Catholic but not Catholic

Dear Teresa,

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You probably don’t remember, but when we first met I was shocked to meet a young person like you who was, in my mind, paradoxically both really religious and not. You made me question what I knew about religious people, and what being religious meant in Spain. I then took an online course about religion and for my obligatory “religious experience” assignment I decided to attend Sunday church (for university students in Granada) with you for 6 months. Now, this may seem like a long time for a non-religious person to participate in organised religion, especially when it does not fit their beliefs system. However, for me, it was an interesting experience and, while I wouldn’t want to do it again, I value the insight I had into the religious institution from the perspective of young Spaniards.

As a sociologist, I also took advantage of my years studying the Spanish society to dive into religion when possible and what I found was a contrast to what I was used to in the United States. I think this has a lot to do with the culture difference that exists between countries and the various cultural interpretations that form the way religion has been interpreted. At the end of the day, just like with my friend, I paradoxically consider Spanish people to be incredibly religious and not really religious at all. Let me explain:

Spain is a Catholic country

And it has been so since the end of the 15th century when the Catholic Monarchs (los reyes católicos) Isabel and Ferdinand united Spain. This was due, in part, to their marriage, connecting parts of the region that had been previously separated, and the war they fought to obtain more land. Especially well known is the last Muslim stronghold in Granada, where the Catholic Monarchs eventually ended up residing (perhaps to send a message to the people that they were not to be messed with). They were called los reyes católicos because they fought under the idea of joining Spain together under the Catholic religion.

In addition, these reyes insisted that those belonging to non-Catholic denominations either convert or leave the country. At the time of this declaration, Spain was made up of many different types of people, including large numbers of Jews and Muslims. At first the action of conversion was somewhat pacific, many other religious denominations ‘converting’ to Catholicism without actually leaving behind their old beliefs. However, it eventually became quite a struggle and many people suffered the Spanish Inquisition as it looked to ‘purify*’ the Spanish country.

This created a huge issue as many merchants and businessmen were not Catholic and, therefore, had to convert or loose their businesses (and in many cases fortunes). Many of my Catholic friends, to this day, have last names that were, at one time, identified with Muslims or Jews. At the time there was only two choices: convert or leave. Therefore, for the most part, those who are still here converted many generations ago.

Note: For those interested, I would highly recommend the book The Last Jew by Noah Gordon for a story about a young Jewish boy who found himself alone in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and his experience.

Catholic Roots have proven hard to change

Around six centuries later, Spain is still mostly Catholic. It is the the national religion and, in 2017, almost 70% of the population consider themselves to be Catholic. And just over 25% of these people practice religion at least once a month. This tradition of religion is not unusual, we can see something similar with Catholicism in Italy and, in fact, with other religions in countries that are normally perceived as less religious, such as Norway.

Like can be expected, older people believe more than younger people, and those in rural situations are more likely to be religious than city dwellers. At the same time, in Spain, religion class in school only refers to learning about the Catholic religion (unless you are at a specific non-Catholic, other denomination school) and the other option students have is ethics. Also, many non-religious people go to Catholic schools as they are known for being better than public ones, perpetuating this education to younger generations. The way Catholicism is absorbed into Spanish life is something so normal that I am fascinated by it.

Photo source: Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Morality Questions

One of the things that most struck me is the Spanish interpretation about morality, especially in comparison to American culture. I feel like in the U.S. those people who consider themselves to be religious preach the idea of what it means to be moral in terms that are not even considered in the scheme of right and wrong here in Spain. I understand that this may be because I am a small town girl, but I always felt like church-goers tended to take all the stuff they found important—for example, Lent—seriously. Here people don’t eat meat on the last Friday before Easter Sunday, but they don’t really know why, it is just tradition (I might even know more about it that the average person on the street, and I've never celebrated it). In Spain, the things that belong to practicing Catholics in the U.S. directly form part of Spanish community celebration of traditions that can be traced back centuries.

This also means, from my perspective, that some morality questions that we see in the United States are not planted as such here. For example, homosexuality is Spain not a question most Catholics will even question as a morality issue—in fact, Spain is one of the first nations in the world (number three) to accept gay marriage. And there is an acceptance of homosexuality that is reflected throughout Spanish society, despite being considered a Catholic country. I translate this to the idea that people are not judged in the same way for many actions because the cultural interpretation of these actions are unique to what we see in the U.S. As someone who is not religious, this surprises me because, as a child, I always interpreted religion as an “all-encompassing” thing and I have begun to learn that this is simply not true but that cultural difference do exist.

Integration into Spanish Culture

We talked about it a little bit during Christmas time, but especially at Easter time we can see how integrated Catholicism is into the Spanish culture. For example, with processions we can see how devoted people are to the Catholic traditions, even if they seem paradoxically non-religious the rest of the year. For me, this was really hard to understand because I don’t really understand people who ‘sort of’ do religion. Then I realised that Semana Santa is not only Catholic, but it is also Spanish. It is a way for people to connect with their communities and share history together, not just a way to celebrate the Catholic religion. In this way I can appreciate the way the local churches continue to bring their communities together once a year (and many months in training).

While the religious-not-religious aspect of Spanish life is not easy for me to understand, I am beginning to see how the lines are blurred between what is Catholic and what is Spanish. And I am starting to understand how we cannot compare religion in the U.S. to Catholicism in Spain—to some level, it is all encompassing and has been for hundreds of years (longer than the United States has been a country).

What is your experience with religion in Spain? Let us know!


*I don’t know what the most politically correct word is here, but from what I understand they wanted to get rid of anyone who didn’t truly convert, which they believed would purify the Spanish race.

Extrapolation of religious affiliation data found here: