Franco, Spain and Catholicism

GetReligion readers of a certain age may remember the catchphrase: "This just in ... Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." The drawn out death of Franco in 1975 provided comic fodder for Chevy Chase during the first season of Saturday Night Live. This gag poked fun at the reporting surrounding the generalissimo's death and was repeated each week, occasionally changing to some version of:  "Generalissimo Francisco Franco has been critically dead now for eleven weeks, and his doctors refuse to speculate on how long he can last in his present condition."

While Francisco Franco is still dead, his mortal remains are providing an election boost for the government of Spanish Prime Minister José Luís Zapatero. An article in the Barcelona daily El Periódico on the debate over what to do with Franco's body also offers a straight forward example of the philosophical constructs of European journalism and its disinclination to "get religion".

On 10 Oct 2011 the center-left El Periódico published a story with a front page headline "Los expertos proponen desenterrar a Franco." ("The experts propose to dig up Franco.")

The article states that a commission created by the Zapatero government has prepared a report on the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), the cemetery where  Franco is burried. It is also the tomb of 33,000 Nationalists and Republicans killed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). One recommendation leaked to El Periódico is to remove Franco's body from the central mausoleum and re-inter him with his wife in a cemetery outside Madrid.

The "presence of the dictator's corpse in the Valley of the Fallen continues to haunt" the relatives of the Republican dead, El Periódico reports, and moving his body would allow the cemetery to become:

a monument dedicated to the cause of reconciliation. ... [It would allow the] recognition of the memory of victims, in accordance with [Zapatero's 2007] Historical Memory Law.

The exhumation of Franco is a proposal, not one of the "definitive conclusions" of the report -- which is not scheduled for release until after the 20 Nov 2011 general elections, El Periódico notes.  It further states the members of the commission deny they are being pressured by any political party, and hope their "proposals on the icon of Francoist repression would not be used as a weapon during the election campaign."

The article closes with an editorial aside.

It remains to be seen if Mariano Rajoy [the Popular Party leader] will respect the decision of a commission created by a socialist government, which raises an issue as controversial as the exhumation of the former dictator.

Like most European newspapers, the editorial voice of El Periódico follows a particular political line and supports the government of Socialist leader José Luís Zapatero. The article is crafted in such a way as to make it clear that all right thinking Spaniards would agree that Franco was an evil dictator and the attempt to erase his legacy is a proper aim for a Socialist government. With the exception of an unnamed Franco grandchild, who states Mrs. Franco would have wanted to have been buried with her husband, no voices are offered save for those of the left.

The structure and the front page teaser for the story, even though it is only a possible recommendation, also serves to boost the electoral prospects of the Zapatero government. Polls show the Socialists running behind the PP. Raising the Franco specter brings out the left's base, which has seen some supporters threaten to stay home on election day in protest to the government's poor handling of the economy.

While critics charge some American newspapers with spinning the news in this fashion to advance the interests of a particular party, the tenets of traditional American journalism reject overt politicking. The reporter's role is to establish the facts and let them dictate how the story is written.

European advocacy style reporting draws upon a different intellectual tradition. "All history is contemporary history," idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce said -- it only exists in the present.  In this school the past has reality only in the mind of the writer. He must be faithful to the truth, but truth does not exist independently. This relativist-subjective approach is the norm for most Continental newspapers, and the shading of tone to advance a particular cause is expected by most European readers.

The practical problem with the relativist approach is that it can leave gaps. What is not reported in El Periódico's story  are the philosophical and religious angles.

The Valley of the Fallen houses a Benedictine-run Basilica. On 3 Nov 2010 it was closed to tourists as well as to the faithful who want to attend Mass. On 7 Nov 2010 the Benedictines celebrated Mass at the entrance to the Valley, protesting the closure of their church. Speaking to reporters while traveling to Santiago de Compostela the day before, Pope Benedict lamented the secular anti-Catholic atmosphere he had found.

In Spain, a strong, aggressive laicity, an anti-clericalism, a secularization has been born as we experienced in the 1930's.

The Catholic Church was persecuted during the Civil War with thousands of priests and religious murdered, and most churches in Republican controlled areas ransacked. Benedict is comparing that era to the present. Strong stuff!

Nor is he the first to criticize Zapatero. In 2005 Pope John Paul II accused Zapatero of "promoting disdain towards religion" and said the Catholic Church in Spain would never yield "to the temptation to silence it." The Church campaigned against the Zapatero government in the March 2008 general elections and has bitterly opposed the legalization of abortion, gay marriage and the government's changes to state sponsored religious education.

The left's critique of the Church has been coupled with an attack on its supporters on political right. Writing in the leftist Madrid daily El País on 18 July 2011, Antonio Elorza stated that a definitive account of the Spanish Civil War cannot yet be written because the right refuses to atone for the past. While Germany went through de-Nazification:

In Spain, this is not happening ... broad swathes of our political right ... have been able once again to bring out the arguments for the legitimacy of Franco's military uprising ... Of the different fascisms in Europe, of what happened in Germany or Austria, of what that political right proposed and promoted [in Spain] – not a word [of apology.]

However, in the conservative Madrid daily ABC José María Carrascal countered that for liberals:

the Spanish Civil War is still not over ... It continues to be fought out in books, articles, lectures and debates with the same ardor, partiality and ferocity as ever. Because those who lost it are demanding at least the moral victory, and the winners will not give it to them. In every war, the first casualty is truth. In a civil war, the truth is assassinated twice, once by each camp.

Other conservative voices are even sharper. An editorial in the leading conservative Madrid daily El Mundo stated:

the historical revisionism of recent years, including Zapatero’s Historical Memory Law passed in October 2007, has taken on a kind of paranoid or obsessional delirium in interpreting the events of the present by the key policies of the Republican period and the Civil War – as if Spain were the same country eight decades later.

Now a Spaniard is likely to be aware of some, if not all of these things -- of the historic antipathy and anti-clericalism of the left. Reporting on the religious dimensions of de-Francoing the Valley of the Fallen may very well be obvious to the readers of El Periódico. However, I believe this type of reporting does a disservice to the reader by not giving him the context and is unfaithful to truth. Pontius Pilate may have had the luxury of asking 'what is truth?', but this won't do for a quality newspaper.

Please respect our Commenting Policy