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While there is not the space here to enter into debate on the origins of Spain as a political entity, it may be asserted that its Catholic unity was already proclaimed in times as far back as those of the Third Council of Toledo (589). While it is certainly true that the three religions of the Book (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) co-existed in the Iberian Peninsula during many centuries, it is no less true that the most important step towards the full unity of Spain (1492) depended on the military defeat of Islam and the expulsion of the Jews. National identity is thus largely based on religious unity.
The Reformation was a key element in the identification of the Nation (which would later be the State) with the Church, thus leading to the phenomenon of national churches. While the Reformation had barely any direct effect in Spain, the Spanish monarch, as with other Catholic monarchs, knew how to exploit it for his own ends.
On one hand, he achieved a control over the Catholic Church in his territory, without breaking away from Rome that was not so different from the control exercised by a Protestant King (a practice, which came to be known as Regalism).
On the other hand, the defence of Catholicism against attempts at reform enabled the monarch to establish a control over society that went far beyond the bounds of religion and clearly entered into politics (the Inquisition was an institution that evidently acted along these lines).
Thus, with the acquiescence of Rome, the Spanish monarch used the Catholic religion as a means of social control, a practice that reached its height in the 18th century but which had a long history and which lasted even until most recent times. What did not meet with the approval of Rome, however, was the strong control exercised by the monarch over the Catholic Church throughout all territories in royal possession.
There is only one exception in which the pontificate did not oppose Regalism and its techniques of control and this occurred in one territory under control of the Spanish Crown: American Regalism. This refers to the process that developed in the American territories but which Rome had to allow as it found that it was the only way to impose Catholicism.
From a legal-political perspective, the 19th century was characterized by a seemingly endless series of Constitutions that were enacted under the influence of various political changes that swung between liberalism and conservatism. Nineteenth century liberalism tended to sustain positions that were not necessarily opposed to Catholicism but, at the least, were opposed to the excessive presence of the Catholic clergy in managing the affairs of society; liberalism was anti-clerical in some respects.
However, this does not in any way mean that liberalism was a primary cause of the split in identity between Spain and Catholicism. One has only to think, for example, of the Constitution of Cádiz (1812) which is steeped in the paradigm of Hispanic liberalism but which declares Catholicism to be the official religion and prohibits the practice of any other religion. Such provisions should not come as a surprise considering that one third of the constituent assembly were members of the clergy or of a religious order.
The identification of legal-political structures with the Catholic religion clearly began to come apart as late as 1931. This was the year that Constitution of the Second Republic was enacted, in which it was established that “the Spanish State does not have an official religion” (art. 3), and in which religious teaching was banned and State funding of the Catholic Church was ended, etc.
While this issue is certainly debatable, from my point of view and in general terms, the measures adopted by the Second Republic in this area were clearly of a modernizing nature. There were probably some excesses but these had more to do with the perhaps all too rapid pace of reforms rather than their content. Certainly these measures met with intense opposition from the Catholic Church and from large groups of the population that held positions sympathetic to the ecclesiastic perspective. Be that as it may, this secularizing politics, with certain touches of anti-clericalism, was one of the elements that triggered the frustrated coup d'état, itself the origin of the prolonged civil war (1936-1939).
The military faction that triggered the civil war sought to use defence of the Catholic unity of Spain as a way of justifying its attempted coup d'état and its maintenance of a prolonged civil war. The Spanish Catholic hierarchy (Rome was at first more cautious) provided practically unanimous support to this faction and it did not hesitate to characterize the war as a religious crusade.
With such precedents, it is not surprising that the political regime that appeared after the civil war reasserted the traditional principle of identification between the Nation and the Church. Catholicism was declared the official State religion, non-university teaching was practically monopolised by the Catholic Church, there was a notable presence of members of the Catholic hierarchy in political organisations, and a Concordat was signed in 1953 that recognized all privileges claimed by the Church, etc. A model was thus created that was so rigid and anachronistic that it could not possibly last once there was change from the autocratic system put into place by General Franco. While the political regime certainly evolved throughout its 40-year period, the more profound changes had to wait until the death of Franco in 1975.
Following his death, a rapid and efficient shift from an autocratic to a democratic system completely altered the legal model. This, inevitably, also had some impact upon the area of State-Church relations. Within a year, an agreement was signed with the Holy See that lay the foundations for the replacement of the Concordat of 1953.
In 1978, a Constitution was passed that declared the non-confessional character of the State and full religious freedom. A series of agreements with the Holy See that included a new Concordat (1979), as well as a Religious Freedom Act (1980) and another series of reforms (e.g. the introduction of divorce), all meant that the Spanish legal model came to occupy a position completely contrary to what had been in effect until only a few years previously.
It was only under the socialist governments that some educational reforms, the signing of agreements with religious minorities (1992), etc., completed the processes of reform and created the now-existing model of ecclesiastical law. Certainly, there have subsequently been some legal changes of some importance carried out in this area, but the framework of legal sources, along with their contents, have remained essentially unchanged for a quarter of a century: the Constitution, the Religious Freedom Act, and Agreements with the Catholic Church and with religious minorities.
Iván C. Ibán
Ibán, I. C. (2019). State and Church in Spain. In G. Robbers (Ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 197-199.
This declaration has very limited consequences. There are some expectations of signing an Agreement of Cooperation with the State, but only if there is some political will. The Royal Decree 932/2013 of 29 November 2013 allows them to have a representative in the Advisory Commission on Religious Freedom and their marriages will be recognized by the State. This is a new possibility opened by the Law 15/2015 of 2 July 2015 on voluntary jurisdiction.
The Royal Decree 593/2015 of 3 July 2015 rationalized the procedure of recognition of such ‘notorious presence’ and tried to reduce the traditionally wide margin of discretion of the Spanish Administration by establishing five requirements:
a) to have been registered in the National Register of Religious Groups for a period of at least 30 years. If registered in Spain for only 15 years, then they must have been recognized in a foreign country for at least 60 years;
b) to be present in at least ten Autonomous Communities and/or the Autonomous Cities of Ceuta and Melilla;
c) To have at least 100 inscriptions (places of worship, or entities susceptible for inscription), in the Spanish Registry of Religious Groups;
d) to have an appropriate structure and representation;
e) to be able to prove active presence and participation in Spanish society.
4) Religious groups that are merely inscribed in the Register of Religious Groups. This subject has been recently regulated by the Royal Decree 594/2015 of 3 July 2015.
This inscription has very limited effects but at least allows full legal recognition of a group of people as a “religious group.”
The situation of religious minorities in Spain is not fully satisfactory. De lege ferenda, I would propose the adoption of a model of “common legislation” for all religious groups. The strong distinction between groups with an Agreement of Cooperation with the State, and those without, is not fair. The lack of political will to sign agreements with new religious groups (like, for instance, Orthodox Christians) has intensified a distinction which is not justified. This common model should be in line with the constitutional principles of freedom of conscience and public neutrality.
Alejandro Torres Gutiérrez
Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed August 2021).
General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Spain https://minorityrights.org in Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.
The text of some legislative acts concerning freedom of religion or belief can be found at https://www.legislationline.org.
A more extensive overview is available (in Spanish) at https://www.mpr.gob.es.
Helpful information about the legal status of the main religious organizations, the registry of religious entities and the rules governing the activity of religious organizations in different policy areas can be found (in Spanish) at https://www.mpr.gob.es.
A report on the Spanish legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in U.S. Department of State – Office of International Religious Freedom, 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Spain, available at https://www.state.gov.
Reports about years 2014-2018 (Informe anual sobre la situación de la libertad religiosa en España) are available (in Spanish) on the Spanish Ministry of Justice’s website, at https://www.mpr.gob.es.
Further information, especially about places of worship and religious demography in Spain, is provided (in Spanish) in the Observatorio del pluralismo religioso en España, available at https://www.observatorioreligion.es.
For an analysis of the State-religion legal system see
J. Martínez-Torrón, Religion and Law in Spain, Alphen aan den Rijn: Wolters Kluwer, 2018.