Spain's Prime Minister Skips Mass with Pope

Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a mass this morning, but Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did not attend. His absence annoyed the Vatican. Spain's political shift toward socialism is at the heart of the flap.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

In Valencia, Spain today, Pope Benedict XVI closed the fifth Vatican-sponsored International Conference on the Family. The papal visit to Valencia lasted just 26 hours, but it was very charged. Spain recently has enacted liberal laws that defy Catholic doctrine, and Benedict sees the country as the battleground between Christian faith and rampant secularism.

NPR's Silvia Poggioli is in Valencia, and joins us on the line. Sylvia, what's been the thrust of the Pope's messages in Spain?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

He repeatedly stressed that the family is founded on the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman. And he told politicians that the family is the nerve center of society and that laws should be in the service of human dignity. The message was very clear.

Under Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain has become the prime target of Benedict's offensive against secularism, and what he calls the dictatorship of relativism. In what amounts to a social revolution in a traditionally Catholic country, Spain has legalized same-sex marriage, eased restrictions on divorce and abortion, endorsed embryonic stem-cell research, and curbed religious education in schools. This has strained church-state relations to a point that a Vatican official proclaimed that citizens are obliged not to follow what he called immoral laws.

KAST: And Pope Benedict met briefly with Prime Minister Zapatero. How did the meeting go?

POGGIOLI: It was very brief. Spanish TV footage showed both Benedict and the prime minister very relaxed. The exchange of gifts was revealing. Zapatero gave the Pope a modern abstract painting, while Benedict gave the Spanish prime minister a heavy tome, a copy of the Vatican Codex.

Spanish government sources described the talks as extraordinarily cordial. The Vatican made no comment, but Vatican officials had earlier expressed irritation that Zapatero announced he would not attend today's closing Mass. They pointed out to reporters that other leftist leaders, including Cuba's Fidel Castro, had attended masses when Pope John Paul visited their countries.

KAST: And as elsewhere in Europe, there's been a sharp decline in church attendance in Spain. So how was Pope Benedict received in Spain?

POGGIOLI: Well, the city here is governed by a conservative administration, and it gave Benedict a rousing welcome. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered last night and this morning at the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences complex to hear and see the pope, but the turnout was smaller than the one and a half million pilgrims organizers had predicted.

And there were people here who were not happy about the papal visit. Earlier this week, protesters hung banners from windows with the words addressed to the Pope, You're not welcome here. More broadly, Spanish society has undergone a very rapid period of secularization, and today polls say fewer than 20 percent of Spaniards attend church regularly, and less than 50 percent of the young consider themselves Catholic.

KAST: And so does this mean Zapatero and his government's agenda on these issues reflect the views of Spanish society?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's what many people in Madrid and here in Valencia have told me. They describe Zapatero as the smiling symbol of a secular Europe. What's striking is that polls show that two-thirds of Spaniards approve same-sex legislation, a much higher proportion than in any other European society.

You know, it's now 31 years since dictator Francisco Franco died and the transition to democracy began. The Socialists seem to want to complete the passage by empowering civil society. The Catholic Church enjoyed much power and a lot of privileges under Franco, and there are still many bitter divisions over that period, and the bloody civil war that preceded it. Relatives of the victims of Franco are appealing to the Pope to convince the Spanish Catholic hierarchy to remove plaques from churches that celebrate heroes of the Franco regime.

And the latest polls suggest that the Zapatero government still enjoys the support of a majority of Spaniards. Nevertheless, the Pope is likely to continue to focus on Spain, not just because it was once Europe's strongest bastion of Catholicism, but also because Spain is seen as a role model for many societies in Latin America, where almost one-half of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics live.

KAST: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, in Valencia, Spain. Thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

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