Religious Education Issues Divide Spain

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Spanish Catholics are opposing education reforms of the Socialist government, which makes religion classes optional. The previous administration had promised to make religious education compulsory.

SHEILAH KAST, host:

Spain's socialist government once again finds itself at odds with the Roman Catholic Church. First, it was over the legalization of same-sex marriages. Then it was about easing restrictions on divorce and abortion. After that, it was over the government's authorization of stem cell research. Now the church is upset with the government's decision to keep religious education optional in public schools. Jerome Socolovsky visited a school near Madrid where children learn about their faith.

(Soundbite of children at play)

Unidentified Child #1: (Spanish spoken)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

Stampeding children crisscross the playground of the Vicente Alexandra Elementary School(ph). It's a public school like any other in Spain, and after recess, it's time for religion class.

Ms. MARTHA PEREZ(ph) (Instructor): (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Child #2: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Child #3: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: The instructor, Martha Perez, is appointed by the local Roman Catholic diocese, but she says that what she teaches is a far cry from Roman Catholic dogma.

Ms. PEREZ: No, no, no, no, no, no. (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `It's religious education, not catechism. You teach religion the same way you would teach math or science, with faith, of course, because you're religious and you're Christian and you try to transmit that to the children,' she says.

By law, every public school in the country is required to teach Roman Catholicism, the faith of more than 80 percent of Spaniards. If there are enough non-Catholic pupils, a class in their creed or an alternative in ethics must also be offered. But the classes are optional and the church wants them to be mandatory. The bishops are furious that the prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, canceled a law that would have done just that and replaced it with new legislation that would keep religion classes optional.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SOCOLOVSKY: At a recent interfaith event in Madrid, Father Mariano Parone(ph) criticized the new law. He said Zapatero is out of touch with its Spanish public opinion if he thinks faith should have no place in public schools like in America.

Father MARIANO PARONE: It's absolutely different from the States. You don't normally have wine with lunch; we do. So it's a different viewpoint in the sense of a tradition, and it has been a tradition to have a Christian or Catholic education in public institutions for education.

SOCOLOVSKY: Surveys show that Spaniards cling to their Catholic identity despite their liberal views on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SOCOLOVSKY: When classes are over at the Vicente Alexandra school, the children rush out through the gate. Among the waiting grown-ups is a grandmother in a black fur coat. Ana-Maria Belmonta Blanco(ph) thinks it's good that the religion class is optional. She recalls what school was like during the Franco dictatorship when she was a child.

Ms. ANA-MARIA BELMONTA BLANCO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `We started school with Mass and ended with fully Communion and confession for the rest of the day,' she says, `but that's not right. After all, a little girl of eight years, what sins could she commit?'

When her granddaughters come out of school, Ms. Belmonta beams with pride.

Ms. BELMONTA BLANCO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: `Look what beautiful granddaughters I have,' she says, `and they believe in God. See? You learn that from the teacher, don't you, darlings?' `The only thing left,' she adds, `is that they find good husbands later.' For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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