Second Spanish Republic. The Church June 1931-November 1933.

Some Background.
The first elections of the Second Republic were called for June 28, 1931. Twenty-six different parties contested for power, of which 19 had members elected. Clearly no single party could hope to form a government. What did happen on June 28 was an overwhelming victory for a wide-ranging Republican-Socialist coalition.

The exact number for each party is notoriously unreliable, but there is wide consensus that the group with the largest vote was the Socialist Party (PSOE). However, the number of socialist deputies (i. e. members) varies with historians’ calculations range from 113 to 120! Other leftist, and regional parties (Catalan, Galician and Basque), accounted for some 180 seats; the centre-right Republicans won 90 and the far right 45. 

The most important task facing the new Cortes when it convened on July 14, 1931 (symbolically on Bastille Day –July 14– to honour the founding of the French Republic), was to draw up a new constitution.

The Cortes already had a draft prepared under the Provisional Government, but this was quickly struck down as being too conciliatory and moderate, especially in matters touching upon the Church. A task force quickly set to work, and by the end of August had drawn up a new text to submit to the Cortes.

For the next three months there were heated debates between reformers and a reactionary minority –including right wing Republicans– determined to defend its long-held rights and its traditional view of the nation. There was also a small group of intellectuals, e.g., Spain’s leading philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, who attacked the draft for what they saw as a mean-minded sectarian document, foisted on the country by socialist extremists, or jabalíes (wild boars) as Ortega more graphically put it.

What the Constitution did, when finally approved on December 9, 1931, was set the parameters within which the struggle between left and right was fought out over the next five years.

Reform was the order of the day, and there were promises to all those who wanted change. There were some measures that passed with little challenge. E. g. the abolishing of the Senate and creation of a unicameral parliament; all Spaniards over 23 were eligible to vote (Art.36) and stand for parliament; Castilian was the official language of the country, with regional languages being recognised within their geographical areas (Art. 4).  

The most controversial changes were those that carried the emotional baggage of history: Church-state relationship, agrarian reform, regional autonomy. In this page, we’ll look at the decisions arising from the Constitution that affected Church-state relationship.  

The Church.
In matters of religion, the thrust of the Constitution was to secularise the state, thereby depriving the Catholic Church of those privileges it had enjoyed for centuries.

In a country where Catholicism had long been viewed as an integral part of the country’s very identity, the move to secularise the state was an unacceptable break from the past not only to conservatives or traditionalists but even to many moderate Republicans.

Those who had drawn up the first draft under the Provisional Government had already proposed freedom of religion and separation of state and Church. The October debates to determine the status of the Church were extremely acrimonious, and the version finally ratified on December 9 left deep wounds on the nation’s collective body.

Article 3 of the Constitution declared outright that El Estado español no tiene religión oficial (“The Spanish State has no official religion“). But this was only a prelude to the more specific Articles 26 and 27. According to these articles, no religious belief was to enjoy any legal privilege, a confrontational declaration that in effect separated Church and state for the first time in the country’s history.

Furthermore, all state subsidies for the clergy were to be eliminated within two years, and all religious orders that took an oath of allegiance to an authority other than the state were dissolved (this was aimed at the Jesuits).

But not only did the state repudiate any religious affiliation, it also prohibited the Church from any activity in industry and commerce and required it to provide an annual financial account. Especially painful for the Church was its complete loss of control of public education, which was henceforth to be entirely secular and free, as Article 48 made clear.

Subsequent legislation passed by the Cortes in the next few months continued the attack, allowing divorce for the first time in Spanish history, nationalising Church property and buildings belonging to the religious orders, and granting the government the right to veto appointments to the Church hierarchy.

Further provisions allowed for cemeteries to be transferred to civil jurisdiction, which meant that no areas could be reserved for a particular religious faith, and marriage could be dissolved by mutual agreement or by just cause when requested by one of the party.

In this sweeping assault on the Catholic Church, the Republic laid itself open to criticisms of ideological intolerance as destructive as the narrow-mindedness that it attributed to the Church.

Each side saw the other in historical terms as responsible for the sorry state of the country.

For the Republicans, the Church was not only an obstacle against the modernization of Spain, it had also accumulated vast wealth in banks, industries and other commercial ventures and was partner to the evils of capitalism.

For the Church, on the other hand, the Republic was the bastard offspring of liberalism that it had been fighting since the Cortes of Cádiz (1812), aided and abetted by freethinkers and masons working to destroy religion. And since the Russian revolution of 1917, the godless face of communism loomed in the background as an added spur to Catholic fears.

There is no better example of the different perceptions of the historical role of the Church than the debates of October 1931 between Fernando de los Ríos, Minister of Justice, and other Republicans, and the staunch Catholic, José María Gil Robles and his traditionalist supporters.

For De los Ríos the Church had stifled the life of the country since 1492. It had expelled the Jews, and supported the Inquisition, harassing and persecuting those who did not conform. The Republicans identified themselves with earlier nonconformist groups –e. g. the 16th-century Erasmists, and 18th-century afrancesados—  and accused the Church of allying itself with a repressive monarchy.

Robles and the defenders of the Church recalled its historic role during the Reconquista, a national mission that it had fulfilled throughout the ages. They argued that their mission now was  against the evils of liberalism and materialism.

For the Republicans, then, the Constitution of 1931 was not just a matter of correcting past injustice, it was an attempt to eradicate what it considered to be at the root of Spain’s problems: its backwardness resulting from Church’s indoctrination.

By abolishing its privileged status and eliminating its control of education, the Republic hoped to reduce the Church to a purely pastoral role. By taking these steps, however, the Republic was accused of being hypocritical when, at the same time that it proclaimed liberty, equality and solidarity, it discriminated against and even persecuted those who wished to have their children taught according to Catholic principles.

Catholic fears were understandable in the context of the passions awakened by the October debates over the Constitution. The reprehensible behaviour of past popes was trotted out, miracles were treated as nonsense, the Jesuits attacked as a Mercantile Society (the same speaker declined to call them a band of thieves out of respect for thieves), priests were urged to go out into the real world and work, and so on.

Although the Prime Minister, Manuel Azaña, the most influential spokesman for the Republic, argued against the complete suppression of the religious orders (they were useful for running hospitals, clinics and orphanages), he earned Catholic hostility by declaring that “Spain has ceased to be Catholic.”

It was a comment seized upon by opponents of the Republic as evidence of its godlessness. Azaña may have exaggerated, but there were priests who acknowledged or feared that Spain had indeed lost its Catholic identity. Many had long lamented a decline in Church attendance especially in the south and in the large urban centres.

One priest, author of The Apostasy of the Masses (1936), observed that The vast majority of ordinary people are not ours, they are indifferent or they are against us (Shubert 160). The evidence of such a assertion prompted another priest to publish in 1939 a book whose title Is Spain Catholic? is itself a statement of Catholic concern. What upset the Church about Azaña’s claim that Catholicism no longer served as the guiding principle for millions of Spaniards was to have it publicly declared irrelevant by an anticlerical politician. That was like rubbing salt in an open wound.

The ecclesiastical hierarchy would probably have grudgingly accommodated the separation of Church and state (following France, which was a secular state but still belonged to the Catholic fold), but the other provisions were hasty, ill-conceived attacks intended to cripple the Church as a social and political force.

They were confrontational and carried out too rapidly and on too many fronts. Additional and frequent harassment of Catholics was needlessly provocative and humiliating: e.g. imposing fines for wearing crucifixes in public, banning or taxing the ringing of Church bells, prohibiting Catholic burials unless requested in the deceased’s will (at a time when 9 out of 10 died without making a will).

As a result, not only did the Republic alienate moderate support and make it difficult for Catholics to be Republican, they also provided the traditionalists with a rallying cry and focus of counteraction.

In education, e.g., many Catholic institutions bypassed the law by simply becoming “lay” schools, with the religious staff exchanging their clerical garb for lay clothes and using their baptismal names. In a way this turned out to be something of a blessing, since the state simply did not have the resources to adequately fund its reforms, especially at the secondary level. Of the estimated 27,000 schools required to make education universally accessible to everybody in 1931, less than 10,000 were built during the whole of the Second Republic.

The radical reforms inscribed in the Constitution set an ill-fated tone for Church and state relationship. Mutual intolerance set in motion a process of polarisation that ended in the catastrophic Civil War pitting traditional Catholicism against secularism, region against region, and family against family. Wiser counsel on all sides at the birth of the Second Republic might have avoided that bloody civil conflict.

Carr, Raymond  Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford 1980
Casanova, Julián and Carlos Gil Andrés Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Jackson, Gabriel  The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 1965 (3rd printing, 1972)
Lannon, Frances  Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975 Oxford 1987
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990
Image of Fernando de los Rios:
Image of Jose Maria Gil Robles: