ROME – On Sunday, the autonomous region of Catalonia, in Spain, is scheduled to hold an independence referendum that has the local church divided, echoing the broader social climate. The country’s central government in Madrid is fiercely opposing the popular vote, and Spanish courts have said it would violate the constitution.
The unity of the country is at stake, as is the political survival of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who’s had to fight off Catalan pressure before. Five years ago, Rajoy also found himself trying to put out separatist fires when an economic crisis, coupled with resentments over Catalonia’s tax contributions to poorer regions, bolstered the secessionist movement.
At a national level, the Spanish bishops issued a statement on Wednesday, avoiding taking a position on Catalan independence. Read by Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez of Valladolid, president of the conference, the message instead is an appeal to dialogue amidst the “grave” situation.
The prelates call for politicians, civil institutions and the people to avoid “irreversible decisions” of “grave consequences” that would put them “on the margins of democratic practice protected by the legitimate laws that guarantee our pacific coexistence,” and which would “fracture families, society and the Church.”
But as is often the case on matters of politics, the Church is not of one mind.
The last time Pope Francis publicly referred to the referendum was back in 2014, during an interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. “Every division worries me,” the pontiff began when responding to the question, “Does the conflict between Catalonia and Spain worry you?”
He went on to distinguish between independence for emancipation, as was the case of the American continent, which emancipated itself from European states, and independence by secession, which he called “a dismemberment.”
“The secession of a nation without a precedent of forced unity has to be taken with many tweezers and analyzed on a case by case basis,” he said.
There have been no official statements from the Vatican regarding the referendum in recent months, and none are expected.
The bishops of Catalonia have spoken, releasing a joint statement on Sept. 20 remaining impartial and urging Catholics to pray for Catalonia in this “delicate moment.”
“The Church wants to be ferment of justice, fraternity and communion, and offers herself to help in this service to the good of our people,” they wrote. “We encourage everyone, particularly Christian laity, to be responsible and committed in public life, to move forth on the path of dialogue and understanding.”
Most have avoided voicing their personal opinion, keeping out of politics. However, some of those in favor have taken to the pulpit or the diocesan communication agencies to have their say.
One of those who’ve spoken out is Bishop Xavier Novell, of Solsona, in his diocesan newsletter.
After citing a series of quotes from popes Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II regarding self-determination (though not in the context of a secession movement), Novel said it’s not fair Catalonians are being denied and prevented from exercising this right.
It’s a right, he argued, that “a great social majority” wants to exercise, as it was the first point in the electoral programs of the political parties that won the most recent autonomous elections.
Earlier this month, some 400 priests and deacons from the ten Catalonian dioceses and religious congregations signed a declaration defending the Oct. 1 referendum, which they sent to the pope. They claim their support is moved by “the Gospel’s and humanistic values,” and pushed by their “sincere love to the people we want to serve.”
According to the text, the prelates consider the referendum to be legitimate and needed, and claim it’s in tune with the bishops, who’ve “repeatedly affirmed the national character of Catalonia.”
This support has fluctuated over time, and many prelates have spoken both in favor and against independence in recent decades. However, as of late the conference line is clear: Dialogue.
The Spanish bishops’ conference said that the opinions voiced in the declaration belong to the priests alone, and that the ecclesial voice that matters is that of the bishops of Catalonia, technically called the “Tarraconense Bishops’ Conference.”
Nevertheless, the national government, through its ambassador to the Holy See, urged the Vatican to punish the priests who signed it.
As further proof of dissonant ecclesial voices, last Sunday, on the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, patroness of Barcelona, Cardinal Juan José Omella, speaking in a basilica full of local politicians, said: “I know that we’re living complicated moments in our society, but we can’t be prophets of calamities.”
“We must avoid confrontation, violence, and contempt for others,” he said. “We ask for sanity for ourselves and for our leaders.”
On the same day, some 30 miles west from there, in the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, Abbot Sergi d’Assís denounced there’s a “repression” against Catalonia regarding the referendum: “A right as simple as being consulted is being prohibited,” he said, according to local newspaper ABC.
Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, with Barcelona, home of Gaudi’s Sacred Family Church, as its capital. The region is located in the country’s northeast, and it’s home to 7.5 million people.
Economically speaking, the region is strong, accounting for almost one-fifth of Spain’s output, and has long spearheaded Spain’s economic development. The financial argument reduced to “we give to the national state more than we receive,” resonates strongly among those who want the referendum to take place.
The region’s push for autonomy from Madrid back in the 1930s was among the reasons behind the country’s bloody civil war, which resulted in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
Many Catalonians favoring the referendum argue that the 1978 Spanish constitution is biased against the region, ignoring the fact that according to Spain’s newspaper El Pais, it was supported by 2.7 million Catalans, representing 91.09 percent of those who voted; and there was a turnout of 70 percent of eligible voters. This means 800,000 more Catalans supported the constitution than those who voted for pro-independence parties in the autonomous elections in 2015, raising the question of exactly how widespread support for the independence push actually is.
In pressing forward with the referendum, the coalition of separatist parties that has governed Catalonia since 2015 is fulfilling one of its pledges.
If the ballots are cast, and the yes vote wins, the regional parliament has committed to making the result binding within 48 hours. Catalonia would unilaterally declare its independence and become a republic. This would not only mean the region would leave Spain, but also the European Union and the United Nations.
In order to be legitimate, the independence declaration must be followed by recognition from the international community, and the new country must find its way back into the UN.