zapateroIn a country like Spain, where a large majority still identify themselves as at least more-or-less Catholic, you’d think the government would shy away from taking on the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact, there are probably few things Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero likes better than a brawl with the bishops.

Lingering anti-clerical sentiment in sectors of Zapatero’s Socialist Party, particularly on its left-most fringes, means the PM has few more effective tools for rallying his voters than the sight of a protest march led by priests and nuns. (Photo: Prime Minister Zapatero, 5 June 2009/Juan Medina)

At a time when unemployment is closing in on 20 percent, Zapatero knows matters economic are not going to provide anything to cheer his supporters. So there was little surprise when the government rolled out a bill to liberalise abortion laws, including a provision to allow 16 year olds to abort without parental consent, in time for the European elections. At present, Spanish law allows abortion only in certain circumstances, such as if the birth poses a psychogical risk to the mother, although in practice it is easily available.

Just in case the bill didn’t drive the Church into a sufficient paroxysm of rage, the government’s Equality Minister Bibiana Aido, defended the proposal to allow legal minors to seek terminations without their parents’ knowledge by comparing the procedure to breast-enlargement surgery. So, last Friday it must have seemed like mission accomplished to the Socialists when Spain’s bishops duly rebuked them for undermining the country’s moral fabric (see Spanish text of their statement here).

Only one thing is now missing for the manoeuvre to attain political perfection, i.e. to lure the main opposition Popular Party, traditionally allied to the Church, into aligning itself with the religious authorities.  From there, thanks to the historical closeness of the Church to the former dictator Francisco Franco, it is but a short rhetorical jump for the Socialists to accuse the PP of being on the extreme right and out of touch.