James Carroll: Why is the Catholic Church praising clergy who were killed during the Spanish Civil War?

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Carroll's column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.]

So the Spanish cardinal says to the young King Juan Carlos, "Your Highness, there is good news and there is bad news." The king naturally asks for the good news first. The cardinal answers, "Generalissimo Franco is dead." The king is pleased to hear it. "What's the bad news?" he asks. "The bad news is — you have to tell him."

The assumption in 1975, the year of Francisco Franco's death, was that he would live forever. Hence the joke. The ruthless leader of the Fascist forces that overthrew the Republican government during Spain's bloody Civil War, Franco had outlived his allies and enemies both, and an air of invincibility clung to him. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, still has an analogous indelibility in the broader mind. In part because of writers like Hemingway and Orwell, and legends of the International Brigades, including the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the sepia haze of lost-cause romance hangs over the conflict in many circles. In others, the memory is only bitter.

The Spanish Civil War was a dress rehearsal for World War II, with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany aligned with Franco, and the Soviet Union and a broad coalition of liberals and socialists aligned with the Republicans. The groundbreaking brutality of the Civil War included bombardment from the air of civilian population centers (most notably, the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica), and the mass slaughter of innocents by both sides. Religion was a defining note of the war, with the Republicans marked by ferocious anticlericalism, and the Roman Catholic Church firmly allied with Franco, who styled himself a defender of the faith.

All of this came leaping back from out of the past last month when the Catholic Church formally beatified 498 "Spanish martyrs," mainly clergy who had been killed by the anti-Franco Republican side during the Civil War. Conducted in St. Peter's Square, the ceremony elevating these candidates one step closer to full sainthood was the largest beatification in history. Those honored were, Pope Benedict XVI said, "heroic witnesses of the faith who, moved exclusively by love for Christ, paid with their blood for their fidelity to him and his church." The pope was implying here that these martyrs were not motivated by politics, even as the Vatican insisted their beatification was not meant to be political either. But one could wonder....

Catholic opposition to Stalinism was correct, but church friendliness to Fascism was disastrous. If those years are to be revisited, it should not be for the faux-virtue of victimhood, but for reckoning with the era's unsaintly ambiguity. This beatification honors one side of a wicked war, while continuing to demonize the other. Why? The Vatican still aims to exonerate itself for failures of the 20th century, which keeps in place its moral irrelevance for crises of the 21st. No joke.

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