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Spanish Government Defies Catholic Church on Social Issues

Spain is witnessing a profound social transformation under the new leadership of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. A variety of domestic initiatives proposed by the new leftist government - including plans to legalize gay marriage - may turn Spain from one of Europe's most conservative countries into one of its most liberal ones.

But, Spain's Roman Catholic Church is far from happy about the proposed changes.

The streets were nearly empty on a recent holiday morning in Madrid, except for a few tourists and Spaniards arriving for mass at the city's 11th-century San Gines Catholic church. Also there was 30-year-old Nuria Ramos, a Christian youth volunteer, posted outside the church with a stack of bible literature and flyers condemning research on human embryos.

Spain's new leftist government has recently proposed legalizing research using human embryos, which is believed to have the potential to find cures for a variety of diseases and disabilities. The proposal is one of many social initiatives floated by the new government, since Prime Minister Zapatero took office six months ago. Others include relaxing tough restrictions on abortions, cracking down on domestic violence, speeding up the divorce process and ending compulsory Catholic education in public schools.

The government has already approved one bill in favor of homosexual weddings, which may be passed by Spain's Socialist-dominated parliament as early as next year. If so, it would make Spain only the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, after the Netherlands and Belgium.

But for some devout Catholics like Ms. Ramos, the volunteer outside the church, the government's initiatives spell disaster for Spain.

"They want to destroy the family," she said. "The family is the most important thing in our society. They're trying to put homosexual people as if they were the most normal thing."

Ms. Ramos isn't the only critic. The country's once powerful Roman Catholic Church has strongly condemned many of the initiatives. Also, the spokesman for Spain's Episcopal Conference has described the specter of homosexual marriage as a, "virus," threatening to infiltrate Spanish society.

Leopoldo Vives Soto heads the subcommittee on family and life for the Catholic bishops' conference. He denies the church is at war with the government. But he says Mr. Zapatero's recent initiatives are worrying.

Mr. Vives says the church believes there are certain things threatening society, like abortions and homosexual marriage. He says the church isn't looking for an ideological victory against the state, but rather is simply trying to warn Spaniards and the government about these threats.

But Socialist party members like Pedro Zerolo argue that it is the Catholic church that is dangerously out of step with modern-day Spain.

Mr. Zerolo is an openly gay Socialist Party deputy and the head of the Spanish chapter of the Federation of Gays, Lesbians and Transsexuals. He says the reforms Mr. Zapatero's government wants to pass aren't aimed at damaging the church or any other institution. He says they are designed to create a better, more open society in Spain.

Public opinion polls indicate many Spaniards appear to agree. They indicate two-thirds of the country's people favor legalizing homosexual marriage, and more than 40 percent approve of allowing gay couples to adopt children - another Socialist Party initiative. Even practicing Catholics, like 69-year-old Carmen Rodrigo, who attended the morning mass at San Gines church approve of the government's proposals.

A tiny white haired retiree, Ms. Ramos says that although she's a Catholic, she is in perfect agreement with Mr. Zapatero's Socialist government, and supports separating church and state. She says she personally believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman. But it's a new world, she says, and Spanish laws need to evolve as well.

Such statements underscore a major shift in relations between Spain's Catholic church and civil society in recent years. For centuries, the Catholic leadership was a powerful institution in Spain.

Under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's 36-year-regime, which ended in 1975, homosexuality was outlawed and Protestant churches were closed down. Catholicism again became Spain's single, official religion.

Relations between church and state were also close under the recent conservative government of former prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar. Mr. Aznar's administration passed a law making Catholic classes mandatory in public schools, and it pushed unsuccessfully for a mention of Christianity in the European constitution.

But the church's influence is waning in Spanish society, where only one in five Spaniards regularly go to mass. The trend is echoed across Europe, where church attendance has plummeted in recent years.

Now, political analysts like Charles Powell believe that the Catholic church's opposition to Mr. Zapatero's initiatives amounts to a larger fight for its survival.

"I can fully understand why the Catholic church is alarmed," said Charles Powell. "One reason why it's alarmed is because it already feels it's loosing - indeed has already lost - much of its social influence in Spain over the last 10, 20 years. Perhaps it feels it has to make a last stand in the face of these changes, which some devout Catholics will find very difficult to accept."

For its part, Mr. Zapatero's government has suggested it may undertake a more fundamental revision of church-state relations. That may include examining several billion dollars in state subsidies Spain's Catholic church receives each year.