Catalan nationalism is the latest fashionable cause. But its history is one of bloodshed, greed and anti-clericalism

The crisis over separatist aspirations in Catalonia poses a serious challenge to the Catholic Church, which has from the beginning been intricately involved in the history of Catalan identity and faces a deeply divisive dilemma in confronting this intractable issue.

Historically, the claim of Catalonia to be a sovereign nation is dubious. It was once part of a mini-empire in eastern Spain that included the Balearics, but the principality of Catalonia was only one constituent part of the Crown of Aragon. The last ruling Catalan dynasty died out in 1410 when Martin of Aragon took ill after eating a whole goose and then, according to legend, literally died from laughing at a joke his court jester told him. When Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile and founded the kingdom that would become modern Spain, Catalonia began to decline in importance.

During the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia made the mistake of backing the losing Habsburg claimant to the throne and was punished by the victorious Bourbon king Philip V with the loss of its regional privileges in 1714. Modern Catalan nationalism grew influential in the early 20th century and caused the Catalans to side with the atheistic Second Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Lluís Companys, the separatist president of the Generalitat, presided over a motley array of Trotskyite, anarchist and communist fanatics who murdered 8,352 Catalans under the auspices of a government that was supposed to protect them.

After General Franco’s victory in 1939, like Philip V, he punished the Catalans by outlawing their language and culture. That policy was inevitably counter-productive and, in the anarchic atmosphere that followed the Second Vatican Council, the Catalan clergy made common cause with leftists and even communists against the Franco government that had saved Catholicism in Spain. The Church proved a useful Trojan Horse for the left. “Progressive” ideas spread and the churches emptied.

The Church, other than in cultural terms, now has little influence in a region that might be described as instinctively secular. Barcelona, a great trading city, has traditionally been more interested in Mammon than in God. In 1980 only 33.8 per cent of the population of Catalonia were practising Catholics, compared to 51.4 per cent across Spain. By 1994 that figure had decreased to 24 per cent, compared to 39.2 per cent nationally. By 2007 just 18.7 per cent of Catalans practised Catholicism while the national figure was 36.3 per cent.

Catalan clergy have long been in conflict with the Spanish bishops’ conference, demanding their own Catalan episcopal conference. The bishops’ conference has proclaimed the legitimacy of the Spanish state’s stance against unilateral independence movements, limiting self-determination to cases of colonialism or invasion.

A decade ago Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain, defined the unity of Spain as “a moral good of obligatory protection” in Catholic doctrine, and that principle continues to be invoked by Church authorities outside Catalonia.

The recent crisis provoked by the opportunist Catalan president Carles Puigdemont can only exacerbate divisions within the Church. As its plans unravelled, one of the separatist government’s ploys was to ask the Archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Juan José Omella, and Abbot Josep Maria Soler of Montserrat to act as mediators. Since the monastery of Montserrat has been a centre of separatist disaffection since the 1960s, and three years ago Rome had to contradict Abbot Soler’s claim that an eventual Catalan state would be recognised by the Holy See, his mediation could hardly be regarded as impartial.

We may be confident that, in the illegal referendum, every separatist in Catalonia took care to cast a vote. But the turnout was only 43 per cent, of which 90 per cent voted for independence. That amounts to just 38.7 per cent of the electorate, an even lower level of support than in Scotland’s independence referendum. Yet Puigdemont seized on the referendum result to declare full independence, before fleeing to Belgium when threatened with arrest.

The central government handled the referendum challenge badly by sending in police to block polling stations instead of shrugging off this charade as invalid. Now it has invoked Article 155 of the constitution to suspend Catalan autonomous government. Prime Minister Rajoy has promised to hold elections in December, rightly confident of an anti-independence majority in the Catalan electorate, but if that is to prevail Madrid must refrain from further provocations.

Amid the turmoil created by Puigdemont’s grandstanding, one pre-planned event on October 21 provided a reminder to Catholics of the dangerous passions historically unleashed by the Catalan separatist obsession. In the world-famous Sagrada Família basilica, a beatification ceremony was held for 109 martyrs of the Red Terror in Catalonia, drawn from the Claretian order alone. Today the Church itself is scandalously split by this divisive and self-indulgent distraction.

Gerald Warner is a political commentator, author and broadcaster

This article first appeared in the November 3 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here