|Chapter 16: Azaña vs. Mussolini
Manuel Azaña and Benito Mussolini were born to Catholic families in heavily Catholic territories,
three years apart. Both became writers who moved into politics; both soundly rejected the
Church as young adults. Within a few years, though, they led nations at war with one another,
largely over the role of the Catholic religion.
Manuel Azaña was born just outside of Madrid in 1880, and after losing his parents at an early
age was sent off to be educated by the monks of the Escorial. He hated it. As an adult, he wrote
a book called The Garden of the Monks about the anti-intellectual discipline he experienced
there. “We learned to refute Kant with five points, and Hegel, and Comte, and so many more. We
used to oppose the erroneous assaults with good objections: (1) It is contrary to the teachings of the Church; (2) it
leads straight to pantheism; and (3) other puncture-proof reasons.” Reducing the supernatural to a series of canned
platitudes turned him off: “I have dreamed of destroying all this world,” he wrote.
He mocked the Church’s obsession with relics in a short story about El Cid, in which bones thought to be El Cid’s are
examined by a doctor and determined to be those of a horse; the archbishop, unconvinced, insists instead that El Cid
must have been a giant. Azaña didn’t hate Catholics – he married a devout Catholic, and each respected the other’s
views throughout their years together. As his writing turned more toward politics, though, he found religion contrary to
the necessary virtues of a responsible citizenry in a republic: “Pure faith is unsociable; it is not useful in the republic,
whose sovereignty it neither strengthens nor defends.” Catholicism, in which people owe a loyalty to the Pope
superseding what they owe the state, was for Azaña especially problematic.
Benito Mussolini’s mother insisted that he be sent to a Catholic boarding school run by Salesian monks, away from
the influence of his irreligious father. Nonetheless, he spent enough time in his father’s blacksmith shop to pick up a
disdain for religion that lasted well into adulthood. Like Azaña, Mussolini began his career as a writer. In 1908 he
dismissed priests as “black microbes who are as fatal to mankind as tuberculosis germs,” and he wrote a lurid novel
called The Cardinal’s Mistress. In 1910 he introduced a resolution urging members of his party to “avoid religious
marriage and the baptism of their children.” In 1920, he railed against what he called the “rival Vaticans” of Moscow
and Rome. “We are the heretics of both religions. We have torn to pieces all the revealed truths, we have spat upon all
the dogmas, rejected all the paradises, scoffed at all the charlatans – red, white and black – who market miraculous
drugs to give happiness to mankind.”
Azaña’s Spain was overwhelmingly Catholic, a fact that can be traced back to the Inquisition established in the 15th
century. Though the Inquisition’s original purpose was to crack down on Spain’s Jews, it proved ideally suited for
crushing the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation as well. Hundreds of thousands passed through its torture
chambers; as a result, the destruction of the overwhelming political power of the Catholic Church that occurred in
places like England and Germany never happened in Spain. By the dawn of the 19th century, the Spanish Church
remained every bit as overbearing as it had been 500 years earlier.
This left Spain so out of step with the rest of Europe – and so economically backwards – that a low-level armed conflict
persisted through most of the 19th century. Spain continued to stagnate, ultimately losing the last of its overseas
possessions to America in 1898. By 1931, the jig was up; the king decided to abdicate, and Spain belatedly joined the
rest of Europe in allowing the people to decide how they wished to be governed.
The people’s choice, at the first elections in 1931, was to end the tyranny of the Catholic Church. A coalition led by
Manuel Azaña’s Republican Action Party swept to power, committed to ending taxpayer subsidies for the Church and
breaking the Church’s stranglehold on education. Azaña became Prime Minister, and one of the principal drafters of a
new constitution for the new Republic.
The constitution Azaña helped produce pointedly refused to recognize Catholicism as the official religion of the state.
On the contrary, it infuriated the Church through its explicit toleration of all varieties of religious belief. Control over
marriage, cemeteries, and education was transferred from the Church to the civil government, and Church doctrine
was further violated by allowing women full rights of citizenship, including the right to divorce. As Azaña put it on the
floor of the Cortes: “Spain has ceased to be Catholic.”
Only five years earlier, the Church had been strong enough to induce the government to imprison a woman for saying
that the Virgin Mary bore other children after the birth of Jesus. Those days were over – at least for a while.