A Long Way from the Catholic Monarchs

By: Elizabeth Valiaveedan

December 13, 2017

There is no shortage of stereotypes about Spaniards. They are loud, they drink a lot, they are always running late, and they are very Catholic; just to name a few. After my time in Madrid, it seems that the first three do hold true at times. However, everything I have observed about religion here has actually been the opposite of what I expected.

I have been taught all about the Catholic Monarchs, the infamous Inquisition and the link between Francoism and the Church in classes. I have learned that Spanish towns and cities have specific patron saints, whom they celebrate annually. I was taught that Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is an especially important religious event during the Easter season here that is characterized by processions and fiestas. Another one of the most famous events in Spain, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, is more unsuspectingly linked to religion as well; it is part of the festival of Saint Fermin. I believed that that the culture and history of Spain must revolve around the Catholic faith. 

As it turns out, this seemingly strong sense of Catholicism is not actually part of everyday Spanish life. I have found out that many host families of Georgetown students are Catholic but do not make a habit of going to church each week. One host mom even told a student, much to her dismay, that the family does not even like to celebrate Christmas (so much for enjoying the decorations and Christmas sweets that remind her of home). A friend of mine, a native to Madrid, even remarked, “We are the worst Catholics in the world.” 

Out of curiosity, I researched statistics to see if these observations about religious attitudes could be confirmed. I found a 2015 poll that verified that Catholicism is the most prevalent religion; the majority of Spaniards, almost three-quarters, identify as Catholic. However, the poll also provided data that 60 percent of those that consider themselves to be Catholics almost never attend Mass. Only about 12 percent stated that they attend Mass on Sunday and on days honoring saints. 

While historical ties to the Church and the Catholic influence on holidays and festivities have projected the image of Spain as a Catholic country, the lack of practicing Catholics suggests otherwise about the role of the religion here. The idea that the Catholicism may be more a part of the culture than a faith itself surprised me, but the fact that my preconceived notions of religious life in Spain have been debunked reminds me to keep thinking over my own perception of the relationships between religion, culture, and identity. 

Thanks to a recent trip to Córdoba and Granada, I have started to understand the enduring influence that other religions have had on Spanish culture as well, particularly Islam. Moorish culture remains especially important in the two cities in the southern region of Andalusia, which was the last to be conquered during the Reconquista of the Spanish kings. The beautiful Alhambra, one of the top three most visited sites in Spain, is located in Granada. I could have spent hours wandering the ground and taking photos of the incredible archways and details of this Moorish palace. Besides the palace, the markets there reminded me exactly of the markets I had walked around in Morocco, and I had no trouble finding restaurants serving Moorish cuisine. In Cordoba, the Great Mosque has endured centuries and the original structure still stands, although it underwent the transformation into a Catholic place of worship through the addition of a cathedral. I even tried a hammam on my travels, which is a traditional Arab bath featuring pools of different temperatures that was an important part of Moorish life. 

It is certainly clear that Spain has been shaped by more than just Christianity, and even many of the Catholic elements of Spanish culture seem to be maintained more out of tradition rather than faith in practice. In my last month abroad as Madrid is decked out in lights and decorations for Christmas, I am sure I will think more about the intersection of religion and culture here.

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A Long Way from the Catholic Monarchs