The pope's beatification of nearly 500 Catholics, most of them priests, monks and nuns, killed by Republican militias during the Spanish Civil War, will dismay liberal Christians, mystify non-Catholics, and anger many on the secular left.
The response to the decision has demonstrated that the passions ignited by events in Spain in the 1930s are still very much alive, and it's likely that the pope's actions will entrench rather than heal the divisions in Spanish society that are a legacy of that period. Indeed, it has been argued that this industrial-scale beatification is a calculated political tactic by the Vatican, in its continuing battle with Spain's socialist government over issues such as same-sex marriage, divorce and control of education.
The comments on this item on the BBC news website - many of them by descendants of those who were involved on both sides in the civil war - are among the most impassioned and articulate I've read for some time. They're recommended reading for anyone who doubts the cruelty of Franco's regime or the Church's complicity in it. Here's one from William Garcia:
When the fascist army marched into my grandmother's home village in Andalucia, in the very first weeks of the war, it was the Catholic priest who betrayed local people to the invaders. He gave them a list of everyone who lived in the village, so they knew if anyone had fled or gone into hiding. He told them who the 'troublemakers' were, who the leftists were, the intellectuals, the trade unionists, the people who didn't go to church regularly and those who had not baptised their children. It did not take long for the fascists to round all of these people up, along with anyone they didn't like the look of and men of fighting age, and shoot them all en masse in the village square.
For anyone who thinks this was an isolated incident, I'd recommend reading Paul Preston's magnificent but chilling biography of Franco.
For some on the Left, this complicity with fascist repression explains, even if it doesn't quite justify, the killing of priests by Republican militias. Here's Freens:
The successor of the man who praised Franco's 'Catholic victory' in Spain in 1939 has 'beatified' over 400 clergy executed by the militias during the Spanish Civil War. At best reactionaries, and at worst fascists, they represented not only social parasitism but also one of the most repressive forces in Spain, a force which gave its blessing to the mass murder by Franco's men of many thousands of men and women whose politics had even a liberal tinge.
Are we sure that all of those killed were really fascists, and isn't justifying the execution of people for what they represent, rather than what they actually did, a slippery moral slope? At the same time, there may be a certain resistance among progressives to any tarnishing of the reputation of their last remaining historical heroes - the anarchist and non-communist Left of the Spanish Civil War. But it should be possible to admit that there were occasional atrocities on the Republican side, without in any way equating this with the systematic, government-sponsored repression that followed Franco's victory.
Pope Benedict's actions must raise doubts, if they didn't exist already, about the whole process of beatification, which is the first step on the path to sainthood. To be described by the Church as 'Blessed', is it enough simply to have died for your faith, even if your life was reprehensible or your social attitudes (as must have been the case with at least some of these 'martyrs') decidedly unchristian?
These events also raise thorny issues for those of us who, at various times in our lives, have been attracted to both Catholicism and socialism, and even to both at the same time. In the last fifty years or so most 'thinking' Catholics in Britain have tended to be on the liberal left and the anti-clericalism of the European left has been largely absent from public discourse: in this country, anti-Catholicism tends to have sectarian rather than political associations.
However, to visit southern Europe is to become aware of the continuing battle for supremacy between a largely conservative Church and the forces of liberal, secular modernity. I remember being in Barcelona and feeling equally attracted by that city's liberal and progressive culture, and by the beauty of its churches. Then I came across a memorial in the cathedral to the priests that the pope has just beatified, and I felt as though I was being forced to make a choice between the two cultures.
Among the likely results of this process of beatification will be an intensification of the sense - which this pope appears to want to encourage - that liberalism and Christianity are rival ideologies, and a further shrinking of the space for exploring any kind of rapprochement between the two.
There's a piece on the mass beatification by Graham Keeley in today's edition of the liberal Catholic weekly, The Tablet. Keeley makes the point that not all Spanish Catholics supported Franco, and that some priests were themselves victims of his regime: 'Many modern commentators and political figures on today’s Left see the Vatican’s decision to beatify priests killed by Republicans or anarchists as a failure to acknowledge those priests who died at the hands of Franco’s firing squads.' While acknowledging that many Catholics welcome the beatification ceremony, he adds:
However, relatives of priests such as Gervasio Albizu, Martín Lekuona and the writer and priest José de Ariztimuño do not feel the same. These priests were among 16 killed by pro-Francoist firing squads in San Sebastian, in the Basque country, in October 1936 because they were thought to be Basque nationalist sympathisers. But none of these priests or laymen who died during the same conflict were selected for beatification.
This confirms the political nature of the Vatican's gesture and gives the lie to the claim by the president of the Spanish episcopal conference, Bishop Ricardo Blázquez, that the ceremony represents 'an act of reconciliation'.