Catholic persecution in the Spanish Civil War

12 mins read
Russell Shaw

The trouble had been brewing a long time, and in mid-July, it finally boiled over. Units of the army in Spanish Morocco rose up in rebellion. The Spanish Civil War had begun.

Seventy-five years later, the bloody struggle that followed from 1936 to 1939 stands as one of the traumatic events of the 20th century. Historians see it as setting the stage for World War II. As many as a million people, civilians included, might have died in a conflict that pitted class against class, ideology against ideology, unbelief against faith and left a shattered nation.

The Catholic Church was one of the main sufferers. Thousands of priests, religious and laypeople died for the faith in execution-style killings. British historian Michael Burleigh called the killing of clergy and religious “the worst example of anticlerical violence in modern history,” surpassing even the French Revolution for that dubious distinction. Of claims that the Church brought it on itself, Burleigh said, “Even then it was fashionable to blame the victims.

Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and the communist Soviet Union each provided significant military aid — material and personnel — to the side it favored: Germany and Italy to the rebel Nationalists of the right, the Soviets to the communists who made up a major element of the Republican coalition on the left.

Thousands of volunteers from other countries flocked to Spain to fight for one side or the other. Some 900 Americans died in the war.

Both during and since, much about the Spanish Civil War has been disputed, and that is no accident. “No episode in the 1930s has been more lied about than this one,” historian Paul Johnson wrote. Communist disinformation masterminded in Moscow found a willing audience in the “naivety, gullibility … and mendacity” of left-leaning Western intellectuals, Johnson added.

Setting the stage

Largely as a result, many important facts about the war remain unsettled. But the general outlines are clear. To understand what happened in those three awful years, it’s necessary to begin much earlier.

By the 20th century, Spain’s golden age in the 16th century was a distant memory. The Spanish colonial empire had long since disappeared.

For at least a century and a half the nation had been increasingly torn by social tensions marked by occasional outbreaks of violence. A crisis of immense proportions was taking shape, and no one seemed to be able to prevent it.

Along with the rest of Spain, the Church suffered. During the 18th century, the anti-religious propaganda of the Enlightenment had worked to undermine its influence. In 1837, its extensive landholdings were seized at the insistence of liberals and were sold to middle-class speculators.

In reaction, the Church grew increasingly conservative and identified more and more closely with the established social order. Yet even so, Hugh Thomas, author of “The Spanish Civil War” (Modern Library, $24.95), concluded that the Church was “charitable, evangelical [and] educational” — a benign, though old-fashioned, player in an increasingly troubled social scene.

All the same, he wrote, by the early 20th century, bringing the Church down had become “a matter of obsession” for the Church’s enemies. Among these were liberal politicians, Freemasons (often, the same people as the liberal politicians), workers who blamed the clergy for their woes and secularized intellectuals with a chip on their shoulders against religion.

A major aim of the Church’s opponents was to drive religious orders out of the field of education — a somewhat odd objective in a country that already had too few schools (in 1930, some 80,000 children weren’t in school in Madrid alone).

Not uncommonly, however, hostility went beyond obsession and took a violent turn. In 1923, for instance, anarchists shot to death the archbishop of Saragossa. In spring 1931, a wave of violence broke out in Madrid, Seville and other cities, with mobs attacking churches, monasteries and convents.

At this time, of course, the Church in Spain undoubtedly appeared to be overwhelmingly powerful — on paper. By the 1930s, women religious numbered some 60,000, diocesan priests, 35,000 and male religious, 20,000. There were about 1,000 monasteries and 4,000 convents.

But the numbers are deceptive. Though nearly every Spaniard was baptized, two-thirds of them didn’t practice their religion, except possibly for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Only 5 percent of the rural inhabitants of New Castile made their Easter duty in 1931; in Andalusia, only 1 percent of the men in some villages went to Mass, and in a well-off Madrid suburb, 90 percent of Catholic school graduates didn’t go to church.

Pivotal year

The year 1931 was a turning point. Supporters of a republic won a majority of votes in local elections in April. King Alfonso XIII, a stabilizing presence in the country up to now, left Spain, and it was proclaimed a republic. The new provisional government almost at once declared separation of church and state and religious freedom.

In the spring, a campaign of anti-monarchist, anti-religious violence began in Madrid, Seville and other cities. On April 20, Father Josemaría Escrivá, founder of the new Catholic group Opus Dei, recorded in his journal that for 24 hours the capital city was “one huge madhouse.”

May 10 brought fresh attacks on churches and other religious establishments. Fearing for the safety of Blessed Sacrament in one chapel, Father Escrivá — who was canonized in 2002 — wrapped a ciborium of hosts in a cassock and newspaper and carried it to the home of a friend.

The government was slow to respond to the outbreak, and that slowness left many of its opponents even more angry and suspicious than before. The situation was not improved when the cardinal-archbishop of Toledo and the bishop of Vitoria were expelled from the country for anti-Republican statements (which, in fact, they had made).

In the fall, the government introduced a draft constitution with religious clauses that Thomas called “ambitious but foolish.”

They included ending government payments to priests begun in last century as compensation for seizure of Church lands; requiring religious orders to register with the justice ministry under threat of dissolution if found to be threats to the state; dissolving orders whose members take more than the usual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (in other words, the Jesuits, some of whose senior members make a vow of loyalty to the pope); ending all religious education; requiring government approval for any “public manifestation of religion”; and recognizing only civil marriage as legal.

Spanish reformers had long sought to bring the country into the 20th century. Now it was clear that for the people running the country, that meant suppressing the Catholic Church.

Pope Pius XI protested these developments in an encyclical published in June 1933 titled, Dilectissima Nobis (“Extremely Dear to Us” — i.e., the Spanish nation). Denouncing the “anti-religious whims of the present legislators,” the pope declared: “We cannot fail to raise our voice against the laws lately approved … which constitute a new and graver offense not only to religion and the Church but also to those declared principles of civil liberty on which the new Spanish regime declares it bases itself.”

Pope Pius likened what was happening in Spain to the persecution of the Church then under way at the hands of the anticlerical government in Mexico and the atheist rulers of the Soviet Union. The attack on the Church in Spain, he said, was “not so much due to misunderstanding of the Catholic faith and its beneficial institutions, as of a hatred against the Lord and his Christ.”

Random acts of an anti-religious nature were, by now, common. In Andalusia, after lightning destroyed a church roof and the priest celebrated Mass under the open sky, he was fined for an unauthorized public display of religion. Another priest, preaching on the feast of Christ the King, was fined for expressing monarchist sentiments by referring to the kingship of God. The ringing of church bells drew a fine in one place, while elsewhere churches were robbed and burned, with the authorities doing little to identify perpetrators.

Meanwhile, a reaction against the radical policies of the new regime was setting in among monarchists, aristocrats, wealthy people and the middle class, elements of the army and some in the Church. The conservative political parties pulled themselves together and began winning elections, while their opponents on the left grew ever more hostile and determined to fight if it came to that.

Pope Pius XI had commended “the great majority of the Spanish people” for their restraint in the face of provocations from enemies of religion. No doubt many did. But a British journalist called Spain in these years “a country at war with itself.”

Spanish society as a whole descended increasingly into a state of constant tension and revenge-seeking among a mix of groups that included anarchists, socialists, communists, monarchists, Freemasons, Catholics, the fascist Falange, the army, the civil guards and others. The only thing they had in common, it sometimes seemed, was a desire to gain the upper hand and then settle scores.

War erupts

New general elections in February 1936 produced a victory for a left-wing Popular Front coalition. Almost at once, this outcome brought a fresh wave of violence by groups even further to the left than the coalition members who were convinced the time was now at hand for all-out revolution.

For a long time people had been asking when the Spanish army would step in. The answer came July 17 — a day earlier than planned — with an uprising among army units across the Strait of Gibraltar in Spanish Morocco under the command of Gen. Francisco Franco. The war had started.

Fifty churches in Madrid were burned during the night of July 19-20. The Republican government appeared to lose control of the situation as leftist militias roamed the streets. “A bad night, hot,” Father Escrivá wrote in his journal. “All three parts of the rosary. — Don’t have my breviary. — Militia on the roof.”

Persecution of the Church continued in Madrid and other places where the Republican forces or the militias of the anarchists, communists and socialists were in control. Although the persecution eventually slacked off, never in the next three years did it end.

Extreme brutality was a notable feature of the Spanish Civil War. The numbers remain in dispute, but by one credible estimate there were 70,000 executions in the zone controlled by the Republic and 40,000 in the zone of the rebel Nationalists, with another 30,000 postwar executions under the victorious Franco regime. (Johnson said Franco was “in no sense a clericalist and never took the slightest notice of ecclesiastical advice on nonspiritual matters.”)

Among Church personnel, those executed during the war — almost all of them by the leftists — included 12 bishops (the bishops of Jaen, Lerida, Segorbe, Cuenca, Barcelona, Almeria, Guadix, Ciudad Real, Tarragona, and Teruel along with the apostolic administrators of Barbastro and Orihuela); 283 religious sisters and nuns; 4,184 priests; 2,365 religious priests; and an unknown number of laypeople killed for their faith.

As of summer 2008, nearly 1,000 of the martyrs had been canonized or beatified, and the causes of another 2,000 or so were under study. Speaking on Oct. 29, 2007, after the beatification of 498 martyrs, Pope Benedict XVI cited their “words and gestures of forgiveness toward their persecutors,” and expressed hope their example would move people to “work tirelessly for mercy, reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.”

Outside intervention

Another notable feature of the war was the intervention of foreign countries and foreigners. As noted, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union all gave important military assistance to their respective sides. Moved by ideological passion, thousands of volunteers from abroad flocked to Spain to join the fighting, mostly on behalf of the forces of the left. Other leftist sympathizers came as observers, including Ernest Hemingway, who gathered material for his book “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Scribner, $16).

Among the foreigners was the British writer George Orwell, who fought with a dissident communist unit on the Aragon front in 1937. In his book “Homage to Catalonia” (Mariner, $14), Orwell called it a “pitiful lie” that the leftists only attacked churches if they were used as bases by the Nationalists. “Actually churches were pillaged everywhere and as a matter of course,” he wrote.

As the war progressed, the communists took more control on the left under the direct tutelage of the Soviets. “The Communists — that is, Stalin’s secret police — took over Republican Spain,” Johnson wrote.

Orwell was a disgusted witness of what was happening. That included a military power grab by the communists — a kind of leftist civil war within a civil war — which took place in Barcelona in 1937 while he was recuperating there after being seriously wounded. Orwell’s experiences helped shape his later anti-Stalinist masterpieces “Animal Farm” (Plume, $14) and “1984” (Plume, $15.95).

As the fighting dragged on in a war of attrition, the Nationalists under Franco slowly squeezed the Republicans. The end came at last came in March 1939 with the fall of Madrid.

Father Escrivá, who had escaped from the Republican zone two years before and spent the remainder of the war in Burgos, was one of the first priests to return to the shattered capital. Later he wrote: “Never put up a cross just to keep alive the memory that some people have killed others. … Christ’s Cross is to keep silent, to forgive and to pray for those on both sides, so that all may attain peace.”

Three-quarters of a century later, Spain is a country at peace (except perhaps in the Basque region, where Basque separatism persists). Spain has a democratic system of government, a left-leaning secularist regime that has frequently clashed with the Church and a shaky economy. Pope Benedict XVI visited the country last November on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela and will go there again next month for World Youth Day.

In remarks April 16 to Maria Jesus Figa Lopez-Palop, the Spanish ambassador to the Holy See, the pope said Spanish secularism “does not favor openness to transcendence” and displays “sophisticated forms of hostility to the faith.” Difficult as the problems now facing Spanish Catholicism may be, however, they hardly compare with the tragic events of 1936-1939.

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw writes from Maryland.