‘Red’ priests bring theology down to earth

Leftist churches, with their emphasis on social justice, are on the rise in Spain – in spite of Vatican disapproval

Fr Javier Baeza: “We’re giving a message of hope, solidarity and struggle.”

Fr Javier Baeza: “We’re giving a message of hope, solidarity and struggle.”


You can tell that San Carlos Borromeo, in the Vallecas district of Madrid, is no ordinary church even before you’re inside. Colourful murals and graffiti are painted across its exterior, with the word “Libertad” [Freedom] daubed in large letters on one of its walls. Posters announcing political events and street protests are pinned up next to the rickety entrance.

“We’re part of a Catholic Church that’s from the street,” Javier Baeza (45), one of the local parish priests, tells The Irish Times in his small office inside the church. “We’re giving a message of hope, solidarity and struggle.”

“Struggle” is a word this bearded, heavily-built priest has become well acquainted with in his two decades at the church. Its reputation for social work and a hands-on approach to faith was established in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Father Baeza’s predecessor and mentor, Enrique de Castro, who is now semi-retired.

Fr de Castro, Fr Baeza and their colleague Pepe Díaz have long been known as Madrid’s “curas rojos”, or “red priests”, due to their leftist political stance. San Carlos Borromeo is one of many parishes in Spain that emphasise social justice over traditional doctrine. They see themselves as European cousins of the liberation theologians who have battled poverty across Latin America.

Like family
Willie Nixon, a young Cameroonian, is one of many immigrants who rely on San Carlos Borromeo for the concrete, rather than purely spiritual, support it offers. “This church is like my house, it’s like my family, because they try to help people – people that don’t have a house or where to sleep,” he says.

The priests wear casual clothes, even when giving Mass, for which they use a loaf of bread rather than a wafer. Atheists and even Muslims attend these services, heeding the church’s motto that nobody should be excluded from its care.

“An atheist has the same faith that I have,” Fr de Castro told a local newspaper in May. “A faith in man, in humankind, in the struggle, in utopia, in wanting to change things, in creating life.”

Not surprisingly, the priests in this parish have frosty relations with their seniors. “We don’t have any relationship with the Spanish Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican, ” says Fr Baeza. “In Spain we have a Catholic hierarchy that makes it difficult for people to get to know the God of the Gospels.”

Uneasy truce
This distance from the church’s leaders is due in great part to ideology on social issues. The priests in Vallecas support same-sex marriage, which was legalised in Spain in 2005 despite vigorous campaigning by bishops to stop the law. They also believe abortion is justifiable in many more cases than the traditional church would allow.

In 2007, tensions with senior bishops in Madrid reached such a point that San Carlos Borromeo was nearly shut down. Emergency talks between senior clergy and the local priests led to an uneasy truce.

But it is economic, rather than social, factors that seem to be widening the division between Spain’s radical and traditional churches lately.

The ongoing slump has seen the unemployment rate soar to 27 per cent and two million Spanish families have no breadwinner. Meanwhile, the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy has implemented a severe austerity programme.

“The church, like, the unions or the political parties, should take a stand regarding what is happening,” says Fr Baeza. “The Catholic hierarchy in Spain isn’t speaking out publicly and fervently against the dismantling of the welfare state, against predatory capitalism.”

The profile of Spain’s left-leaning clergy started to rise towards the end of the repressive years of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, says Marçal Sarrats, a journalist who has written a book about San Carlos Borromeo, called Así en la Tierra [As it is on Earth].

Reality bites
While there are no official figures on how many rebel churches Spain has, Mr Sarrats says there are several in Madrid alone and plenty more across the country. He is convinced the economic climate is thrusting them further into the limelight.

“These churches are seeing more and more people come to them. As the crisis bites we’re seeing lots of people evicted from their homes, for example, and this kind of church is seeking to give people solutions.”

But Catholicism as a whole is not thriving in Spain. A recent poll showed that while nearly three-quarters of Spaniards describe themselves as Catholic, only 17 per cent actually go to church. Elderly people and Latin American immigrants often dominate congregations, as younger Spaniards turn away.

“In Spain the traditional church is in a very deep crisis because it’s seen as distant from ordinary people,” explains Mr Sarrats. “The bishops and people in the church hierarchy talk a lot about things like abortion, but not about the real problems people have.”