The Catholic Church and the Spanish Civil War.

The Catholic Church and the Spanish Civil War.
The Spanish Civil War (July 1936 to April 1939) was fought between the legitimately elected left-wing coalition government of the Second Republic and Nationalist insurgents under the command of Francisco Franco.

During the Republic’s volatile political life prior to the outbreak of the war, political power swung wildly. Spaniards elected chronologically: a left wing coalition government (Sept 1931 to November 1933), then a centre-right wing coalition government (November 1933 to Feb 1936), and finally another left wing coalition government (Feb 1936 to July 1936).

The Civil War was brutal, and reaction to it, especially in Europe, was complicated by intense rivalries amongst the European powers: Britain and France, Germany and Italy, the Soviet Union all eyed each other with increasing distrust. Against this background, both Republican and Nationalists sought to influence international perception of their role in the Civil War. The Nationalists, however, had a powerful ally with both international influence and moral authority: the Catholic Church.

Early on the Republic had antagonised the Church with measures aimed to remove its influence from public life, e.g. Article 1 of the new Constitution declared that El Estado español no tiene religión oficial (“The Spanish State has no official religion”) or the removal of religious orders (e.g. Jesuits, nuns) from public education, which became secular (Article 48).

As a result, the Republic was odious to the Church, and almost all the clergy –with the exception of those in the Basque provinces– threw their weight behind the Nationalist rebels from the beginning. Priests hurled hatred against the “Reds” from their pulpits, blessed the troops and flags before battle and adopted the fascist salute.

The ideological word that resonated increasingly in Nationalist propaganda was “Crusade.” Franco himself recognised its emotional power to conjure up Spain’s medieval role as a crusading nation as early as July 1936, when he observed that we are faced with a war that is taking on each day the character of a Crusade (Sueiro I 71).

The church hierarchy needed no encouragement to employ it. In a pastoral letter  to his churchgoers in September, 1936, the Bishop of Salamanca emphasised that the war was really a Crusade for religion, for the fatherland, for civilisation … a Crusade against communism in order to save religion (Sueiro I 71).

Other bishops used the word like a mantra (Sueiro I 71), echoing the call to Holy War of the medieval church militant. Some priests even fought in the Nationalist ranks.  The enemy now was not the Moor (the Spanish word for the Muslim** invaders of 711),  but communists, anarchists, freemasons, liberals, Jews, sometimes all rolled together.

**Ironically, the Nationalists used Moroccan (i.e. Muslim) mercenaries to fight the Republicans!

On the same day that the Bishop of Salamanca issued his pastoral, the Archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Gomá denounced the Republicans as the sons of Moscow … the Jews and the freemasons …  the dark societies controlled by the Semite International (Preston History 158).

For Gomá –the most powerful figure in the Spanish church– the war took on apocalyptic overtones as the rebels –favoured by divine help– undertook a true Crusade in defence of the Catholic religion … Christ and the Anti-Christ are battling on our soil (Sueiro 1 72).

Although the Republican government was legitimate and democratically elected, the Church portrayed it as illegitimate in origin … usurper of power … traitor to the Fatherland … enemy of God (Sueiro I 73, 75).  By doing so, the Church provided moral and spiritual justification for the Nationalist insurgency, and further defended it as divine intervention. The war was likened to a surgical operation directed by God, a divine therapy for a country that had strayed off its godly path; the cure was painful but all the more efficacious for the suffering (Sueiro I 74).

The man entrusted with administering the cure was Francisco Franco who, like a saviour sent from heaven, rescued Christianity from the godless hordes: At a moment of grave danger and fierce attacks against the Catholic Church there came a man, Franco, who defended on Spanish soil the eternal rights of Christianity. And History will have to add, in justice, that thanks to the Spanish Crusade the torrent of the godless was stopped in Europe (Sueiro I 74).

On July 1, 1937, the Spanish church went one step further. Following the brutal attack on Guernica by German planes (April 26, 1937) and subsequent world reaction condemning it, the Nationalists needed a public relations spin.

Cover of letter penned by the Spanish Church to justify its support for the Nationalist cause.

In response to a request by Franco for a public declaration of support from the church hierarchy, one cardinal, seven archbishops, thirty-five bishops and five vicars-general signed a Joint Letter … to the Catholic Bishops Throughout the World: The Spanish Situation. A Survey. Significant exceptions were the Cardinal-Archbishop of Tarragona in Catalunya (Catalonia) and the Bishop of Vitoria in the Basque Country (now Euskadi).

Claiming an imminent communist revolution (Pp. 13, 15), the Spanish bishops asserted the right –authorised by St Thomas– of defensive resistance by force (P. 14) after having exhausted every legal means (P. 15). The uprising was described not only as a military undertaking, but a combined civil-military movement (P. 17), an armed plebiscite (P. 19) against forces that were anti-divine (P. 18). In such circumstances, the Church could not be indifferent (P. 20). Only the Nationalist movement could win back peace and justice (P. 21).

What exactly were the Nationalists crusading against, according to the bishops? Communism. Spain was, they argued, a target for powers … (which) had decided to overthrow constitutional order and with violence set up Communism (P. 15).

Predictably, then, the Bishops spared no pain in attacking the Soviet Union for its intervention in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the Republic, but were silent on the help given to the Nationalists by Germany and Italy. There was a brief allusion to arms and men of other foreign countries  (P.19), but an outright declaration of fascist help would undoubtedly prove embarrassing. 

To further the “truth,” the bishops also called on fully proved facts (P. 22) to demonstrate with numerous examples the barbarity and inhumanity of the Republicans (Pp. 22-29). Nationalist victims were characterised as martyrs (P. 31), and Nationalist excesses glossed over as a loss of serenity, or a mistake, or committed by subordinates: no one maintains complete serenity while defending himself against the mad onslaughts of an enemy that knows no mercy. In the name of justice and Christian charity we reprove any atrocities that may have been committed by mistake or by subordinates…(P. 37). 

Both the massacre of Badajoz (Aug 1936), and the brutal destruction of Guernica –to name only two Nationalist atrocities– were attributed presumably to a momentary loss of serenity or to a mistake!

No doubt the Church suffered humiliation and loss of influence under the Republic, and Republicans also committed atrocities during the War.**

**The early years of the Civil War were particularly
difficult for the church as working class frustrations
and revolutionary zeal resulted in the murder of
numerous priests, nuns and bishops. It is estimated
that about 42% (2,894) of the total number of victims
(almost 7, 000) from
the church hierarchy were killed
in the first six weeks
of the war, including thirteen
bishops, “proof of the swiftness and immediacy of
the torment suffered by the clergy”
 (Casanova, 175).

But what is questionable is the explanation given by an institution that claimed that she has bound herself to no one, to no party, person or cause (P. 34). Words of peace, charity, forgiveness rang hollow when the bishops clearly took a belligerent stance in other declarations.

For instance, a speech by Cardinal Gomá in Budapest in 1938, when it was already evident that the Nationalists had the upper hand, made it clear that reconciliation was not forthcoming: Indeed, it is necessary to end the war. But do not let it end with a compromise, with an agreement nor with reconciliation. It is necessary to take hostilities to the point of achieving victory at the point of a sword.  Let the reds surrender, since they have been beaten. There is no pacification possible other than through arms. In order to organise peace within a Christian constitution it is vital to uproot all the rot of secular legislation (Sueiro I 72-3).

The collective letter to the Bishops of the World was written for external consumption and was an attempt to manipulate world opinion and whitewash Nationalist atrocities. It painted a church under threat of extinction in Spain, a church forced to resist, but one that nevertheless showed Christian fortitude in suffering and charity towards its oppressors.

Perhaps there is nothing more telling of the cynical manipulation than the absence of that one word that had become a mantra in religious circles in Spain: Crusade. At no time did these same bishops, who had preached a Crusade in their pastorals to their parishioners, use the word to describe their circumstances in the collective letter to the world.

Indeed, the only time the word appears in their collective letter is to contextualise the past (Therefore the Church, even while she is the daughter of the Prince of Peace, has blessed emblems of war, has founded military Orders, and has organised Crusades against the enemies of the Faith.  This is not our case (P. 8). The bloody connotations of a Crusade were undoubtedly clear to the bishops; it was not appropriate for the outside world and therefore was not be used.

As an international institution, the Catholic Church could expect a sympathetic ear within Catholic circles abroad. There were dissenting voices (attributed to false Catholics Sueiro I 75), but Catholics generally reacted supportively to the lurid tales broadcast in Nationalist news bulletins and publications.

In the Vatican, Pope Pius XI was more circumspect in that he did not endorse the rebellion, but his decision to officially name those murdered by the Republic as martyrs, and his recognition of Franco in August 1937 left no doubt where his sympathy lay. His successor, Pius XII, was more openly supportive.

At the end of the war, he sent the victorious Franco a message in which he singled Spain as a nation historically chosen by God to spread the message to the New World and as an invincible bulwark of the faith. Spain provided the clearest proof that, above everything else, the eternal values of religion and the soul still survive(Sueiro I 81).

The crusading rhetoric continued after the Civil War. A massive 36-volume Historia de la cruzada espanola (“History of the Spanish Crusade” 1939-43) celebrated the heroism of nationalist fighters at the same time that it denigrated the republicans as communist dupes and scoundrels.  Even in the 1960s the same language was repeated: the war had been a religious crusade for the soul of Spain, and Franco was the crusading leader.


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The Spanish Situation: A Survey. Joint Letter Addressed by the Bishops of Spain to the Catholic Bishops Throughout the World on the Civil War in  Spain.  Translated by William F. Montavon, Washington D.C. 1937