The Pope Squares Off With Spain's Secular Champion

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Pope Benedict XVI watches a performance during a family meeting in Valencia

Papal trips have their standard menu of metaphors and stated objectives: peace mission, pilgrimage, journey of reconciliation, personal homecoming. The official aim of Pope Benedict XVI´s lightning-quick visit to Spain was to celebrate the Christian family, helping to close the Catholic World Meeting of Families in Valencia this weekend. Intead, the Pope's much-anticipated handshake and photo op Saturday evening with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero looked more like a heavyweight boxing stare-down of ideas over the direction of Western civilization and the meaning of morality in the modern world.

Since his March 2004 election, Zapatero has led a virtual revolution in social policy in once-devoutly Catholic Spain, legalizing gay marriage, easing divorce and encouraging stem-cell research. The 45-year-old Socialist leader has become the smiling symbol of Old Europe's rising secularism. Benedict may have had “Zapatero's Spain" in mind when, on the eve of the conclave that chose him to replace Pope John Paul II, he denounced “the dictatorship of relativism" in a powerful and oft-cited speech to his fellow Cardinals. In the 15 months since, the pontiff´s fierce intellect and clear ideas on repairing Catholicism's troubles on its home continent have turned him into a sort of anti-Zapatero. And he has, indeed, kept a close eye on Spain. When he welcomed the newly appointed Spanish ambassador to the Holy See on May 20, Benedict went beyond the typical diplomatic niceties, alluding to gay marriage, abortion and the right to a Catholic education.

His choice to make Spain — and a Catholic family conference — his third foreign trip helps hammer home a point. On the papal plane Saturday morning, Benedict said he wanted to focus on the “positive," but restated the Church's firm opposition to gay unions. "It is true that there are certain things that Christian life says no to. We want to make people understand that according to human nature, it is a man and a woman who are made for each other and made to give humanity a future," he said. Still, the Pope remains the underdog in this intellectual tete-a-tete. Although gay marriage is unacceptable to many, only a tiny proportion of Catholics follow the church's strict doctrine on birth control and premarital sex — doctrines that Benedict has recently reiterated. Polls consistently show that 80% of Spaniards identify themselves as Catholic, even if only about one-fourth actually practice their faith. The divorce rate in Spain, where divorce was outlawed as recently as 25 years ago, runs at about 50%, while abortion rights are guaranteed in virtually every corner of Europe.

While this shift in popular Western attitudes may seem irreversible, Benedict is refusing to accept defeat. Austen Ivereigh, a top aide to Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, says the battle of ideas is still on. "Benedict is a real intellectual. He has an almost touching faith in the power of reason," says Ivereigh. "He's convinced that the intellectual arguments are on his side. The challenge for him is to make the case without looking like he's old-fashioned. How do you make the case about traditional marriage something interesting and exciting? But if any Pope can do it, he can."

No doubt Benedict was buoyed by the enthusiastic welcome he received in Valencia. Not even a tragic accident in the city's subway system last week dampened the raucous crowds in the streets and public squares. Papal supporters reportedly booed and whistled at Zapatero as he entered the Valencia archbishop's residence for the brief meeting with Benedict. Inside, there were uneasy smiles and rigid body language. The customary exchange of gifts was also telling, with Zapatero giving the pontiff a modern abstract painting and Benedict handing the Spanish leader a copy of the Vatican codex. (Not very likely that the art work will get be hung or the Church document read.)

There was tension even before the Pope touched down in Spain. Zapatero let it be known that he would not be attending Sunday's open-air mass that was the crowning moment of the Pope's visit. Zapatero's admirers will see it as a sign that the atheist leader is no hypocrite. But on the flight from Rome, when papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls was asked about the absence, he pointed out that on John Paul's visits, even Communist leaders Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega attended Catholic masses out of respect for the Pope. Not necessarily a knockout, but a glancing blow for sure.