socialist governments in 1982, 1986, and 1989.  Issues such as divorce (legalised in 1981), abortion (legalised in 1985), and the decriminalisation of birth control brought accusations from the bishops that the Socialists were destroying the moral fibre of the nation (Gibson 70).

A new Education Act, passed in 1990, removing the compulsory teaching of Ethics and Religion (i.e. Catholicism) from State schools, was condemned by Church leaders for leading the country down the path to secularisation. The Act would, they argued, destroy young people, who will be brought up with neither morals nor feelings (Gibson 68).  Predictably, the Church vigorously opposed same sex marriage (passed in  July 2005), despite strong popular support for the Act.

The  Church is still struggling to retain its power and influence, but in a secular society it is finding the fight increasingly difficult. There are far fewer priests and nuns, seminaries are closing and Spaniards are by and large suspicious of allowing the Church to regain the control it once enjoyed over their lives.


Callahan, William The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875-1998. Washington, D.C.  2000.
Casanova, Julián  La iglesia de Franco  Barcelona 2001
Casanova, Julián and Andrés, Carlos Gil   “Franco’s peace,” in Twentieth-Century Spain. A History. Transl. Martin Douch. Pp. 219-48. Cambridge 2014.

Gibson, Ian    Fire in the Blood: The New Spain London 1992
Graham, Helen & Labanyi, Jo  Spanish Cultural Studies: An Introduction Oxford 1995.
Herr, Richard  An Historical Essay on Modern Spain Los Angeles 1974
Payne, Stanley    Spanish Catholicism: An Historical Overview Madison, Wisconsin 1984
Preston, Paul    Franco London 1995
Rooney, Nicola   ”The role of the Catholic hierarchy in the rise to power of General Franco,”  in Quest, March 2007: 
Shubert, Adrian  A Social History of Modern Spain  London 1990
A very interesting article on Father José María de Llanos in Spanish in Revista Derechos Humanos Ecologia, Sept. 2009
Catholic Herald, March 1975:
An informative article of the Church in modern Spain up to 2005: