Last month saw a controversial ceremony in Tarragona, Spain in which 500 deceased members of the Spanish cathloic clergy were beautified, the last step before promotion to the high office of sainthood. The event was attended by over 25,000 cathlocs and well as several thousand of the families of those being honoured. The event was held by Cardinal Angelo Amato and even the Pope made a (televised) address to the crowds.

This was no ordinary church ceremony however, the respectful if slightly occult ceremony had been warned against by many groups, any many have questioned the appropriatness of the churches activities. The reason, the 500 ‘martys of faith’ honoured in the ceremony were killed by the anarchist and anti-clerical militias that made up part of the short-lived Spanish Republic.

During Spains most traumatic historical event, a war complete with city bombing, schwerpunkt and blitzkrieg laying the way for the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured as the elected Republic battled the rebellious generals of the Nationalists in a war that shocked wider Europe. People were killed en masse by either side, sometimes for their religous convictions (or lack of them), for their opinions on economics, or simply for having the misfortune of being in one part of the country on the onset of violence.

The clergy certainly suffered on the Republican side during the war. Thousands of church’s and monastries were burned, monks beaten to death and nuns raped. For many years the Church had propped up the landed elite, had a monopoly on education and had, as a whole, failed to be the voice for the msot oppressed and downtrodden members of what was then, a stagnating and backward country. This, as well as generally being a symbol of the old order, led to a brutal campaign of violence against them by aspects of the fragmented republican movement.

This is why the move firstly strikes as odd. Pope Francis, so named after Saint Francis of Assisi, a man who devoted his life to the support and championing of the poor and weak, had greatly improved the image of the cathloic church by highlighting and attacking poverty and its allies. However, here we have that same Pope seemingly reverting to type. Indeed the beautification of 500 clergymen (and women) who were killed for their beliefs is not the point of contention, the failure of the church to acknowledge its own support and indeed endorsement of the nationalist coup, which continued throughout Franco’s reign of violence and tyranny, is where the issue for many lies.

Over 100 support groups for victims of Franco’s regime wrote an open letter to the Pope before the event, asking for him to apologise for the actions of the church in legitimizing one of Europes longest, and most recent military dictatorships. This demand was roundly ignored and in the popes address to the crowds of the devoted in tarragona, the issue wasn’t even mentioned.

Franco, of course, was not the only 20th century dictator to have been given divine favour by the Holy See. The church played a large role in Musolini’s fascist experiment (it was he who gave the pope its army, police and indeed, the Vatican) and Latin America’s numerous dictators often had a holy man on their shoulders. It seems cynical for the modern Catholic Church, with all the progress it has made in recent months, to dredge up this dark history and then simply refuse to even acknowledge its dubious role. The Vatican appears to be cherry picking historical acts. As many reading this will know, there are very few organizations from the Spanish civil war devoid of the odd massacre or act of unspeakable violence.

Some Spaniards may feel this is a calculated action. A few weeks before the ceremony in Tarragona, a UN delegation called for Spain to open an investigation into those that were killed and tortured and the hands of Franco and his henchmen. Far more people were killed by the nationalist forces than by republican militias (indeed, they had the advantage of time over the Republicans). The delegation also applied pressure for the removal of the 1977 amnesty that prevents the prosecution of some of Franco’s most infamous enforcers. This could have been an attempt by the church to shore up support against such a move, which would most probably publicise the grim behaviour of the church in this period.

It would not be the first time the hierarchy of the church has behaved this way. In 2007 the ex-Pope, Benedict XIV, held the largest beautification ceremony in its history in the Vatican, again to honour the monks, priests, nuns and bishops of the church killed by militias in the civil war. This act was seen by many as a strategic attack by the churches hierarchy against the socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero who had passed laws legalizing gay marriage, stem cell research and the streamlining of divorce procedings, all hot issues with the cathlic church. The most symbolic incident of the ceremony, a group of Spaniards holding a copy of Picasso’s Guernica, a painting inspired by the city of the same name that was obliterated by Nationalist and Nazi bombers, brawling with a congregation as it left a church near St Peters Square.

It seems the Catholic church has reverted to stereotype then. Playing with history for its own benefit and setting itself as the victim of humanity’s base wickedness. Old wounds have been opened up by this affair. Spain, unlike Germany and Italy, will not be allowed to let the ghosts of its brutal recent history be laid to rest, it seems, and a golden opportunity for the Vatican to exorcise its past demons has been, sadly, allowed to pass by.

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