By: Richard Howell
Catholicism has played an important role in Spain for nearly two thousand years. Indeed, it has shaped Spain’s history, festivities, and national identity. Today, the people and their society are still distinctly and culturally Catholic. And yet, beyond that, the Church is but a whisper of its former self in Spain.
Most Spaniards, if they are religious (and even if they’re not), will profess being Roman Catholic. Very few, however, consider religion important in their lives, and even fewer regularly attend mass. Catholicism has slipped into being a passive characteristic of the Spanish. Much like right or left handedness, it’s just something the Spanish are born with but which has little direct influence on their lives.
The lack of influence and importance is perhaps the biggest loss. Here at Georgetown and in much of the US, a Catholic can still find thriving communities. The Church, after all, is not just an institution we participate in but a community we build with friends and family, love and hope. Being Catholic is not just an identity label, and it should have more of an effect on your life than some inherent characteristic like the color of your hair. It is through active engagement that the full potential of the faith is reached.
Spain, then, can serve as a learning experience. Even staunchly religious societies can leave their faith by the wayside and drift into complacency. Part of this is due to growing secularism, but much is also due to the hypocrisy of the Church in siding with the repressive Franco regime. Its profession of the virtues of love belied the uneasy alliance with a ruler who used fear and violence to maintain power.
It is thus important not just to profess being a Catholic or even memorize the dogma. If Catholicism is just a label, or memorized stories, it may as well be dead doctrine. For the Church to continue as an organization, as a dynamic institution, we must engage it as a member of the community. The people in front of you at mass are not strangers, they are part of a greater Catholic family. If it were just a gathering of strangers, the mass would have more in common with a subway ride than a celebration.
Moreover, it is important in our engagement to avoid the hypocrisy of the Church under Franco. There is often a tension among those who try to live out the message of Christ. There are those who focus on his condemnation of sin and others who focus only on his message of love. To build the community, it is important to be welcoming, understand the value inherent in each person, and greet those around us with love. As for condemnation, it should be for the sin, not the sinner, and always be with the humble understanding that the condemnation comes from a fellow sinner.
As religious observance falls in our country, history can be a good teacher. In Spain, the Church has waned to be of little relevance in the lives of most Spaniards. If we are to avoid that fate in the US, every Catholic must realize the value of participation in the greater Catholic community outside of mass. He must also realize the value of all parts of the message of Christ and avoid becoming a partisan or hypocrite. Each of us is the Church, and through our actions we can either build it or allow it to fall to irrelevance.