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The Church in Spain in the period 1898-1936?

Spain for many centuries passed as one of the most dominant Roman Catholic nations in the World.  Three centuries ago the Catholic Church was one of the most powerful elements of state and unified the Spanish nation.

After turbulent events in 19th century the Spanish nation weakened as a dominant Roman Catholic nation.  Then in the twenty century, a time of the modernization and new intellect it was thought that nothing worse could happen to the Iberian Peninsula. However, during this time a deeper societal divide and polarization happened. These events ended with a bloody Civil War. These events beg the question, how far did the role of the Church in public and political life divide Spaniards in the period 1898-1936? I try to answer for this question.

Research shows that the splendour of Spain ended in 1898. At the time, Spain lost its colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean when the United States defeated Spain in the war. This incident began the process of disintegration and polarisation in Spain.   To understand the role and demeanour of the Church during the period of 1898 and 1936 we must to remember the Church’s fatal events before the year 1989. During this time Isabella’s and Ferdinand’s reigned, and were also referred to as the Catholic Kings, the church was connected with state[1]. During this time, the 18th century monarchy and Church comprised elements of absolutism. Clergy pursued a policy which was established in 1753 in which Spanish kings obtained entitlement to designate priest to the highest position of power in Spain[2].

Manuel Godoy
Manuel Godoy

During Manuel Godoya’s rule, priests who wanted reformation of Church and country were dismissed from arrive decision. Clergy were divided into two groups, those who supported reforms and changes in Church and those who were traditionalists. Additionally, as a consequence of wars with France and internal conflicts, priests started to dominate traditional and retrograde demeanour. There was a partial liquidation of religious orders and the sale of church properties[3]. Monarchy and Church more and more lost their authority and power. The clergy wore thin with is power and influence on society. Poor people who lived in towns and cities started to sympathize with liberals and supported left-wing movements. Therefore, the Church took heed of people from rural areas and traditionalists. During the 19th century, there were intensified anticlerical movements. This brought around the creation of civil registers of deaths, births and marriages[4]. The constitution of 1876 pronounced Catholicism as the dominant religion[5]. In spite of its brevity in dominance, the Church was unaware of what changes had occurred in society and also of their own weakness. The Church badly estimated their own standing and entered unprepared into the new century, which was a time of the  liberalism and modernism.

Political and economic situations in Spain made the arrival of the second half of the 19th century an open breeding ground for left-wing ideologies. Then in 1868, arrived Giuseppe Fanelli a revolutionary, who was a follower of Bakunin’s idea.  Also during this time the anarchist movement was booming and had considerable popularity with the workers and peasants of Spain.  Three years later, Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, who in 1879 set Partido Socialista Obrero Español up, came to Madrid. At the end of the 19th century in Spain, the first trade unions, which were called Unión General de Trabajadores, were established. Then in 1910, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo emerged. This organization had an important part in anarchism movements. Soon these organizations became the biggest enemy and supporters of the Roman Catholic Church and anti-clerical actions in Spain.

Alfonso XIII
Alfonso XIII

In the years 1898-1936, we can distinguish three different forms of governance. The first is the period of restoration of the monarchy. During this time the Church represented one of the pillars of power. Clergy rejected liberalism in all areas of life. The period of power Alfonso XII saw an increase of the number of monks and actions against the Protestants and people outside the communion. Church demanded from the government support in the repression of other religions. Often the Church filed lawsuits against Protestants, for the trivial reason for the violation of the Constitution; which prohibited the promotion of a different faith than Catholic[6]. Usually legislature, especially at the local level was led by priests. Also the Church took journalists to court who wrote articles unfavorable for the Church. Support in the Church led to public reluctance in the government and the clergy. An example of this may was in July 1910 in Barcelona. Dissatisfied with the fact that the government was sending the Spaniards to war in Morocco people sparked riots. The anger of the Spaniards turned against the Church, because it was the only representative of the authority with which they had contact. During La Semana Tragica, Spaniards destroyed 42 churches and convents[7].

Miguel Primo de Rivera
Miguel Primo de Rivera

Because of the growing dissatisfaction of the political and economic situation and the growing support for anti-government forces, Miguel Primo de Rivera took the power over  in 1923 . The dictatorship of Primo was an attempt to save the monarchy from falling. The ideology of this period was not very complicated. The dictator aimed to unify the country, reconstruct religious power in society, and show respect for authority and family. Catholic elites were optimistic about the dictatorship. This period was characterized by aspirations for Castilization of regions that declared separatism in Castile and the Basque Country. The dictator prohibited the using of Catalan and Basque language. In 1928, the Church hierarchy criticized the Catalan and Basque priests who do not comply with the prohibitions of the dictator[8]. The relative period of calm was not used by the Church to rebuild credibility, the Church still was not be able to adapt to the new situation.

Another political and economic crisis led to the collapse of the government of Primo de Rivera. Republican victory in the elections brought to the creation of the Second Republic in 1931. It was very unfortunate period for the Church, called the time of persecution. Parliament enacted freedom of religion, and there was an order to remove crucifixes from public places[9]. The reaction of the highest dignitaries of the church was immediate. Primate Bishop of Spain, Pedro Segura, who was expelled from the country, issued a letter criticizing the government, which was signed by all members of the episcopate. His writings contain recommendations for bishops, which was brought to Spain curates[10]. As a result of the government’s actions there was a separation of church and state. Priests were involved in paramilitary exercises organized by the Carlists in 1931[11]. A clergyman from Salamanca Castro proclaimed that armed resistance is compatible with theology[12]. The Church tried to operate against the government and to strengthen their own position. Catholic activist José María Gil- Robles, leader of Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, published a manifesto against the policy pursued by the authorities. He strongly advocated a powerful position of the Church. His political group was fascinated by fascism and organized a meeting with Mussolini. However, Spanish fascism never cut off from Catholicism. It was believed that fascism and Catholicism would rebuild the state. They differentiated society between those who espoused Spain and those who were anti-Spain. The Church collaborated with the extreme right-wing politician Gil-Robles, who thought that a model Catholic politician was Engelbert Dollfuss from Austria.  The Church also tried to convince the public opinion to themselves. For this reason they used revelations. Such practices included false predictions of sister Maria Rafols[13]. Her prophecies warned the poor of the appearance of the worse times. During the Second Republic, there were numerous instances of anti-clerical riots. In 1931 hundred-two Church’s buildings were burned[14]. Church represented the attitude of anti-government, but among the clergy there were those who wanted to appease the dispute with the government. But the church did not want to adapt to the new situation.

The church noticed very late the problems with Spanish society and struggled with. They did not realize the impoverishment of the people. Their policy of charity had changed in the nineteenth century. They no longer thought that helping the poor was needed for salvation of the soul. It was believed that poverty was a punishment for the demoralization of society[15]. The church did not see the problems of the working class. Among the priests there were no representatives of the working class who understood the needs and ills of the workers. In the developing working class neighborhoods they did not created parishes, and those that existed did  not enough priests[16]. The characteristic of earlier epochs of the Church over poor health decreased. It was reaction for changes in legislation on aid to the poor through the Church and the influence of the bourgeois mentality. The dominant voice of the Church on social issues was the marquis of Comillas who was funding the Church. He won the opportunity to direct its policy towards the lower classes[17]. He was an influential entrepreneur and defended the right of the middle class. For over thirty years he headed the Juntas de Accion Catolica Central. He organized Catholic trade union of which factory owners were asked to participate, not understanding the problems of workers. Workers sections ecclesiastical action attended only evangelize. However there were the clergy, who formed compounds having assisted the poor, especially in rural areas. Anyway, their actions were controlled by the bourgeoisie, which had an impact on the church. The most popular Catholic unions were Sindicatos Libres. They were organized by the Carlists and very radical. They fought with entrepreneurs but also with the anarchists, often using weapons during the riots.

A large part of the Spanish education was in the priests hands. Catholic teaching was favored until 1901.  There did not be controlled by the government, and if they wanted to inspect the faces resistance priests or nuns in charge of centers. On the strength of the constitution of 1876, religion has been a compulsory subject in primary and secondary education[18]. Catholic schools were often paid because they were frequently attended by children of the new bourgeoisie. If classes were held for poor children, they had to wear different outfits than children which parents paid tuition. Also they had a lower number of classes and could participate in other activities. Children did not have a common schedule and rarely had contact with each other[19]. In this way the Church deepened the division of society also it felt as if it prepared each child to live in their own class. In a certain sense Church used teaching to indoctrination youth. Pupils life were controlled, they could only read selected books or articles. They were taught that liberalism was a sin and that good people supported the king, the church and vote for the right wing[20]. They used textbooks that often disagreed with the official position of the Catholic Church. Priests involved in promoting hate to liberals. Often their pupils after leaving school were not prepared for real life. Additionally, the Catholic schools often formed Catholic Associations, which took part institution’s old pupils.

Spanish Church was not aware of the changes that occurred in the late nineteenth century society. Among the supporters of the Church were the Carlists, the bourgeoisie and middle class of the Northern areas of Spain which were very Catholic. However Church suffered defeat in the southern part of the country as well as in big cities, where most support was for socialists and anarchists. They did not understand the needs of the working class. This triggered a reversal of church from the poor, which in previous years supported the Church. The attitude of the Church to the state, its sympathy to the discredited monarchy set up as part of the old regime hated by the disadvantaged class. Therefore, from 1898 to 1936, the Church so often an object of aggression pained people. They were considered an enemy because they sympathized with the rich classes. In my view, the attitude of the Church discouraged believers and fostered hatred for those who had a different ideas, in this case the Republicans, Anarchists and Socialists. Radical movements calling for changes in the Church ceased to be competitive and the backwardness caused the anger of the masses. I believe that the attitude of the Church led to the deepening of division in society that began in the nineteenth century. The Church fueled the atmosphere instead of giving shelter to the poor and the victims. Often, they told people that they had to choose whether they were ally or enemy of the Church. The lack of awareness of their own weakness did not allow the clergy to properly assess the situation. For the people of the twentieth century, they no longer feared God. In my opinion, the bloody civil war would have not occurred without the role of the church. In summary, the events leading up to the civil war the actions of the Church which acted as a catalyst.










  1. Brenan, Gerald, The Spanish labyrinth: an account of the social and political background of the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  2. Callahan, William J., The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875-1998 (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2000).
  3.  Carr, Raymond, Spain: 1808-1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.).
  4. Christian, William, Visionaries: the Spanish Republic and the reign of Christ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  5. Lannon, Frances, Privilege, persecution, and prophecy: the Catholic Church in Spain, 1875-1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).
  6.  Lannon, Frances, ‘The Church’s Crusade Against the Republic’ in Revolution and War in Spain, ed. By P. Preston (London: Routledge, 1993).
  7. Lannon, Frances, ‘The Socio-Political Role of the Spanish Church – A Case Study’, Journal of contemporary history, 14.2 (1979), pp. 193-210.
  8. Livermore, Harold, A history of Spain (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958).
  9. Małkowski, Tadeusz, Church in Spanish society in 19th and 20th century (Łask: Oficyna Wydawnicza LEKSEM, 2006).







[1]Tadeusz Małkowski, Church in Spanish society in 19th and 20th century (Łask: Oficyna Wydawnicza LEKSEM, 2006), p.14.

[2]Harold Livermore, A history of Spain (New York : Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958 ), p. 335.

[3]William Callahan, The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875-1998 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), p. 9.

[4]Tadeusz Małkowski, p. 42.

[5]Raymond Carr, Spain: 1808-1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.), p. 351.

[6]William Callahan, p. 28.

[7]Raymond Carr, p. 484.

[8]Tadeusz Małkowski, p. 76.

[9]Frances Lannon, Privilege, persecution, and prophecy: the Catholic Church in Spain, 1875-1975 (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 181.

[10]Frances Lannon,  ‘The Church’s Crusade Against the Republic’  in Revolution and War in Spain, ed. by P. Preston (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 36.

[11]Tadeusz Małkowski, p. 76.

[12]William Callahan,  p. 325.

[13]William Christian, Visionaries: the Spanish Republic and the reign of Christ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 73.

[14]Gerald Brenan, The Spanish labyrinth: an account of the social and political background of the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 236.

[15]William Callahan, p. 230.

[16]May Vincent, ‘Spain’, in Political Catholicism in Europe, 1918-1965, ed. by T. Buchanan and M. Conway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 98.

[17]Frances Lannon,  Privilege, persecution, and prophecy, p. 172.

[18]William Callahan, p. 62.

[19]Frances Lannon, ‘The Socio-Political Role of the Spanish Church – A Case Study’, Journal of contemporary history, 14.2 (1979), p. 194.

[20]Ibid, p. 203.