ROME – Long gone are the times when Spain openly called itself a “Catholic” country, and that transition became ever more evident on Saturday when Socialist Pedro Sánchez was sworn in as Prime Minister with no Bible nor crucifix at the table, becoming the first in Spain’s modern history to do so.

Self-defined as an atheist, Sánchez brought about the downfall of his predecessor, conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, by filing a no-confidence motion in parliament following a scandal over a secret campaign fund that the conservative People’s Party operated from 1999 until 2005.

Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, was sworn in as the country’s new Prime Minister by King Felipe on Saturday. As of Monday, no individual Catholic bishop had congratulated the new resident of La Moncloa, the official home of the Spanish prime minister since 1977 following the country’s transition to democracy.

The lone statement came from Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez of Valladolid, President of the Spanish bishops’ conference, who congratulated Sánchez and assured him of his prayer so that “God may grant you his light and strength” as the Prime Minister undertakes his new responsibilities, “to the service of the common good, unity, prosperity, and social cohesion of our country.”

The prelate also promised Sánchez that the bishops’ conference was disposed to “collaborate sincerely with the legitimate authorities of the State in favor of a better service of the common good.”

Sánchez secured support for the no-confidence motion from a number of odd bedfellows, including the anti-austerity Podemos party, Catalonia’s pro-independence parties, and the Basque Nationalist Party. The Socialists hold just 84 seats in Spain’s 350-member Congress of Deputies, so Sánchez will need their support to pass any legislation.

Given the track record of Sánchez and some members of his coalition with regard to the Catholic Church, Blázquez’s reference to “social cohesion” was likely not just boilerplate rhetoric, but an invitation to the new leader not to launch a cultural war.

When he ran for the office which he’s now captured without a popular vote, Spain’s new Prime Minister advocated the disappearance of religious symbolism from institutions, for an end of public funding for the Catholic Church- which receives money when taxpayers approve it – and for removing religion from the school curriculum, saying that no “confessional religion has to be part of the curriculum and the school schedule.”

His platform for becoming president of the PSOE, the party he leads, bet on Spain consolidating its status as a “lay state.”

To accomplish that goal, Sánchez wants to overrule four agreements between Spain and the Holy See from 1979 giving continuity to the concordat between the regime of General Francisco Franco and the Vatican.

Among other things, the 1979 agreements gave the Church:

  • The power to appoint bishops
  • Guarantees of free and public exercise of those activities inherent to the Church, especially worship, jurisdiction and teaching
  • A promise that education imparted in public teaching centers shall respect the values of Christian ethics.
  • Access to Catholic education in public schools was guaranteed, but not mandatory.
  • A promise that the Catholic Church may freely obtain payment from the faithful, organize public collections and receive alms and offerings, with a promise from the state to collaborate with the Church in obtaining adequate economic support, “absolutely respecting the principle of religious freedom.”

It’s worth noting that the 1979 agreements are international, involving two nations- Spain and the Holy See- and as such, if Spain were to unilaterally revoke them, a political and diplomatic standoff could ensue.

Sánchez’s platform also says that the “secular nature of the State must be translated into an empowerment of secular education and values,” with schools being centers that reinforce the values of democracy.

Sánchez has also vowed to “guarantee the values, rights and civil liberties, adapting [Spanish] legislation to the characteristics of an open, plural and complex society, in which ideological, religious, cultural and gender convictions and expressions are respected, without any religious denomination having preferential treatment.”

In addition, the PSOE is committed to the legalization of euthanasia.

Speaking about other religions, the platform, approved in 2017 when Sánchez was elected leader of the socialist party, also says that they will work to kickstart a “European Strategy for multiculturalism” and the promotion of diversity, paying special attention to the “full incorporation of Islamic communities into the European project and for the recognition of the Arab contribution to the European culture.”

For centuries Spain was ruled by Muslims, after Islamic forces conquered the Iberian peninsula in seven years following the invasion of Spain in 711, and continued to rule until 1492. From the XI century onward, non-Muslims were banned from publicly expressing their faith, while churches were looted and non-Muslims sometimes executed. When Christians regained power in 1492, rulers ordered all Muslims to convert and imposed restrictions on those who wouldn’t.

Sánchez and the PSOE have also promised “neutrality in every institution [and] service, and among public servants, regarding the ideological and religious convictions of citizens,” which can be particularly significant seeing that many Spanish politicians routinely attend religious celebrations during Holy Week and Christmas season.