In this uncompromising chiaroscuro land whose most recent religious war ended a scant 45 years ago, the transition to a secular state was impressively quiet. After the 15th-century crusades and expulsion of the Jews; after the 16 th-century Inquisition, Christianization with the sword in South America and the Philippines, and nerving of the Vatican's Counter-Reformation by ''the Most Catholic Kings'' of Spain; after the 19th-century liberal revolts, church burnings, and Catholic restoration; after the 1930s civil war that saw 7,000 clerics murdered and the 35-year Franco dictatorship that invoked the crusades - the democratic Constitution of 1978 came as anticlimax. No state religion
It said succinctly, ''There shall be no state religion. The public authorities shall take the religious beliefs of Spanish society into account and shall maintain consequent relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and other confessions.''
Fully as significant as the novel absence of a state religion in Spain is acceptance of this fact by the Roman Catholic Church. Some Spanish bishops opposed the shift in those shaky first years after Franco's death in 1975. But they were overruled by the other bishops -and by that remarkable Spanish primate from 1971 to 1983, Vicente Cardinal Enrique y Tarancon. When the Constitution came into effect in 1978, it was by consensus.
Six years and one abortive coup later, there is greater confidence in the basic democratic stability of Spain - but less unanimity about the precise application of that ''taking into account'' of ''the religious beliefs of Spanish society.'' Yet the debates that fill the newspaper columns and the interminable TV discussion programs today stay well within the bounds of democratic disagreement - and this is no small feat for Spain.
This suggests the passions belatedly loosed on Spain by the Enlightenment may finally be a spent force. The country has become, as Spaniards say, ''Europeanized.'' The privatization of religion that evolved in Northern Europe in the 17th century has at last arrived in Spain.
The church and the Socialist Party that were mortal enemies for a century have thus entered an unfamiliar world they no longer perceive as black and white , right and wrong, but as gray - with multiple actors making those ambiguous choices between lesser evils and greater goods that constitute politics in a tolerant, pluralist democracy.
This novel competitive ordering of priorities is frequently disconcerting. The consensus in Spanish civil society (though not in the church) would probably be that the Socialists have adjusted better than the Catholic Church - but that the church too has adjusted remarkably well, given its history and habits.
Reyes Mate, chief planner in the Education Ministry and former church reporter for the daily El Pais, describes the church's difficulties in accommodating itself to ''religion in a democratic context where the religion does not expressly have power except the power given by moral authority.'' He believes that ''the majority within the Episcopal Conference ... accept democracy more or less. But they hoped democracy would do them more favors. They feel democracy has put into motion something not foreseen by them: a process of laicization. And they feel this very negatively because they feel every day that they have less social impact.''
A government civil servant who asks not to be named points too to the disorienting subtlety of the problems that face the church and Spain today. ''A few years ago the questions were so clear-cut that the answers were clear-cut: Are you for or against democracy? Are you for or against a state religion?
''Now the questions are more practical. It's not a question of whether you are in favor of freedom of education or not. It's a question: Do you think this particular law is more in favor of freedom of education or not?''
In Spain in 1984, then, the gropings of a disestablished church for a new role are best measured not, as in Italy, in divorce and abortion laws, or in the hierarchy's ties to a Catholic political party. They are measured instead in the tricky answers to several current questions: Is Spain still a Catholic country? What are the hierarchy's relations with the ruling party? And, concretely, will the new education law really provide the best mix of public and parochial schools for Spain?
On the most literal level the popular contemporary query, ''Is Spain a Roman Catholic country?'' is easy to answer. Fr. Jose Martin Patino, current vicar of Madrid and chief adviser to Cardinal Enrique y Tarancon when he was primate, notes, ''According to polls made of European moral values and beliefs, Spain still has the highest rate of (Catholic adherence). Above Spain there is only Ireland, which is a very special case. You have between 22 and 30 percent practicing Catholics going to mass here every single Sunday.'' Dramatic secularization
Yet there is no denying that Spanish politics and society have become dramatically secularized in the past generation. And this is deeply disturbing to many Catholics, clergy and laymen alike.
For writer Miguel de Unamuno any question at all about Spain's Catholicism would in itself have been blasphemy. He lived until 1936, and yet the Spain of his lyrical descriptions was a proud anachronism. Its Catholicism was synonymous with Spanishness. It had kept itself free from all the liberalism, industrialization, and ideological influence of Northern Europe. The Catholic culture, which in many ways defined the character of Spaniards much more profoundly than that of Italians, still constituted Spain's rightful identity for Unamuno.
For La Vanguardia columnist Ramon Pi the Spain depicted by Unamuno is still the real one. ''Spain is a traditional Catholic country in social habits,'' he muses. ''It is quite possible we will lose this way of life - if we have not lost it already.'' He fears that the Socialists' reforming zeal for abortion and public education will ''anesthetize social sensibility'' and give many Spaniards the feeling of ''underground persecution against Catholics.''
Some other Catholics are less gloomy. Many young priests and lay groups of Catholic workers, students, and youths were relieved to see the hierarchy shake off the past (in the form of Francisco Franco) and come into the 20th century.
These younger priests, strongly influenced by postwar social activism among Catholic clergy and laity in Northern Europe - and repelled by the Spanish church's collusion with Franco - began organizing young Spanish workers and other lay Catholic groups in the late 1950s. They ran into opposition by the old-guard Spanish hierarchy, but they persisted in their efforts. They were only a minority of perhaps 20 percent, estimates ABC newspaper columnist Msgr. Jose Luis Martin Descalzo, but they represented the first stirrings of ''pluralism'' (as distinct from personal factionalism) within the Spanish church.
The Second Vatican Council came at just the right time to justify the Spanish reformers.
Outside the Catholic Church Vatican II even stimulated legalization of Protestant churches in Spain. The previous, sometimes violent, persecution of Protestants under Franco was ended. In 1967 several Protestant denominations were allowed to hold public worship for the first time.
Under the 1978 Constitution all registered religions may now own property, and Protestant churches are no longer taxed more heavily than the Catholic Church. Government officials expect state agreements to be signed in the future with Evangelical, Jewish, and Adventist groups, on the pattern of the agreement signed with Spain's Catholic Church in 1979. The government will not finance other churches as it does the Catholic Church, however, in paying for parish priests, church maintenance, and the extensive parochial school system. Liberalizing effect continued
Within the Spanish Catholic Church Vatican II continued to have a liberalizing effect, even after the passing of Pope John XXIII. Pope Paul VI perpetuated the Vatican council's impact on Spain by naming as the new primate a man who would sympathize with the activist, anti-Franco priests but would at the same time bridge what could have been a serious split within the church.
Cardinal Enrique y Tarancon had lived through the horrors of the civil war, Spain's fourth in a bloody century. He was resolved that Spaniard should never kill Spaniard again. Beyond this, he had an understanding for the social upheavals of the 1960s when Spain's very late industrialization lured peasants to the cities, foreign tourists to the beaches, and Spanish guestworkers to the sophisticated cities of Northern Europe.
With a very un-Spanish gift for compromise Cardinal Enrique y Tarancon engineered the change of generation among Spanish bishops. With an indifference to present power and a shrewd eye on the future he distanced the hierarchy from Franco in the last years of the dictator. In 1971 a combined assembly of bishops and priests dissociated the church from active involvement in politics. Then in 1975, on the inauguration of King Juan Carlos, Cardinal Enrique y Tarancon pointedly engaged the church in the democratic process and said that Juan Carlos must be king of all Spaniards, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In 1978 the Constitution then superceded Franco's old Concordat and Catholicism was no longer designated the state religion.
No doubt the majority of Catholics felt more at home in the main conservative party once politics opened up after Franco's death. But Cardinal Enrique y Tarancon, determined that the church should not again get burned by political association with a single party, explicitly opposed formation of any Catholic party on the Italian or West German pattern.
With freedom of individual conscience quite a few of the activist young priests joined the Socialist Party as soon as it became legal - and helped shape it as a moderate Social Democratic Party rather than a dogmatic Marxist one. Today some 40 percent of the members of the Socialist Party are Catholics. By now the hierarchy itself is shaping up, in the judgment of Fr. Patino, as ''generally center moderate.'' He describes the church's concept of relations with the state as not ''almost total separation of church and state on the French model'' but ''the system under the Spanish Constitution of collaboration and autonomy between church and state.'' He calculates that some 10 of the bishops in the Episcopal Conference are reactionary-conservative, the other 70 moderate. Political laissez faire
On a number of issues the post-Franco episcopal consensus has pointed to political laissez faire. The bishops expressed their totally negative views on both the divorce law (passed under the Conservative government a few years after Franco's death) and the very limited decriminalization of abortion (passed by the present Socialist majority late last year and applying only to cases of rape or risk to the health of mother or baby). But they left the brunt of the battle to lay Catholic organizations - and they continue to do so on today's hot issues of television and education.
The resulting stance of the church on current issues often seems wishy-washy to the many Catholics who are used to turning to the church for guidance in political judgments. Some of the activists in the movement opposing the new school legislation complain that the bishops have never shown up for any of their demonstrations. And laymen distressed by the state television's negative portrayal of the church in recent historical sketches (with one documentary clip showing a priest giving a fascist salute to Franco) are disquieted by the hierarchy's failure to protest vigorously against TV treatment of the church.
Ramon Pi articulates this concern: ''I think the most alarming thing in Spanish Catholicism is the confusion in the head. We do not know who our shepherd is, and we don't know what our shepherd wants.... Modern life is not Catholic, not religious at all. This is the social atmosphere in Spain.'' He blames ''the indecision of the Spanish hierarchy,'' and he concludes, ''the Spanish sheep only need good shepherds.''
Not surprisingly, the Socialists tend to regard Catholics as being rather more active in political issues than Catholics think they are - especially in the education controversy.
On coming into government the Socialists yielded to Catholic views in toning down their party program's call for a predominantly public school system. Over the months they further increased the guaranteed subsidies they would continue giving to private (basically Catholic) schools. And they lowered their target of full ''self-government'' of schools through new councils of administrators, parents, teachers, and pupils to a more modest goal of ''democratizing'' checks on what till now has been the virtual sovereign authority of school ''owners.''
Despite these concessions the Socialists still incur the mistrust of many bishops and the very strong opposition of the Spanish Federation of Clergy in Education (FERE) and lay parents organizations. When the education law was passed last spring, FERE was quoted in the Spanish press as comparing it with such evils as drugs, abortion, divorce, anticlerical hostility, laicization, and agnosticism.
The education controversy here, unlike the controversy in Italy, has nothing to do with the elective nature of religious instruction. Schoolchildren have been able to get exemption from this teaching since shortly after Vatican II, but enrollment hasn't dropped sharply. Some 96 percent of primary and secondary pupils still choose to take religious instruction, according to the educational commission of the Episcopal Conference. State standards set
What is at issue in the new schools law, according to Bishop Elias Yanes, chairman of the episcopate's education commission, is ''freedom of education.'' ''We haven't asked for privileges, but for equal conditions so that parents can choose freely between private and public schools.''
Santiago Martin Jimenez, secretary-general of FERE and a Jesuit father, adds that what is at stake is the autonomy of administration of private schools. The new law, instead of leaving such things to each school administration, sets state standards for teachers (and their inspectors); establishes the new ''democratizing'' councils for each school and empowers them to select the principal; and requires schools to admit a certain number of pupils who are disadvantaged or who live nearby. In addition, it guarantees an instructor's right to teach as he sees fit without outside interference - and provides for direct payment of teachers' salaries by government subsidies (instead of paying each school, which then paid the teachers).
Together these regulations, in the view of Fr. Martin Jimenez, ''take away the framework for truly Christian centers (schools).'' He believes that ''in the short run nothing much'' will change under the new law. ''But in the long run the Christian character will deteriorate because of the lack of a legal framework,'' allowing proprietors to run their schools as they wish.
On these grounds FERE and others have appealed the law to the constitutional court - following the pattern of Catholics who are similarly challenging the constitutionality of the abortion law.
More broadly, what is at issue in the school controversy is the whole hoary question of Catholic control of education. Ever since the Napoleonic wars smothered the incipient Enlightenment in Spain in the early 19th century, education has been a bone of contention between anticlerical liberals and Catholic traditionalists. The final defeat of the liberals in the 1870s guaranteed that Spain missed the educational revolution that followed the Enlightenment and industrialization in Northern Europe. The Jesuits and some other religious orders started numerous schools in the mid-19th century, and by default these schools held a monopoly for decades. The church got used to thinking of education not only as its service to Spain but also as its own prerogative.
In the 1930s the short-lived Spanish republic established a lay school system as one of its top priorities. Franco then purged all these teachers as one of his top priorities and rewarded the church for its political support by essentially returning education to the Catholic orders. Government subsidies to these private schools first began in the 1970s as the number of priests and nuns willing to teach gratis dropped and the demand for education increased among the expanding middle class. Not until 1970 was legislation passed extending universal compulsory free education through the age of 14.
Still, the existing network of public and parochial schools combined is inadequate, especially in the poorer outskirts of Madrid and in small, remote villages. Between 36 and 37 percent of all pupils currently attend private (primarily Catholic) schools, with the figure rising to some 50 percent at the secondary level. Clearly the education controversy will simmer for years to come. And, in Spain, a less public issue in church-state affairs will also simmer for some years to come: the role of Opus Dei.
This Catholic order operated both overtly and covertly in the latter years of the Franco regime. Its public contribution is summarized by a Spanish journalist as bringing the Protestant work ethic to Spain.
Opus Dei spokesman Luis Gordon declines the Protestant label and instead describes the order's concept of achieving holiness through work as a revival of original Christian concepts. Whatever the inspiration, Opus Dei technocrats were instrumental in Spain's economic boom and modernization of the 1960s. Opus Dei members are still the leading businessmen in banking and some other economic sectors.
Beyond the open role, however, there has been a more mysterious role played by secret Opus Dei members in politics. In the late Franco years Opus Dei is widely thought to have worked toward liberalization of the system. Today both the liberal public wing and the behind-the-scenes conservative wing survive, but the conservatives are generally regarded as dominant, especially since the succession of the order's leadership to Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo y Diez de Sollano in 1975.
Just how far the conservative influence of Opus Dei extends now is a matter of dispute. Certainly with Socialist ministers of justice and education the old Opus Dei networks in these ministries have been weakened. On the other hand, the general prestige of Opus Dei has clearly risen since Pope John Paul II elevated it to a personal papal prelature in 1982 - as a check against too great liberalization within the church, a number of Spaniards say. In Madrid the general opinion seems to be that Opus Dei is a lot less powerful in these fledgling years of pluralism than it was in the closing years of dictatorship.
So in the end what is the balance sheet on six years of a disestablished church in a newly democratic Spain? Has the century-and-a-half old conflict between clerical and anticlerical militants finally been resolved?
Yes, thinks Fr. Martin Descalzo. But he notes a variety of opinions on the subject among Catholics: ''Many Spaniards will say they are being persecuted as in Poland. Others feel that they are in heaven already.''
Fr. Patino spells out this ambivalence a little more fully: ''You do have this contradiction in Spain. Although you have all these practicing Catholics, you have more anticlericalism - or if you wish, the desire for modernity, the wish to modernize institutions....
''There will be some anticlericalism for some years.... But there is also a new type of state anticlericalism trying to take away the social influence of the church. The Socialist government is trying to do everything so that in Spanish society there is no other influence but a political one - not economic nor professional nor military nor the church.''
Enrique Miret Magdalena, head of the government council for minors, professor of theology, and founder of the YMCA in Spain, agrees that there is a new type of anticlericalism - but finds this all to the good. Unlike many Spaniards he distinguishes between anticlerical and antireligious positions; as a Catholic who opposes ''obsolete'' attitudes and ''lack of vision'' in his church, he himself approves the ''nonviolent'' and ''moderate but firm'' anticlericalism.
Bishop Yanes, more reserved, concludes: ''I feel that we are on the right path toward a solution. Not in the sense that the tensions will disappear but in the sense that they don't constitute a danger of a new civil war. However, there is still much to be done in the way of mutual respect for others' convictions.... The non-confessionality of the state does not mean non-confessionality of the society - and this is what some (people) forget.''