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Europe - Spain/Portugal

New secular civics class riling Catholic Church
by Victoria Burnett ("International Herald Tribune," August 7, 2007)

Madrid, Spain - As Spanish children sun themselves on the beach this month, classrooms and curricula will be far from their thoughts. But a dispute over a new civic education class that awaits them in September is adding to the heat of the summer.

The government says the new class, "education for citizenship," aims to teach values consistent with a modern, diverse democracy. It will be introduced in five of Spain's 17 regions next month, and in the rest by the end of 2008. Starting around age 11, students will be required to take the course an hour or two a week at four stages in their school career.

According to Victorino Mayoral, a Socialist lawmaker and president of the CIVES Foundation, which was involved in crafting the course, students will receive a mix of ethics, civics and study of human rights. Based on the values enshrined in Spain's 1978 Constitution, the course will cover issues ranging from domestic violence to dangerous driving, which claims thousands of Spanish lives every year.

But the course will also deal with issues like gender, sexuality and the family, and the church is up in arms.

Catholic bishops say the new course usurps the family's freedom to shape a child's morality and will impart values that in some instances diverge radically from their own. The Episcopal Conference has called on parents to protest the new syllabus by any legitimate means, and several bishops have called for a boycott.

In an open letter to his parishioners in July, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, archbishop of Toledo, said the course would force society to accept "a particular vision of man that diverges from the reality of man and from the Christian vision."

Cardinal María Rouco Varela, archbishop of Madrid, called the course a "serious problem" because it aims to "shape the individual, which is not the remit of the state."

The course "clashes with the fundamental principles of the Constitution and with the right of parents to choose their children's moral instruction," Varela declared at a seminar on religion organized by King Juan Carlos University in Madrid last month.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero countered last month by warning the bishops that "no faith is above the law" and said it was society's job to "teach citizens the values of respect" and harmony.

"Spain is a lay country, and its lay principles guarantee pluralism and tolerance," Zapatero said at a Socialist youth conference on July 22.

Prominent members of the conservative opposition Popular Party also oppose the syllabus, as do some teachers and parents.

Alfonso Aguiló, a Catholic headmaster and head of the Madrid Association of Private Education Companies, said that 2,500 parents of the 40,000 students the association represents do not want their children to take the course. In an interview by telephone, he said he was worried about textbooks that put heterosexuality on an equal footing with homosexuality, bisexuality or transsexuality.

"There are a lot of people who don't want their children to think there are five types of sexuality, five types of family," he said.

Aguiló argues that individual morality is being supplanted by secular dogma. He and other critics say the course smacks of classes in "formation of the national spirit" that were obligatory school fodder under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

"The government cannot say, 'There is no religion, the only religion is my religion: secularism,' " he said.

Mayoral says the course is not intended to promote one social model at the expense of another, but rather to inform students, for example, of the fact that same-sex marriages are now legal in Spain.

"The reality of the classroom reflects every kind of family - single parents, gays, divorced parents," he said by telephone. "We want the course to reflect what is real and what is legal."

While the Catholic Church sees a conflict between its morality and Zapatero's liberal social model, data indicate that the general population does not. About three-quarters of parents opt to have their children take Catholic studies in school, while two-thirds support gay marriage.

Raquel Mallavibarrena, spokeswoman for Christian Networks, a Spanish umbrella group of progressive Christian associations, said, "There is a plurality in the Catholic community that the bishops don't reflect."

"It's a shame there isn't more dialogue, more flexibility," she added.

People like Mallavibarrena say that this intransigeance is the reason the church is losing its struggle to retain influence in a society where it once enjoyed uncommon privilege. In a July survey by the Center for Sociological Research in Madrid, 77 percent of respondents described themselves as Catholics, but only 16 percent of those said they went to church every week - and 55 percent said they almost never went. Spain is now home to an estimated million Muslims and more than a million Evangelicals and Protestants.

The church hierarchy also seems to view the course as a challenge to its influence in the education system, an area where it still wields tremendous power. About a quarter of the country's children are educated in Catholic schools that get about half their funding from the state and the other half from nongovernment sources.

The church retains the power to hire and fire teachers of religious education in the public school system and scrutinize their private behavior. However, the extent of that power has come into question as a result of a recent court ruling on unfair dismissal in the Canary Islands. The court in July awarded €16,000, or $22,000, in damages to a teacher who was fired by the church in 2000 because she lived with a man to whom she was not married, the newspaper El País reported.

Critics say the dispute has been stirred up by a conservative minority to mobilize opposition to Zapatero and has eclipsed what could have been a healthy debate about how to educate Spain's youth.

"In a plural society like Spain's, which is changing so quickly, it's important for students to reflect, to learn to think and to consider different options," Mallavibarrena said.

But instead of debating how best to implement the new course, she said, the bishops and politicians "just throw stones at each other."


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