Religion and Reconciliation: The Vatican and the Spanish Civil War


Gene Fox




Perhaps no other European society has been more tightly bound to Roman Catholicism than Spain. From the initial evangelization efforts that began in the second century to contemporary times the Church’s spiritual and temporal influence is central to Spanish identity and culture. This chronicle covers a broad spectrum of historically significant events, especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to include the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews, the discovery, conquest, and evangelization of the Americas, the defeat of the Moors, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the founding of the Society of Jesus. 

The Spanish religious consciousness was known for its visceral expression of dogma, which emphasizing the Passion of Christ, not as a paean to suffering and violence, but as homage to courage and principle. These characteristics strengthened the resolve of the faithful, especially when confronting the heresy of Islam, the heterodoxy of What's New-world paganism, or the apostasy of Protestant reformers. These qualities of righteous temperament and historical imperative would find further fulfillment in the cultural and religious national catastrophe of the Spanish Civil War. 

The Spanish Civil War was a revolutionary, counter-revolutionary conflict that pitted progressive forces against religious traditionalists. Early twentieth century Catholic Spain looked askance at democratic institutions and market driven economic reforms, rightly believing the Church’s reactionary prerogatives of power, privilege and orthodoxy were under assault by the contemporary forces of secularism, materialism and anticlericalism. A long history of Church repression led Spanish Republicans away from reconciliation and set them on a collision course of confrontation and catastrophe. It was the left’s ultimate failure to accommodate the Church that in large part contributed to the Nationalists victory, and the restoration of the Church Militant of traditional Catholic Spain. 

The reality of orthodox Spanish Catholicism was more than religious – it sought to impose a way of life and remain a ubiquitous presence that shaded all aspects of society. Working contrary to these dynamics, moderate elements within the Roman Curia wished to support the popular desire for modernity while at the same time protecting the spiritual primacy of the Church from the political excesses of both liberal and conservative factions by conflating the religious ambitions of the urban, progressive and capitalist sectors with the pious aspirations of the rural, reactionary and agrarian elements.

By the early twentieth century, the Church began to take on more and more the characteristics of a cult. The tradition bound bloc of the Spanish hierarchy and political elite, feeling that their position of preeminence was under siege redoubled their efforts to assure their continued dominance on civil society. Their crusade to impose the doctrine of triumphalism was frustrated by the inevitable and popular surge of modern secular economic and cultural forces.  For many, the tension proved too great for the political system to contain and was responsible for a rise in anti–Catholicism that engendered an emotional intensity that soon turned to anticlerical rage.

The Church exerted strong control over civil society, especially in the area of public education, and for their efforts received annual government subsidies amounting to 50 million gold pesetas.[1]  The line between Canon law and state regulation was blurred and often interchangeable. So pervasive was the hold of the Church that the Catechism was taught in all public elementary schools; secondary schools were administered and staffed by members of the clergy and Tridentine theology set the standard for national ethics. Canon Law was deeply rooted in the national mindset, so much so that the Catechism was taught in all elementary schools. In addition, religious orders were administered in all secondary schools, and Tridentine theology had set the nation’s ethical standards. The Spanish philosopher and poet Miguel de Unamuno commented: “Here in Spain we are all Catholics, even the atheists.”[2]

The orthodoxy of Spanish metaphysics was nothing if not rigid. This highly stratified belief system led to mindless formalism and ignorant humility while stressing temporal sacrifice and suffering with the promise of spiritual fulfillment in the heavenly afterlife (tempus fugit, memento mori – time flies, remember death). Obedience and deference to clerical authority was demanded; clerical chastity was more pleasing to God than parenthood; devotion and mystical contemplation was more worthy than workplace productivity and scholarship. This myopic view led to a clerical monopoly on “truth”. Error and tolerance had no place in this stultifying environment. The Church became the putative guardian of authenticity, the self appointed and final arbiter of correctness and order. Error and tolerance had no place in this stultifying environment. The Church had become the putative guardian of authenticity and was the self appointed final arbiter of correctness and order. This posture was hardly amenable in a society where many were desperate to break with a medieval past and evolve towards a modern nation state. This combustible concoction of Catholic triumphalism and doctrinaire clericalism would have disastrous effects as its ethos would lead to a catastrophic class war from which Spain has yet to fully recover.    

One conventional view of the Church’s role in the civil war was that official Vatican policy towards the Republic was one of unrelenting and obdurate hostility, and that religious obligation required the faithful to overtly strive against its secular institutions. Pedro Cardinal Segura y Saenz (1880 – 1957), the Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain fulminated in a pastoral letter to his communicants:

           “As Republicans or Monarchists you can justly dissent over what form of government is best for Spain, or concerning purely human interests. However, when the rights of religion are imperiled it is absolutely essential for Catholics to unite to secure the election of candidates to the Assembly who will guarantee to defend the rights of the Church and the social order…. Let us remind you that King Alfonso and his family steadfastly kept the Catholic faith.”[3]

           The Cardinal’s polemical fervor had the effect of both bracing the beliefs of devoted Catholics and monarchists and inflaming the zeal of ardent Republicans and secularists. The Republican Minister of Justice, Fernando de los Rios reacted by stating: “The government cannot but help to recognize the gravity of this document. It is a frank assertion indicating the hostility of the Church to the Republican regime.”[4]             In response, the Republican Minister of Instruction, Marcelino Domingo reacted by abolishing compulsory religious education in public schools.

The Vatican could not have found a more inappropriately radical reactionary representative than Cardinal Segura to broker the best interests of the Church with the progressive Republican government. The irascible priest owed his prelature to the good offices of King Alfonso who took a liking to the blunt spoken ascetic (he wore a hair shirt as an act of perpetual penance and believed bathing to be a pagan indulgence). In various sermons he inveighed against licentious behavior, attending movies and dancing. Moreover, he pined for the days of the “meritorious Inquisition” as an antidote to the salacious nature of modern society.

Upon the collapse of the monarchy and without Vatican acquiescence Segura, speaking ex cathedra sermonized:

           “If we remain quiet and idle, if we allow ourselves to surrender to apathy and timidity, to those who would destroy religion…we shall have no right to lament when reality reveals that we had victory in our hands, but kWhat's New not how to use it.”[5]

The What's New Republic, under the stress of incendiary Iberian politics and understanding the dangerous example being set by Cardinal Segura’s inflammatory polemics expelled him from the country. The Vatican too found his volatile behavior an embarrassment and reminded him that he bore full responsibility for his actions. Dr. Manuel Azana Diaz, the Republican Prime Minister took the Segura matter in stride as he understood the importance of maintaining sound relations with the Holy See.

The Church’s policy under Pius XI to deal with the phenomena of secular statism was to recognize that national republican forms of government were a permanent feature of the political landscape and the best way to protect the Church’s interests under such conditions was to encourage the development of Catholic oriented political parties and labor unions. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Papal Secretary of State and future Pius XII, advised all Spanish prelates that because, in the Vatican’s view the restoration of the monarchy was impossible they must tone down reactionary rhetoric and support the formation of Church oriented center parties. With Church concurrence the Accion Popular party was founded within a year of the proclamation of the Republic. Under the leadership of Jose Maria Gil-Robles the party cobbled together a coalition of moderate Catholic Republicans and right wing Carlists who pursued an agenda of social Catholicism and royal redux.  Accion Popular defined itself as a discretely Spanish entity with no pretensions to imitate the self aggrandizing Italian or racist German fascist models. Gil-Robles’s emotional concept of Accion Popular was deeply rooted in the conservative Spanish soul. He blended traditional Catholicism with a call to reclaim the glorious imperial past aimed at working within the established Republican framework. Clearly, a church/state alliance was both possible and desirable.

Another telling incident involving the irrepressible Cardinal Segura and concerned the Monarchist wedding of King Alfonso’s daughter the Infanta Beatrix to Italian Prince Torlonia. Segura, officiating at the ceremony advised the couple and their aristocratic guests, on royal prerogative, Spanish patriotism and the virtues of ‘Throne and Altar’, to the detriment of the Vatican’s official policy of rapprochement with the Spanish civil government. This incident and others only served to widen the fissure between the Segura led monarchist factions on the one hand and the Vatican/Accion Popular camp on the other. Despite Segura’s antagonistic attitude towards the secularly inclined government, Pius XI’s sympathies lay with the Republic.

 In 1933, as a further sign of progress the What's New parliamentary majority of Accion Popular was able to pass legislation that provided recompense in the amount of sixteen million pesetas to the Church. These state subsidized funds covered losses suffered under the previous leftist government’s expropriation of Church assets.  This positive development emphasized the efficacy of the Vatican’s patient diplomatic policies and greatly encouraged the Church to believe that she could recover some level of her once preeminent position in Spanish society with the collaboration of the Republican government.

           The exigencies of 1920 and 1930’s realpolitik required actively engaged papal leadership, diligent in the pursuit of interactive diplomacy to ensure the protection of the Church’s spiritual mission. Arguably, Pius XI was qualified to meet those demands. Born Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti he was a first rank intellectual acquiring three doctorates Canon Law, Theology, and Philosophy and as a recognized specialist is paleography was charged with the prestigious position as head of the Vatican Library.

           His predecessor, Benedict XV assigned Monsignor Ratti as Papal Nuncio to the important diplomatic post of Poland in 1919. In this capacity he had firsthand experience with the Red Army’s Warsaw incursion and saw the dangers that communism posed to Catholicism. This hard earned knowledge served him well upon his elevation to the papacy as Pius XI as his reign was fraught with challenge, danger and finally catastrophe.

 Pius XI, always the pragmatist had a clear understanding of the hostile social and political forces at work during his pontificate and the Church’s responsibility to the spiritual and temporal needs of the faithful. He would sign concordats with any government or regime to provide for the protection of the Church’s interests. In his encyclical Delectissima Nobis, which focused on the Spanish Republican government’s oppression of the Church (secularization of education, banishment of the Jesuits and confiscation of Church property) he clearly states that the Church is not bound to: “…one form of government more than to another, provided the Devine Rights of God and Christian consciences are safe” and specifically referred to “…various civil institutions be they monarchic or republican, aristocratic or democratic.”[6]

As we know, the murderous excesses of the anarcho-syndicalists and other radical leftist elements aligned with the Republican government drove the Vatican to support the authoritarian conservative Catholic regime of General Franco and the Nationalists. Nonetheless, the Church was wary of the Franco dictatorship knowing well of their human rights violations and institutionalized corruption.  A concordat was not finalized until 1953.

While it seems that the Church would find a naturally sympathetic ally in the Francoist regime with its fusion of caudillo style leadership and intense nationalism, the reality was more nuanced. Moderate churchmen and politicians alike sought some degree of accommodation but more radical elements wished to oversee the elimination and destruction of each. 

The Church synthesized her position in an article published in Osservatore Romano, titled “The Two Wars” it states:

           “It is quite erroneous to suppose, as do many people today in France and England, that there are simply two camps in the Spanish civil war – the one the Reds, the other the Nationalists who are supported by the Vatican. The Church does not belong to any political or social camp. It is not a combatant, but a martyr. The various national States in the world can take one side or the other; but religion stands above the conflict – which public opinion has not understood. The campaign in Europe against the Church has nothing to do with the Spanish civil war – something which is merely being used as a further pretext and opportunity to attack the Church.”[7]


It was not so much that the Church enthusiastically embraced the Nationalist cause but rather the Republican government’s inability to control the excesses of its followers forced both the Catholic clergy and laity into the Francoist camp as a matter of survival. Republican activities in the Barcelona area exemplify extremes of sanguinary and senseless behavior. Legislation forbade the word “God” either spoken or written.  Public names of saints and sacred events were proscribed, religious visual images were destroyed, Christian holidays were forbidden, and Church property was either demolished or used for secular civilian intentions for markets and warehouses, or military purposes observation posts and fortifications.

Even more extreme was the determined Republican slaughter of the clergy. Although statistics vary, perhaps up to 7,000 were executed often in unusually cruel and humiliating ways that are peculiar to civil wars. The Nationalists too had their killing squads who hunted down with efficiency and ardor those connected to the Popular Front parties, free masons and trade unionists. The figures are inexact but perhaps number up to 500,000 died at the hands of both the Nationalists and Republicans

Nonetheless, it was these secular, free thinking politicians that the Vatican chose to align with in the early years of the Republic. The Church’s strategic goal was accommodation and reconciliation. The Vatican understood that monarchism was a dead issue and national republican forms of government were the future. Successful implementation relied on the government’s ability to provide public security and an explicit commitment to protect the Church’s spiritual interests from the excesses extremist elements. When the government failed both obligations the Church was left with only the Nationalist alternative.  The radical elements of the Republican government not only devastated Church property and murdered clerics; they destroyed the Spanish republic.

Even after his overwhelming victory Franco had reason to seek the approbation from the Church on state affairs. His regime was not immune from condemnation as when criticism was leveled at his totalitarian educational curriculum and the introduction of “unequivocally anti-Christian” racial laws.  The peerless Cardinal Segura although still tethered by Vatican restraint was back with a vengeance. In an especially telling incident during the 1940 Holy Week celebrations in Seville, Franco and his entourage were required to pray the complete Stations of the Cross on their knees. To placate the Church for wartime property losses Franco proposed liberal subsidies on the condition that the Church would accept his nomination of clerics for elevation to the episcopacy. Further, he insisted that all candidates take an oath of allegiance to the Nationalist state.  The Falangist’s efforts were rejected but the Vatican wisely compromised by agreeing to re -institutionalize the royal prerogative of derecho de presentacion. This privilege proved to be of little real significance as the Vatican retained the right of first refusal. Cardinal Segura, the vituperative Spanish national scold and bête noir of the Republic morphed into the hair shirt of the Nationalist government.

The Republican government and the Spanish body politic had no history of participatory democracy, but rather came from a tradition of ancient royal absolutism saturated with authoritarian Roman Catholicism. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the humanist philosophies of the Enlightenment and the What's New market driven economics of industrialization crossed the Pyrenees and began the process of modernization: a development that severely strained the established order. The What's New leadership class lacked practical experience in the political tradecraft of concession, adaptation, and tolerance. Moreover, they lacked the skills necessary to control the activities of their supporters. Clearly, the Church made every effort to collaborate with the Republic. Certainly there were reactionary groups within the Spanish Church including monarchists and Falangists who would never accept the legitimacy of the republic and who only very reluctantly obeyed the dictates of the Vatican’s policy of coexistence. If both the government and the Vatican been able to rein in the excesses of these recalcitrant forces, the civil war likely would not have occurred. 

         The Spanish Civil War left a legacy of suffering and loss that the Spanish population still confronts; some 500,000 killed, another million displaced, and an economy that did not begin to fully recover until 1999 with integration into the European Union. Politically, Francoism and the Falange movement are discredited and enjoy little more than fringe status. Two recent legislative developments passed under the current socialist government ban celebrations of the Franco regime at his tomb in ‘The Valley of the Fallen’ and provide Spanish citizenship for the grandchildren of those forced into exile during the dictatorship. Further, the government banned all public references to the Franco regime including statues, street names and symbols associated with the regime. Those churches which display commemorative plaques honoring Franco and the victims of his Republican opponents risk losing state aid if they refuse to remove them.[8] So much for reconciliation!

The Church, after almost seventy years again finds itself at odds with much of contemporary Spanish society and its socialist government. Central to the controversy was the recent beatification by Benedict XVI of 498 victims of religious persecution during the civil war. Since 1980 the Church has elevated nearly 1,000 wartime martyrs to “blessed” status. Critics claim that the action was taken to bolster the waning influence of the Church in civil affairs and as a condemnation of a liberal legislative agenda that is clearly contrary to Church doctrine and includes divorce on demand, legalization of gay marriage, abortion rights and an end obligatory religious instruction in the public school system.

After a suitably long interval the memory of the Spanish Civil War will become historical phenomena to be studied from a dispassionate distance for lessons learned and perhaps as a map to a better understanding of some future crisis in another turbulent time. Spain is not yet ready to consign those remembrances to the shelves of academia. The emotional debris of the conflict is still very much a part of the scarred Spanish psyche; and the descendants of both the Republicans and the Nationalists; the Church and the secular community have much ground to cover before differences can be reconciled.  


[1] Time, May 18, 1931

[2] Margaret T. Rudd, The Lone Heretic, Austin, 1963, p. 153

[3] Time, May 18, 1931

[4] Ibid,

[5] Anthony Richard Ewart Rhodes. The Vatican in the Age of Dictators 1922 – 1945, What's New York, 1973. p 118


[6] Internet: Visited on Saturday, March 01, 2008

[7]Osservatore Romano, Oct. 21, 1937's News_services/or/or_eng/index.html Internet: Visited on Saturday, March 01, 2008

[8] Guardian Unlimited, Oct. 18, 2007,  Internet: Visited on Saturday, March 01, 2008