The Closing of the Church Door

Three decades ago, just days after Spain's new post-Franco Constitution took effect, the new government promised the Vatican that despite an official separation of church and state it would continue Franco's old practice of financially assisting Spain's Roman Catholic Church until it could stand on its own. Spain is still paying. Through subsidies, exemptions and tax breaks, the government has paid the church an estimated €5 billion per year to fund its schools, and for the upkeep of church property and Catholic facilities in prisons and hospitals.

But the Spanish government is now loosening the binds between the church and the state. Amid growing religious apathy nationwide, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2006 eliminated the church's exemption from paying the value-added tax, as well as the government's largely symbolic guarantee that it would cover any shortfall between what taxpayers donated to the church and the church's €144 million budget that year. Now he is moving ahead with a series of distinctly secular projects, including introducing sexual-education classes in school and providing government funding for a free, over-the-counter morning-after contraception pill.

In some ways Zapatero's moves are emblematic of a shift around Western Europe. While Islam has become an increasingly large part of Europe's religious world, secularization is also on the rise among Christians. Governments are scrambling to deal with both trends, often by cutting state support for Christian churches, while extending support to other major religions on the premise that by supporting all religions, none enjoys official sanction. Germany, for instance, has long funded Christian-education classes in public schools, and is now extending that support to religious education for others, including Muslims.

In Britain, the government has also introduced state funding for Muslim-run schools, and there is a concurrent move to distance the government from the Church of England. Though the church still enjoys a powerful symbolic role and sponsors at least one in four state-funded elementary schools, its centrality is under challenge. For instance, the government has debated reforming a House of Lords system that now gives membership to 26 Church of England bishops and archbishops to the exclusion of other religious groups.

In Ireland, where church attendance has dropped by half over the past 25 years, dissenting voices toward traditional Catholic views on sex and marriage are on the rise, and the government is exploring how it might rein in the church's decision-making powers over public schools. The Norwegian government, after a lengthy debate on separating the official Lutheran Church from the state, will soon hand over to the church the power to appoint bishops. Previously the cabinet chose bishops, who, along with the rest of Norwegian clergy, are civil servants. In Greece, where the Orthodox Church is constitutionally linked to the state, church scandals involving drugs, sex and judicial interference have sparked calls to rethink religion's place in government. A 2005 poll showed that almost 65 percent of Greeks favored a separation of church and state.

In part, this trend is due to increased immigration. With 16 million Muslims now living in the European Union, and diminishing church attendance regionwide, it has become increasingly difficult for governments to justify granting extraordinary privileges to specific religions. So Zapatero has aimed to create a more equal playing field for Spain's four major faiths—the Catholic and Protestant churches, Islam and Judaism. "What we're now seeing is the end of what was historically called Christendom in Europe," says Jonathan Bartley, of the British think tank Ekklesia, which analyzes religious and social policies. "This has been the result of large-scale immigration, growth in democracy, a secularizing society and a plurality of religious groups. No longer is there one big church that claims to speak for everyone."

For many countries, this has been an extraordinarily slow process, often because it involves making constitutional changes and overcoming entrenched bureaucracies and years of history. But Zapatero has phased out the church's influence relatively quickly because technically Spain has no official state religion. While some 80 percent of the population consider themselves to be Catholic, most Spaniards appear in church only rarely, for baptisms and similar occasions. Zapatero, a Catholic, seldom attends church and refuses to discuss his religious beliefs in public. During his first term as prime minister, which began in 2004, he pushed a platform dedicated to the idea of equality—often to the disgust of Spain's bishops. He legalized same-sex marriage, gave homosexuals the right to adopt children, made divorce easier and cut mandatory religion classes from public-school curricula. After a bitter dispute, he received the church's blessing at the end of 2006 on a plan to eliminate its VAT exemption in return for a change in the law (now taking effect) that increases the percentage of income tax that taxpayers may voluntarily donate to the church. Carlos García de Andoin, the Socialist Party's coordinator on Christianity, says Zapatero's policies stem from being a part of a generation that believes political life ought to be distanced from religion. His moves also help mobilize the left around a coherent and highly popular message.

Indeed, bishops' accusations that Zapatero has betrayed traditional family values only seem to further rally his supporters. Last week, a determined Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega said the government, now beginning its second term, will give further study to ending the Catholic Church's dominance over other religions, particularly when it comes to receiving financial assistance from the state. It seems Spain's withdrawal from the church is still far from over.

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris