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The Issue Of Sex And The Church

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Catholicism is the largest religion in Spain, with 68% of Spaniards identifying as Catholic (Barómetro). It is deeply rooted in the history of the country, dating back to the first century. However, the long presence of the Catholic Church has also led to a long history of anticlericalism in Spain. From the burning of churches and other religious grounds to the assassinations and murders of religious figures, opposition to the Church has made itself known through various, often extreme, measures during the 19th and 20th centuries (Maddox 2). There is an innumerable amount of possible reasons for anticlerical sentiments, as they can change from person to person, but a common thread that contributed to anticlericalism in Spain is the theme of sex and sexuality. This takes place in many forms, whether it be through the lack of celibacy of Catholic priests or the repression of sexual expression from the Church, but the ideas and expression of sex and sexuality have always been taboo and quieted by the clergy (Pérez 235). Today the connection between anticlericalism and sex can be seen through the numerous sexual references and criticisms in anticlerical publications and morbid focus on genitalia during anticlerical murders (Mitchell 38, de la Cueva 356). Centuries of repression, abuse, and hypocrisy, including and concerning the themes of sexuality and sex, have surrounded the Church and still do today, propelling a strong sentiment of anticlericalism from many.

Proposed Research Objectives, Questions, and Thesis

In this research paper, my objectives were to analyze the connection between anticlericalism in Spain during the 19th and 20th centuries (leading up to the Franco Dictatorship) and the themes of sex and sexuality as they relate to both laymen/women and protected religious figures (such as priests) in the Church. Recently in the 21st century, this is an issue that has come to center stage as sexual abuse scandals rock the Catholic Church; this partly left me wondering if this has been a topic of discussion in the past, with the knowledge that the Church has always avoided discussing sex, especially since the Council of Elvira (Holy Church Cannon 59). Timothy Mitchell, in his book Betrayal of the Innocents, follows Spanish anticlericalism and its relation to sexuality throughout all of Spain’s history and into the issues of today. Much of this anticlericalism was born in the 19th and 20th century in Spain, as brought to light by anticlerical writers such as José Nakens and Pierre Conard (Pérez 235). This led me to my first research question: How did the repression of sex and sexuality by the Catholic Church propel anticlericalism in Spain in the 19th and 20th century up to the Franco Dictatorship, and what were the differences between the two centuries in terms of anticlerical action? With the resurgence of sexual abuse in the Church in the spotlight, Spain seemed like the perfect country to analyze the topic in, as most of its history relates to the Catholic Church in one way or another.

More specifically, I wanted to delve into anticlericalism and its relation to sex and sexuality in two different ways: 1) the sexual repression of laymen/women imposed by the Church and its relation to the social struggle between classes, and 2) how sexual anticlerical publications influenced Spanish thought: additionally, I sought to discover how both of these pushed laymen/women to a breaking point and incited both anticlerical sentiments and actions, and the manners in which they chose to execute these sentiments and actions, which Manuel Pérez Ledesma analyzed in his “Studies on Anticlericalism in Contemporary Spain,” (Pérez 235, Storm 356). This leads to my second research question: How did anticlerical publications reflect the themes of sex and sexuality, in addition to the struggle between social classes, and how did they spark anticlericalism in Spain in the 19th and 20th century?

Although the Church dealt with many issues concerning anticlericalism, the topics of sex and sexuality have always been present and prove to be a factor in the anticlerical movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. Through both the sexual repression of sexuality of laymen/women and protection of the hypocritical clergy inciting sexual abuse and breaking vowed celibacy by the Catholic Church, in conjunction with various other issues, Spaniards grew intolerant and hostile of the Church, leading to a reversal of virtues normally attributed to its members and anticlerical sentiments and attacks against it.

The history of anticlericalism in the Catholic Church and Spain is long and complicated, reaching back to the first century: celibacy in the Catholic Church was inspired by Saint Augustine’s religious history of Manichaeism, which allowed him to swear off sex as it was synonymous with sin and evil in the religion (Mitchell 2). In 300 C.E. the Spanish Council of Elvira imposed celibacy on its clergy (Mitchell 5). Dating back to the Middle Ages, proverbs and sayings have expressed dislike about sexual and economic exploitation by priests, monks, abbots, and friars (Mitchell 10). Harriet Golberg’s Motif-Index of Medieval Spanish Folk Narratives explores the relationship between sexuality and anticlericalism in the Middle Ages: narratives include, “Monk distracted by thoughts of fornification neglects duty to pray,” “Fire pours from throat of dead priest who seduced the young woman he had baptized,” and “Priest who had sex with god-daughter dies after seven days; fire rises from grave consuming it totally,” (Goldberg V465.1.1.1. - V465.1.2, T427.1).

Manuelo Delgado, in his book, La ira sagrada, explores the connection between Spain’s strict Catholicism and its social society that almost always seems on edge and at the point of imbalance throughout Spanish history: “Spanish traditional religious culture — over and beyond its numerous geographical or temporal variants — has always been a magnificent example of a ‘tense’ system, that is, of a system based on a strong ritual pressure that tyrannizes social life at large and subjects individuals to an intense, barely tolerable psychological jarring, always on the verge of turning into rebellion against the order of things that the rites impose so despotically,” (Mitchell 6). He further hypothesizes that Spain’s “tense” religious system was either started or further tightened by priests locked in their own double bind of celibacy, despite their natural desires to be sexually active (Mitchell 6). This strain not only pushed priests to their limits but also strained social tensions between classes in Spain.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Spain saw a resurgence of the power of the Catholic Church that it had not seen in 100 years with the return of Fernando VII from exile (Mitchell 32-33). He imposed absolutist clerical repression, producing “a harvest of radical groups in Spain’s cities,” (Mitchell 33). One of the most, if not the most, important devices used to counter the monarch’s clerical repression was the use of anticlerical publications, whether they were newspapers, books, or plays. Rapid growth of the publishing and translation industry in France inspired Spaniards to do the same, leading to a boom in anticlerical publishing (Mitchell 38). One of the most famous examples of France’s influence on anticlerical movements in Spain was French historian Jules Michelet’s anticlerical novel La Prêtre, la femme et la famille in 1845. His novel intrigued Spaniards with its “theme of the moral seduction of women in the confessional and the impact that it could have on the family and society,” (Haliczer 194-196). This concept was something that many Spaniards had not heard of or even considered before, and since Fernando VII had imposed clerical repression over the Spanish mindset, Michelet’s novel most likely had an even more profound influence.

An extremely influential anticlerical author in Spain in the 19th century was José Ferrándiz, who was an ex-priest. His fame “was due to a skilful combination of criticisms of ecclesiastic celibacy with attacks on the interpretation of the dogmas and the perversion of the primitive practices of the Church, of the power of the hierarchy and the reactionary tendencies of the high clergy, and also of the ignorance and lack of spirituality of the low clergy,” (Ledesma 234). In Spanish history, monarchs and government were known to use the apathy and ignorance of low-class and uneducated rural Spaniards to sway political decisions in their favor, such as El Turno Pacifico, and Ferrándiz managed to turn the tables and use this idea himself in his writing to attack the Church.

Popular plays also influenced the anticlerical movement, such as García Gutiérrez's El trovador or José Zorilla’s Don Juan Tenorio. Both plays’ plots revolve around a nun or novice being seduced by an older man in her life, and this seduction ultimately justified the murder of that man. Although this may not seem inherently anticlerical, there were many allusions to aspects of the Catholic Church through Oedipal themes such as these, such as the Inquisition, the autos-da-fé, the secret prisons, the mysterious acts of sacrilege, the ability of clerics to mesmerize young women, and more (Mitchell 37). These themes not only rationalized the murder of seductive men in the plays but in the real murders of priests as well. Men seduced women improperly in the plays and were thus murdered, and many anticlerics used the argument of priests improperly seducing women and breaking their vows to rationalize their murders.

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Zorilla’s and Gutiérrez’s plays alluded to anticlerical themes and inspired anticlerical action and justification, but often newspaper publications provided outright vulgar and explicit anticlerical thought. The two most popular periodicals during the 19th century were El Motín, founded in 1881 by a José Nakens, and Las Dominicales del Libre Pensamiento, founded in 1883 by Fernando Lozano. Both publications, along with others, “entertained readers with obscene jokes about priests and monks, up-to-date reports of crimes and immortalities committed by clergymen, articles in which the popes were revealed as hypocrites and the Church as a gigantic business concern, and essays in which Jesus was portrayed as a revolutionary friend of the workers,” (Mitchell 39). Similarly to Michelet’s novel, the blunt and explicit thoughts presented by newspapers at the time would be shocking to many Spaniards as their visions were clouded by the influence of the Church.

There are many other examples of influential anticlerical work in the 19th century. Benito Pérez Galdós’s La fontna de oro portrayed a priest’s attempt at rape, deciding that religion was the result of sexual repression. His Doña Perfecta was “first major exposé of the rigid priestly and motherly personalities that sustained religious abuse in the country” (Mitchell 44). Leopoldo Alas, aka Clarín’s La Regenta examined religious dysfunction in the lives of Spaniards, and in so doing provided the first psychology of celibate sexuality (Mitchell 49). Benito Pérez Galdós’ Electra allowed Spaniards to “probe the unconscious factors at play in progressive Spain’s war against authoritarian sexuality,” and was a massive public success, even leading to public disturbances from citizens, which was followed by military action and declarations of martial law (Mitchell 59). All of these anticlerical works, and the ones mentioned above helped commoners understand and comprehend anticlerical thought for the first time: by bringing anticlericalism through popular media consumed by Spaniards, such as plays or novels, anticlerical ideas circulated more rapidly than ever before.

The widespread circulation and different forms of anticlerical works planted the idea of anticlericalism into many Spaniard’s minds. Many of the authors were extremely credible and well-known, which pushed their message even further. However, because many Spaniards were still uneducated or generally apathetic at the time, they were willing to accept words at face value without questioning: anticlericals used the monarchy and government’s own power against them in this way. Anticlerical imagination, exaggeration, and sensationalization ran rampant in these publications without little to no questioning of it (Mitchell 40). One of the best examples of this is Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’ La araña negra in 1892. He portrayed Jesuits as “an immensely powerful organization plotting world domination, using murder, lies, calumny, banditry, and rape for their aims, and looting Spain for the benefit of Rome,” (Mitchell 41). After the Church’s rebuttal to his claims concerning children in religious schools, Ibáñez defended his original opinion by claiming children were better off at home than “in the hands of sexually-perverted sadists,” (Mitchell 41). Uneducated Spaniards were easy to influence with his impressive and powerful language, and he successfully used fear tactics to strike fear in the hearts of many mothers whose children were in religious schools.

The 20th century began with a horrendous and disastrous display of anticlericalism in 1909, now known as Semana Trágica. Leading up to the week of violence and murder was the upcoming and popularity of Alejandro Lerroux, a politician that won over the working class of Barcelona and was a well-known anticleric. Under his influence and power in Barcelona, demagogues came to be known as comecuras, and his anticlericalism is best remembered in a speech in 1906 in which he encouraged Spanish youth to burn churches and impregnate nuns (Mitchell 61). There is no evidence proving that nuns were raped during Semana Trágica, but rioters dug and displayed more than fifty mummified corpses of nuns who had been buried in convents (Payne 134). Semana Trágica is now known as one of the most well-known anticlerical events in Spanish history and was one of the first public and giant displays of anticlerical violence, possibly inspiring others.

After Semana Trágica, Spain saw the rise of sexual expression in its cities, expressed usually through literature or publications. This is heavily contrasted from how Spaniards saw sexuality in the 19th century and influenced the way anticlericalism played out. The golden age of the erotic novel ran from approximately 1910 through 1925 (Mitchell 67). The commandment “love thy neighbor” was taken literally, and the Spanish mindset shifted to the idea that happiness lay in the satisfaction of desire, not in its repression by religion (Mitchell 64). This sexual expression had become a battleground where modernizing Spaniards fought against the power of tradition and the educational and financial power of the Church and witnessed: “...a confrontation between the supporters of sexual freedom, and clergy willing to defend the survival of traditional authoritarian sexuality by all means possible. The culmination of this struggle, the Civil War, could thus be seen as the result of the convergence of the well-off's fear of working-class demands and the bishops' fear of sexual liberation,” (Ledesma 236). Erotic novelists, singers, artists, and models influenced the undermining of the moral authority of the priests, and sexual repression from the Church provoked a huge market hungry for satisfaction and new erotic materials (Mitchell 72).

Along with the rise of sexual expression came anticlerical pornography. Throughout 1931, covers of magazines like La Traca depicted priests and nuns being driven out from Spain or thrown out of windows. The same year, the day of the proclamation of the Republic, one hundred religious institutions, including schools, were burned (Mitchell 77). In later years, magazine pages featured cartoons of clergy engaged in lewd behavior. Professor Lynn Hunt noted that this political pornography provides important clues to “the psychosymbolics of the revolutionary imagination,” (Hunt, 13-14). While the increase of anticlerical pornography can be partly attributed to the increase of sexuality in Spanish society, the psychogenesis of the topic must be further explored: “The Spanish clergy were forged by, and helped to forge, a culture that was self-consciously moralistic but quite lacking in moral ‘breathing room.’ Far too many Spanish priests and nuns (the pseudoparents) had specialized in avoiding self-disgust by locating and harshly criticizing ‘disgusting’ elements in school children — girls riding bicycles, for instance,” (Christian 37). The history of social conflict once again was brought into the equation, resuscitating the idea of a degraded self or harsh critic: political pornography was one solution to this problem. For many, it was an ego boost for Spaniards to be able to shame the image of their social superiors (Mitchell 77).

Spain saw the greatest massacre and force of anticlericalism in 1936, now referred to as the anticlerical fury of 1936. Vicente Cárcel Ortí put the total number of clerics killed over 7,000 (Mitchell 87). This bloodshed has significant meaning — no other anticlerical event in modern history times surpasses this Spanish conflict in the total number of clerics killed, the percentage of victims of the total, or the short time span involved (Mitchell 87). The revolutionaries who incited the fury knew it could not accomplish a revolution, rather, it had symbolic meaning: “What those who burned the churches and popular images hoped to achieve was not a new religion or even, in the short run, a new political regime; it was a reparto of meanings that would outlast the temporary and doomed reparto of land and seizure of political power by the revolutionary forces of the town and sierra and open a road to a better future,” (Maddox 137). The way in which clericals were killed were symbolically important, as well. Many focused on sexual themes: “...there was a morbid fixation on genitalia, which must be placed within the context of both a macho culture and the age-old anticlerical obsession with the clergy's sexuality. All these 'rites of violence' performed on the clergy further contributed to dehumanizing people whose humanity had long ago been denied by anticlerical discourse, and, at the same time, facilitating 'conditions for guilt-free massacre.’ The combination of cultural and sexual references, ritualized violence and humiliation of the victim - who was no longer a human being but an animal - reached its most exact expression in instances of priests being treated like pigs at the slaughterhouse or bulls in the bullring,” (de la Cueva 356).

There are two major overarching themes that have influenced the connection between sexuality and anticlericalism over Spanish history. The first is the rejection by citizens of the sexual repression imposed by the Church, repression which made the sexual activity of priests even more intolerable. Pierre Conrad first sought out this argument in 1977: “Conard referred to the sexual repression promulgated by priests, whose victims were adolescents subjected to confession and to feelings of guilt. The hostility caused by the submissive relationship of penitents - an occasionally unconscious and repressed hostility - resulted, in his opinion, in the démystification of the clergy, and in particular in a reversal of the virtues which were normally attributed to its members (goodness, poverty and chastity), in order to convert them into their opposites (sadism, lechery, voluptuousness),” (Ledesma 235). Frustration was added to citizens in considering the social classes between typical Spaniards and high-ranking members of the Church. Especially during the modernization of Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries, the political struggle of the modernizing urban middle classes, against more conservative or traditionalist social groups, the seemingly upper-hand the Church had over everything concerning sexuality and freedom pushed many to their breaking point. (Mitchell 63). Another related overarching theme related to the repression of the Church is the hypocrisy of it. Although priests took vows of celibacy, it was well known that they often broke them: this led to heavy criticism, as those who imposed sexual restrictions onto the common people broke their restrictions themselves (Maddox 133).

Anticlericalism in Spain has a long and rich history, and there is no way to define what exactly sparked anticlericalism and anticlerical actions. However, sex and sexuality is a common thread woven through all of Spanish history and recorded well through anticlerical publications and the manner in which Spaniards executed their anticlerical actions. Additionally, sex and sexuality relate to more anticlerical themes, such as the struggle between social classes or the hypocrisy of the Church that may be seen as more pertinent or influential causes of anticlericalism. In today’s day and age, with the resurgence of sexuality and abuse in the Catholic Church, taking a look back into its history can provide an interesting insight in the way it will influence religion today.

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