The ever-shifting self

If you've seen my notes on William James and Daniel Dennett, or if you've read my book Hispanic Nation, you know I'm fascinated by the processes by which we assemble, disguise and change our "identities" -- or to put it in older terms, how we perceive and project our "selves." The intro by Christopher Looby to this early American novel, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself by Robert Montgomery Bird, reminds us of David Hume's very radical interpretation of this problem -- which is also the subject of Bird's novel. If you haven't read or don't remember Hume's argument (basically, that the "self" is an illusion), click on the link to Looby's introduction and do a search for Hume.


The rose and the cross

To understand the rage of the Catholic bishops against the "radical laicism"of the Socialist government of Spain, you have to look at their precipitous fall from the power they exercised only 40 years ago. To understand the pusillanimity of the Socialist response, you have to look at the continuing erosion of what used to be the Party's base.

Spanish habits, desires and world-views, like those everywhere else in the world today, are changing too rapidly for the old institutions -- churches, parties, trade unions, etc. -- to contain them. The new organizational forms are multiplying as suddenly as the windmills of La Mancha in the 17th century, and the priests and politicos of today, like Don Quijote then, see them as monsters.

In the Spain governed by Francisco Franco, when there was only one Church and the schools taught that patriotism, religion and obedience to the caudillo were all the same thing, something like 98% of the people declared themselves to be Catholics. It was almost impossible to get married outside of the church -- to do so, a couple would have to demonstrate that they were not Catholics, or if they had been baptised, make a formal declaration of apostasy, and you can imagine how that would be seen. There was no divorce, of course. And no right to abortion, or even contraception, or even sex instruction.

As recently as 1998, 83.5% of Spaniards still said they considered themselves Catholic -- a huge drop from just 10 years before. By 2007, the figure had fallen to 77%. And vocations are way down. A cheery Catholic statistician pointed out that the news wasn't all bad, that there are still 10 million who go to mass at least once in a while. "In Spain there's no other social phenomenon as big as this, not even football!" he declared. (I'm not making this up. See Crisis de vocaciones en España.) Maybe. But fans of fútbol are a lot more enthusiastic. More than half (56.2%) of those self-declared Spanish Catholics tell researchers they never go to mass, and only 17% say they go only occasionally. So I don't know where they get that 10 million figure.

Most significant: 46% of Spaniards between 15 and 24 years old describe themselves as agnostics, atheists or indifferent to religion, only 10% say they are practicing Catholics and 39% nonpracticing Catholics.

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the Partido Socialista Obrero have nothing to do with this phenomenon, except that they are trying (weakly) to catch up with it. And as the Church decays, the PSOE has no attractive alternative. The old discipline of the socialist trade unions, fighting for workers' dignity, is barely a memory. It's globalization, stupid! It's the Internet and all the other communications with a wider world, the shifting (and in some areas disapppearing) job market, a turmoil where priests offer no certainties and your family, church and school connections offer you no job security. Those 15-24 year olds know that they're on their own.

The PSOE at least seems to be aware of the problem, and some of its people are trying to redefine their socialism as increasing opportunities for youth. But the government has made such drastic concessions to the vociferous church hierarchy -- continuing to finance religous education in public schools and even increasing the state contribution to financing the church itself, failing to follow through on defense of the right of abortion -- that it is having difficulty keeping any youth loyalty. The Cardinals, meanwhile, egged on by the German pope, are howling in the rhetoric of the by-gone fascist era, but nobody but the PSOE (in their own time warp) and a fraction of those ten million mass-attenders wants to pay them much attention.

España se seculariza, El País, 10 de enero de 2008
Parties & church in Spain