Home/Rod Dreher/Roots Of Spanish Anticlericalism

Roots Of Spanish Anticlericalism

A plaque in Barcelona commemorates the priests and religious murdered during the Spanish Civil War (lobroart/Shutterstock)

Note to readers:  Lee Podles, a Catholic conservative, tried to post a long section from his fascinating 1999 book The Church Impotent: The Feminization Of Christianity, which you can read in its entirety for free on Podles’s website if you follow the link in this sentence.[UPDATE: It’s not from that particular Podles book — see the note in the update below — RD] It didn’t take because it was filled with footnotes, and the blog software rejected it. It’s so interesting that I took out the footnotes for easier reading, and am reproducing it here. In this section, he is discussing anticlericalism in Spain — RD

Spanish anticlericalism has a long history. Lazarillo de Tormes, the anonymous 16th-century picaresque Spanish novel, has caustic remarks about priests, and Cervantes in Don Quixote casts a suspicious eye at the hermit and his “housekeeper.” Aubert maintains that since the Middle Ages

masculine aggression [has been] directed at priests, who are accused of being lazy because they are not manual workers, of being perverse because in confession they receive very intimate confidences and because they are permanent witnesses of human weaknesses; of being intruders because they mix themselves into the intimacy of the couple and exercise moral pressure on their sexual behavior. This explains the distrust of the woman, who is considered weak and impressionable and suspected of being, in the household, a factor in clericalism and intolerance.

These attitudes continued, and to them were added a modern dislike of the Church both because it was superstitious and because it upheld the oppressive ancient regime. It was therefore doubly an obstacle to rationality and progress. Both bourgeois men and working class men disliked the clergy. As in France, in Spain when boys grew up and disidentified from the feminine world of their mothers, they also rejected the religion that the mother professed. In the lives of nineteenth- and twentieth-century anticlericals, a common pattern emerged:

The male child typically started his life under the influence of his mother, aunts, and female caretakers in general, absorbing their “fussy, sentimental, almost superstitious beliefs.” Many boys were allowed and even encouraged to dress up as priests and pretend to say mass. But with the onset of puberty and peer-bonding with male cousins or friends, the erstwhile little angel learned to mock feminine piety, and indeed to reject anything that might seem “sissy.”

The world of men, especially working-class men, was a world without religion. For a man to be outstandingly religious was considered shameful. A man is humiliated, pasar vergüenza, if he is in debt, or “if he is seen in church holding a rosary, or sitting in the front benches in church.” Devout Spanish men wear the hood in penitential procession lest they be seen as demonstrating their piety too publicly.

The wife is not the head of the family, but in Spain she “assumes control of all affairs pertaining to the spiritual well-being of the household: the masses for the dead, the children’s prayers, the husband’s annual communion, and the negotiations with the important divine figures.” She is the matriarch, at least in all spiritual matters: “The woman is expected to be more religious than the man and to fulfill her religious duties more punctiliously. The wife/mother has to elicit blessings for her children and husband by her prayers. She puts pictures and images of her favorite saints in places of honor, and at times she may force the husband not to overlook his religious obligations. If a child is ill she, never the father, will light small lamps or candles before the image of the Virgin or will recite the Rosary or commission a holy hour.” Male attitudes to the religiosity of their women varied. Some saw such piety as a guarantee of feminine chastity. In 1890 Emilia Pardo Bazán pointed out that Spanish men, even if they were “deists, atheists, skeptics and rationalists” wanted “their daughters, sisters, spouses, and mothers” to be nothing else than “pure Catholics.” But they did not want their womenfolk to be beatas – fanatics – who were caricatured in anti-clerical periodicals and novels. A woman was devout not because she freely chose to be so – a woman’s “intellectual and spiritual autonomy” was not recognized by anticlericals – but because of “the dominion which a priest exercised over her.” Many men deeply resented this supposed dominion.

The first outbreak of murderous anticlericalism occurred in the 1830s. The Jesuits were regarded as supernaturally powerful and cunning, and therefore everything that went wrong was their fault, since they controlled everything. When cholera broke out in Madrid, the proletariat blamed the Jesuits for poisoning the water supply. The mob gathered in the Puerta del Sol and shouted, “veneno, veneno, mueran los jesuitas, mueran los frailes” – poison, poison, kill the Jesuits, kill the religious – and murdered eighty priests and brothers.  The Grand Master of Spanish Freemasonry called the slaughter of the clergy a “castigo merecido”– a punishment they deserved.

Spanish folklore had numerous proverbs and stories that mocked sexual predation by priests and had prepared the Spanish for more modern anticlerical propaganda. French anticlerical literature, especially Michelet’s Le prêtre, la femme, et la famille, directly influenced Spanish anticlericals. An anticlerical woman in 1910 denounced “the Church, which with its unmarried priests brings unrest to families and societies, the Church, which places celibates in the confessional [and] introduces spurious ideas into the family.” Confession to priests by women was especially dangerous. The Spanish popular press in the first part of the twentieth century disseminated tales of clerical sexual malfeasance. The priest was both a threat to the family and an agent of reaction. Anticlericals feared “that Catholic women colluded with priests in order to turn Spanish children against Liberalism, and specifically, Republicanism.” Gil Blas de Santillán (the pseudonym of the Freemason and ex-priest Segismundo Pey de Ordeix) in 1910 warned that women penitents “are the soul of clericalism, the life of the priest, the strength of the Church, the secret behind all its influence, its prosperity, and the power of the Jesuits.”  Convents accepted young women over the objections of their parents – and their suitors. The 1901 play, Electra, by Benito Pérez Galdós, was about the struggle of a young man, Maximo, to fight off a sinister priest who tries to put Maximo’s beloved into a convent. The play helped to precipitate violence and martial law.

Maximo proclaims about the Church: “Let us meet the enemy with a bold face. Let us destroy him, if we can or let ourselves be destroyed by him…but all at once, in a single onslaught, at one stroke…Either him or us….Set fire to the house, set fire to Madrid.” Fire was the favorite tool of anticlerical violence.

José Nakens and other anticlericals detected a strong erotic element in many Catholic devotions (they were correct; see pp. xxx-xxx). Nakens felt that men could not compete with the emotions aroused by devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; women “shuddered in orgasmic delight simply by contemplating and empathizing with the pain and suffering of the image of Christ…and by anticipating a union with him in heaven.” Anticlericals thought this unfair competition: bliss should be experienced in the marriage bed, not in an imaginary heaven. As in Michelet’s complaints, there is an unmistakable note of jealousy in the Spanish anticlericals’ attitude toward the Church.

José Álvarez Junco explains the “envidia,” envy, that the anticlericals felt toward “el gran macho dominador de la colectividad feminina,” the “great male dominator of the feminine community,” that is, the priest:

Let us reconstruct the picture: It is a matter of a patriarchal and discriminatory society, in which the clergy has at its disposal various means of access to the women, means unavailable to the normal man; the priest talks to the women alone and about intimate matters, he seduces them with his speech from the pulpit, he influences their conduct in themes so delicate for other men such as the conjugal life.

Whatever their personal success with women, Liberals had less access to the female public and failed to attract women to their ideas, and they blamed the clergy for this failure.

The Spanish had a suspicion that clerical celibates were not in fact sexually continent. Such suspicions were fed by purported exposés such as the 1896 book by a defrocked priest:

THE SECRETS OF CONFESSION. Revelations, mysteries, crimes and monstruoisities; sacrileges, aberrations and absurdities; misery, social, and religious problems, and human extravagances; immoralities of conservative and ultramontane morality, and other excesses or sins heard from penitents during long experience in the confessional by Constancio Miralta, presbyter.

The author, whose real name was José Ferrándiz Ruiz, churned out a series of pornographic books on Catholic life. El Motín, an anticlerical journal, blamed extortion and sexual abuse by priests for turning the natives of the Philippines against the Spanish.

Even more disliked than the corruption of women was the corruption of male youth by priests. In the nineteenth century the clergy were accused of poisoning wells; in the twentieth century they were accused of being “poisoners of youth, promoters of an insane hypocrisy in sexual matters and in frequent cases practitioners of vice in consequence of a forced celibacy contrary to nature.” Celibacy caused and cloaked “an environment saturated by satyriasis, homosexuality, nymphomania, sadomasochism, pederasty, whoremongering.”  The clerical sexual attack on heterosexual masculinity was felt to be but one front of a broader attack on the masculinity of the laity.

The dispossessed classes, especially in Andalusia, were the most violently anticlerical. Although they were the objects of charity by the well-off Catholic classes, they did not want charity, but respect. Poor men could not support their wives and families; they were put in a position in which the ruling classes made the fulfillment of this elementary masculine duty impossible. Mitchell notes that in Andalusia “the crisis of male confidence wrought by poverty has produced a male mystique, characterized by a curious overvaluing of the genitals.”  The men valued the unique thing that proved they were indeed men.

Anticlerical rhetoric became more heated. The criticism in the anticlerical press was not directed against the power and wealth of the Church (it had largely lost both by the end of the nineteenth century) but against the sexual behavior of the clergy. Celibacy was unnatural, the anticlericals maintained – it was a form of repression, a “negation of life” that led to perversion. The clergy was called a monster, an “unclean baboon,” “repugnant toads,” “an octopus” with “tentacles”  – all images that were used in anticlerical cartoons.  The clergy were dehumanized and became scapegoats for all Spain’s failures; the clergy became “a symbol of everything hateful that existed in the world”  and, as a poet in 1904 proclaimed, exterminating them would be “a panacea for our ills.”

Clericalism tried to annihilate “virile souls,” and therefore burning religious houses would be proper activity for “times of virility.” The monster must be destroyed with fire. Much of this was simply rhetoric designed to stir up anticlerical voters, but it did much more than that. Alejandro Lerroux in 1906 called upon the jóvenes barbaros, the young savages of Spain to

sack the decadent and miserable civilization of this luckless land, destroy its temples, finish off its gods, lift up the veil of the novices and elevate them to the category of mothers in order to make the race more virile. Don’t stop at tombs or altars. There is nothing sacred in this world. The people are the slaves of the Church. The Church must be destroyed. Fight, kill, die!

Such rhetoric ignited a conflagration of masculine thumos among the jóvenes barbaros. During the Tragic Week in Barcelona in 1909, rioters burnt eighty religious buildings. Mobs disinterred nuns from their graves in the cloister, and a workman “did an obscene dance as he carried a corpse.” This was but a hint of the barbarity to come.

The anticlericals continued and intensified their campaign against the Church. The anticlerical newspapers of Madrid had a daily circulation of one million and regularly featured vicious anticlerical cartoons. The newspaper La Traca in 1933 sponsored a competition to decide what to do with the clergy. The answers were ominous, to say the least:

The majority of the responses – of which “geld them” was almost unanimous – were in this style: “What you do with grapes: you hang the good ones, and you crush the bad ones underfoot until there’s not a drop of blood left” and “Put them on the power cables, douse them with gasoline, set them on fire and afterward make sausages out of them to feed the animals with.” Or “Castrate them. Grind them. Boil them. Shred them. Throw them into a manure pit.”

This was not simply venting, as the actions of these anticlericals soon demonstrated.

Anticlericals had an obsession with the sexuality of priests. In 1931 Ángel Samblancat, a deputy, a journalist, and the owner of a Barcelona condom store, said in the Cortes:

And finally we are supporters of humanizing the priest, marrying him off, so that he can know what is good (laughs), marrying off the priest, Señor Deputies, so that he can know what is purgatory (laughs); and we are supporters of humanizing the priest by making him a father in fact and not in name only, making him the father of living creatures, of living beings, and not of children unknown and unacknowledged (laughs and shouts).

The clerical deputies walked out, and even the Republican politician Manuel Azaña said that Samblancat had said “mil atrocidades,” a thousand atrocities.

In 1936 an orgy of murder directed at the Catholic Church stained the Republican side at the beginning of the Civil War and propelled the Church into an alliance with Franco. A third of the churches of Madrid were burned in three days. The violence was almost all male-on-male. Republicans killed 283 nuns but 6,549 priests and male religious. This represented one of every seven priests in Spain and one in four in the areas controlled by the Republicans. There was an unmistakable note of sadism in the Republican atrocities. Priests were not simply killed – they were “hanged, drowned, suffocated, burned to death, or buried alive”; they were tortured to death, with “a morbid fixation on genitalia.”

The corpses of priests found without eyes, tongues, or testicles. In several cases, the body had been castrated, either pre- or post-mortem, and the genitals stuffed into the victim’s mouth…. The ‘morbid fixation with genitals’ was…the product of machismo, which was in turn reflected in the anticlerical obsession with the sexuality of the cloister.

In 1936, the use of sexual temptation in the torture and humiliation of priests was widespread. Half-naked women were brought to tantalize and mock a 27-year-old curate from Banyeres; a prostitute named ‘Nona’ was brought into the gaol to tempt and to mortify the deacon of Junquera; another priest in his twenties, in Barcelona, punched the face of a woman promising him marriage and freedom. Marriage in these cases was clearly a euphemism for sex…. In this horrible search for tumescence and ejaculation which would have ‘proved’ his masculinity, the brother’s own words are telling: “I am as much a man as you. But I am a religious.”

The mummified corpses of nuns and priests were displayed in obscene poses on the altars of ransacked churches. Militia did obscene things with statues of the Virgin. The anticlerical propaganda that had circulated in Spain found its ultimate expression in this revolutionary violence. A “vulgar, masculine, working-class power…targeted its seeming antithesis, the priest.” Marxism and materialism were expressed not just in a disdain for religion, but in an active and destructive hatred of anything and anyone that purported to represent a non-material reality, whether it was a church building or a celibate priest.

Everything connected with Catholicism had to be destroyed, preferably with fire. Anticlericals, almost all young men, burned churches and searched homes for religious images and piled everything in heaps which they set ablaze. The anarchists boasted that “[w]e have lit our torches and applied the purifying fire to all the churches.” In Andalusia the “young men” organized church burnings to “ignite” the masses. In Aravena the men stripped the church, gathered all the crucifixes, paintings, statues, chalices, and images into a huge pile and “set [it] ablaze” and dynamited the church, totally gutting it. They detained their Catholic enemies and “wanted to burn them alive with no trial.”

These were not simply political murders. Something far deeper and more elemental was at work. Poor men in Spain felt that their masculinity was doubly dishonored. They could not be providers for their families: there were landless and dependent on Catholic landowners. The landowners thought they were good Christians because they gave charity to the poor; but what the poor, especially the men among them, wanted was respect. The men saw that the Church, the priests, could attract women and would interfere in male sexual pleasures, even in marriage. The revolutionaries were not ideologists, but wanted recognition, independence, and respect, so that they could be respected by others as men and respect themselves as men. They rejected priests and looked down upon the weakness of women who submitted to priests, reaffirming “the secular, agonistic ethos of honor at the core of traditional representations of masculine identity.” Catholicism attacked men’s honor precisely as men and therefore had to be destroyed. Although Freudian reductionism is not in vogue to explain historical movements, Timothy Mitchell and Pierre Conard think that sexual repression by the Spanish church created rage which eventually burst forth in the horrors of the Civil War. Young men have to disidentify from their mothers to establish their masculinity. In European society (which lacks authoritative initiation rituals), masculinity is always precarious and must be carefully maintained. Young men express their masculinity in very disruptive ways, and women, the Church, and society at large are always trying to tame them. In Manuel Delgado’s analysis, these three forces which seek to tame masculinity are interchangeable in the masculine imagination, and the clergy bore the brunt of Spanish men’s fear of being emasculated by women. The Spanish man perceived the Church not simply as feminine, but as “feminizante,” feminizing, and therefore not simply an environment inappropriate to a man, but “openly dangerous for the integrity and prestige of his masculinity.” Masculinity and its sexual expression had become so important, even so sacred, to the anticlerical men of Spain that they sought to defile and destroy all that seemed to oppose it in any way, especially a depraved, hypocritical, Church that destroyed families and practiced unnatural vices.

In 1940 the victorious Franco said that “Spain will be devoted to the Church by means of the woman,” but he would have to rely only on the women. Even after his victory and the triumph of National Catholicism, when demonstrating that one was a Catholic might help keep a man out of jail (or some worse fate), men stayed away from church. In the early 1940s “in some cities, only 3% of the adult male population regularly attended religious services.” Even as secularization has taken hold in Spain and church attendance has declined in all groups, the difference between men and women remains constant.

In 1990 the Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría and his companions were murdered by the Salvadoran military. A government official, Jesús María Rodés, the director of the school of the autonomous police of Catalonia and a member of a communist party, claimed that the Ellicuría was “not an innocent victim” because he belonged to “a religious organization of paramilitary character,” that is, the Jesuits. A Socialist politician wants members of Opus Dei banned from holding public office.  Pope Benedict XVI took note of these attitudes, and during his visit to Santiago de Compostela in November 2010 told the press that “there has been born in Spain a forceful and aggressive secularism such as existed in the 1930s.”

That’s the end of a section from Leon J. Podles’s 1999 book ‘The Church Impotent’ — which you can read in its entirety for free by clicking this link.

UPDATE: Lee writes to say that’s NOT from his earlier book (which I hadn’t read since it first came out in the 1990s; I apologize for thinking it came from there). It’s actually from a book he has coming out soon. I’ve written to ask him for a link. I just wanted to apologize to you for getting this wrong, and to say watch this space for a new link. The Church Impotent is still well worth your time — and you can read it for free. Lots of great and surprising information in there about religion, gender, and Western society.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles