Hundreds of thousands gathered in Madrid's summer heat Saturday to protest gay marriage which the Spanish parliament is expected to legalize on June 30th. But among the young parents pushing baby strollers, elderly couples holding hands, and teenagers dancing to loud music, one group stood out. Nineteen of the country's bishops - dressed in black shirts and suit jackets - participated for the first time in Spain's democratic history in a demonstration against a government initiative.
Although organized by the secular Spanish Forum for the Family, the march received public support from the country's Episcopal Conference, a body that oversees Spain's Roman Catholic Church. Several of the conference's member bishops provided transportation for their dioceses and marched in the protest. The bishops' participation has sharpened the debate here over the church's role in national politics.
Demonstration supporters say that the protest was not ultimately about politics. "The march has political content," says Ignacio Arsuaga, spokesman for the Family Forum, "because we are responding to a government attack, because we want the government to listen to us. But it is a social and civic act."
Organizers say they aren't against gay civil unions, including the right to tax breaks and pensions. But they don't support gay adoption rights or moves to redefine matrimony, which they see as a religious sacrament between a man and a woman. If the law passes, Spain will become the second European country to legalize both gay marriage and the adoption of children by gay couples. The Netherlands was the first in 2001.
The Episcopal Conference's spokesman, Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, says "This is about human rights - not politics." Yet Mr. Martínez, who declared last fall that the Catholic Church "never has, nor will it now, organize political demonstrations," added, "Of course, we're happy that there are parties that agree with us."
Critics say the bishops' participation crosses a line. "The position of the church is that like anyone else, it has the right to express its opinion publicly," says Carlos Garcia Andoín, head of the Christian Socialists and a former functionary for the Diocese of Bilbao. "But the fact is that with this support for the demonstration, the Episcopal Conference is making a qualitative leap into the political arena. It establishes an alliance between the [conservative] Popular Party and the church."
José Maria Martín Patino, a Jesuit priest and president of the Encounter Foundation, an organization dedicated to dialogue between secular and religious communities, agrees. "They hope with this demonstration to win votes for the Popular Party."
For Spaniards who remember with discomfort 40 years of mutual support between the Catholic Church and Francisco Franco's dictatorship, this latest alliance is troubling. Beatriz Gimeno, president of the State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, and Transsexuals, said that the bishops' participation signals "a return to National Catholicism."
Even many practicing Catholics have questioned the church's involvement in politics. Enrique Miret, former president of the John XXXIII Association of Theologians, says that his group does not agree with the Episcopal Conference's support of the demonstration. "They should not be getting involved in questions of civil law," he says. "That's what parliament is for."
At a time when the ecclesiastical hierarchy feels besieged by a Socialist Party government that is relaxing divorce laws and restrictions on abortion, and legalizing stem-cell research - the Conference says that the only goal is to defend marriage.
Still, some observers say that the bishops' participation in the rally is intended to strengthen the church's hand: On Wednesday, Conference officials will renegotiate the package of subsidies - up to one-third of the church's budget - that the church gets from the government.
Like most at the rally, however, Carmen Esteban - who came from Valladolid with four friends to attend Saturday's rally- is untroubled by the bishops' participation. "I'm in favor of them being here," she said. "It's the right time for them to do it."