In the fall of 2007, I spent a week in Spain, giving lectures, meeting with Spanish Catholic leaders, and making a hair-raising climb up several hundred scaffolding stairs to the top of Antoni Gaudi's Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona--preceded by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul II's longtime secretary, who was doing the trip in a cassock (after confessing to me, sotto voce, that he wasn't too fond of heights)! Over the course of numerous conversations in those days, it became clear that the government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in power since April 2004, was not simply secular in character but aggressively secularist.
Textbooks were being re-written to enforce the government's leftist view of modern Spanish history; students aiming for admission to prestigious universities would be required to give the "correct" answers about such traumas as the Spanish civil war in order to pass their entrance exams. Street names were being changed to eradicate the memory of the politically disfavored from Spain's past. Marriage had been legislatively redefined so that any two people, of whatever gender, could be civilly "married." (Shortly after I left the country, another law enabled a Spaniard to enter a civil registry office and "change" his or her sex simply by making a declaration to a government bureaucrat that she was now he, or vice versa. Some things are so absurd that they compel ridicule, and this one prompted me to a knockoff from "My Fair Lady": "The dame in Spain is mainly in the name.")
In interviews with the Spanish press, I suggested that the 20th century had a name for a political program that tried to re-manufacture human nature while re-writing history: the name was "Stalinism," which used to be considered a hateful thing. Zapatero's Spain was not, of course, Stalin's Soviet Union in the latter's most brutal manifestations. Nor was the current Spanish government as crudely malevolent as the Spanish Stalinists of the late 1930s who, during the Spanish Civil War, murdered tens of thousands of priests and religious, often sadistically. The Zapatero government, I suggested, was far more clever. It would impose a hard-left agenda on Spain through legislation, step by step, rather like the frog being slowly boiled in a pot of water who doesn't realize that death is at hand until it's too late.
Recent events in Spain have done nothing to persuade me that these judgments were excessively harsh. Pope Benedict XVI visited Spain last November, gave two spectacular homilies at Santiago de Compostela (on the Christian roots of Europe) and at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (on beauty as a pathway to God). Prime Minister Zapatero did not attend either event and spent the three days after the pope's departure denouncing Benedict XVI while campaigning in Catalonia.
In March, dozens of secularist student gangsters, armed with a megaphone and defamatory posters, crashed into the chapel of Madrid's Complutense University while Catholic students were at prayer. The radicals shouted deprecations of the Church, Pope Benedict, and the Catholic clergy; several of their number, women, stood on the altar and undressed from the waste up; two of the striptease artists boasted of their lesbianism. This obscene spectacle in the Spanish capital came shortly after several Spanish churches throughout the country had been trashed.
All of which suggests that Spain is now Ground Zero in the European contest between Catholicism and the dictatorship of relativism. And the latter is precisely what the secularist radicals of Spain are up to: imposing their concept of freedom-as-license through coercive state power and intimidation-through-violence. Bizarre legislation that rewrites history and redefines human nature is the first half of the equation; gang violence is its new and ominous complement. A different kind of war has been declared on the Church.
It hardly seems accidental that these attacks against Catholic facilities have come in the months before World Youth Day 2011, which will be held in Madrid from Aug. 16 through Aug. 21. The gauntlet has been thrown down. A tremendous turnout at Madrid in five months will demonstrate that the challenge has been accepted.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.