Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Martyrs of Spain's Civil War

by Wlodzimierz Redzioch


In this interview with Wlodzimierz Redzioch, Msgr. Vicente Carcel Orti, a Spanish historian who worked for the Curia, examines various aspects of the persecution of the Church in Spain during the 1930s, during which thousands were martyred for not renouncing their faith. Among other things, Msgr. Orti discusses the political and ideological context of the persecution, the involvement of the Freemasons, the Church's relationship with Franco and the Republican government, as well as the beatification of the Spanish martyrs.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican


44 – 47

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, December 2007

Fifty thousand Spanish people attended the beatification ceremony of 498 martyrs, victims of religious persecution in 1930's Spain. These 498 people were killed only for their faith in Jesus Christ and their ideals, their killing being part of the anti-Catholic plan of the Republican government in power since 1931. The figures of this persecution are impressive: 13 bishops, 4,154 priests and seminarians, 2,365 religious, 283 nuns and about 4,000 laymen killed for helping or hiding nuns or priests.

As Monsignor Vicente Carcel Orti, the Spanish historian who has been living in Rome for forty years and who worked for the Curia, points out, the Spanish Church did not seek any confrontation with the Republic, but was persecuted in spite of her neutrality. The government persecuted the Church in legislative terms, while Republican extremists used violence against people and things. Anti-clerical violence was unleashed by Freemasons and Communists. Persecution started long before the civil war. According to Monsignor Carcel Orti, the shameful history of the Spanish Republic, a puppet in the hands of the Stalinist regime, has been concealed on account of its follow-up: the long winter of Franco's dictatorship has, in a way, justified a distorted and mythicized reading of those tragic years.

This long interview with the Spanish historian is meant to throw light on this dramatic period in the history of the Spanish Church in order to achieve a better understanding of what is going on in present-day Spain.

Twentieth-century Spain was a nation of martyrs. What was the political and ideological context in which the persecution of the Church and the martyrdom of believers occurred?

MONSIGNOR VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: It was a slow process which began with a great anticlerical movement in the 19th century. In 19th century Spain the Church was closely linked to the monarchy by means of concordats. Catholicism was, in practice, the state religion, like the Orthodox religion in Greece and Romania and Anglicanism in England. In the 1920's King Alphonse XIII handed power over to Primo de Rivera, who set up a military dictatorship (we are talking about the age of dictatorships: there was Mussolini in Italy, Stalin in Russia and Hitler in Germany). The military regime, on the one hand, dissolved parliament, trade unions and political parties; on the other hand it ushered in a period of security and economic growth, through public works amongst other things. Unfortunately economic growth came to a sudden halt with the 1929 world crisis. The following year the Republicans won the municipal elections. Thus General Primo de Rivera relinquished his power while the king left the country, though without abdicating. It was under these circumstances that the Republicans seized power on April 14th, 1931, and proclaimed the Republic.

Why did the Republic persecute the Church and Catholic believers?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: The Republicans had built up so much hatred for the monarchy and everything relating to it, the Church included, that, once they seized power, they began to hit their enemies. Their first and easiest target was the Church, being defenseless. The new regime made laws against the Church; in the meantime anarchists, socialists and Communists began to use violence against people and things.

What was the role of Freemasonry in this anti-Catholic campaign?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: Freemasonry played a key role in the anti-Catholic campaign since Freemasons were present in political institutions, in the government and the "Cortes" (the Spanish parliament), where they had at least 183 deputies. Spanish Freemasonry therefore played a major role in the making of anti-Catholic laws and in the defamatory campaign against the Church.

What kind of persecution was the Church faced with from 1931 to 1936?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: As historians have ascertained, a growing number of measures against the Catholic Church and religious practice were taken between 1931 and 1936. These oppressive laws aimed at a radical and antidemocratic conception of the separation between Church and State. Numberless examples could be quoted: the Jesuits were dissolved in January 1932; in May 1933 a law against ecclesiastical property deprived the Church of all her possessions, which were handed over to civil authorities; a law was passed against the teaching of religion in schools, and the clergy was forbidden to teach. Violent persecution proper began in 1934 with the "Turon martyrs," who have already been canonized, and many other believers murdered during the Communist Revolution of the Asturias, when priests, religious and seminarians, 37 in all, were killed and 58 churches were burned. After 1936 in all the main cities, cathedrals, religious communities and parish churches were attacked, ransacked and burned. These persecutions aimed at erasing all traces of Catholic tradition in Spain. Hatred for the faith went even beyond murders and found expression in thousands of sacrilegious acts: tabernacles were emptied, consecrated particles were eaten, shot at, strewn in the streets and trodden on; churches were used as stables, altars were demolished, priests and nuns were held at gunpoint in the attempt to force them to recant their faith. Let us remember that persecutions started years before the beginning of the civil war, and the Church could be accused of supporting Franco's Falangists, referred to as "rebels."

But wasn't the Church hostile to the Republican government?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: Spanish bishops recognized the legitimate Republican government from the start. The problem, however, was that the Republican authorities had always been openly hostile to Catholics. After the events of the Asturias, in the summer of 1936, socialists, Communists and anarchists started the most violent persecution in the history of Spain, aimed at the physical elimination of the Church, of both people and things; this persecution lasted until 1939.

Could you quote any figures?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: Albeit incomplete, the figures are impressive: 18 bishops, 4,184 between priests and seminarians, 283 nuns and about 4,000 laymen were killed for helping or hiding priests or nuns. It must be emphasized that in the part of the country occupied by Franco's troops, no harm was done to the clergy nor were the churches destroyed.

Some critics of Franco say that he had 16 Basque priests executed.

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: It is true that when the nationalist troops entered Bilbao, 16 priests were shot, not because they were priests, but for political reasons with other people. I have found the documentary evidence of this along with the witness of the bishop who had asked those priests to refrain from being involved in political activities. Such political activities triggered off Franco's repression, which also involved 16 priests. When the Pope learned about this, he immediately sent a telegram to Franco, who promised that events like that would never happen again. The martyrdom of priests, however, only occurred in the "red" areas. In addition, the Republicans destroyed churches and monasteries (in my diocese, the diocese of Valencia, over 1000 churches and other sacred buildings were destroyed).

When did the beatification causes of the Spanish martyrs begin?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: At the end of the civil war in 1939, the Holy See demanded that all information about the persecution available to parishes and dioceses be collected. Once all the necessary material had been collected, bishops gradually started the diocesan phase of the beatification cases. These cases began in the 1940's and continued into the 1950's. At the end of the diocesan phase, all documents were sent to Rome for the "Roman" phase, to be held by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. Yet Paul VI stopped the cases, as he thought it would be best to wait until fifty years had passed from those dramatic events. Also, he posed a condition: Spain was to have a democratic government (the military regime was still in power in 1960's Spain). At the beginning of John Paul II's pontificate Spain was already a democracy; the Spaniards therefore asked the Pope to proceed with the beatification cases, but he did not comply with their request, since fewer than fifty years had passed since the end of the civil war. John Paul II waited until 1987 to celebrate the first beatification case of martyrs who were victims of religious persecution (three Carmelite nuns from Guadalajara). This marked the beginning of the beatifications of our martyrs. On October 18th we celebrated sixteen beatifications, raising 979 martyrs to the altars. As far as I know, the Congregation is now examining another 2000 cases so that 2000 martyrs will probably be beatified in six or seven years' time.

The Church has sometimes been accused of opening up an old sore with the beatification of the martyrs of the civil war.

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: It is a specious dispute with a strong ideological and political orientation. The victims beatified and canonized have never been referred to as "martyrs of the civil war," but victims of religious persecution; the Church has always paid tribute to martyrs of faith and always will. Civil and military institutions commemorate "soldiers killed in war" or "victims of political repression," both on the Republican and on the Nationalist sides, but this doesn't mean opening up an old sore, even though political parties sometimes clearly exploit past events.

How can these martyrs become a mark of reconciliation?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: Nowadays the word "martyr" is abused; in common speech it is used in several senses, but its original and most proper use refers to someone suffering or dying for God's sake, bearing witness to their faith, forgiving and praying for their executioners, as Jesus Christ did on the cross. Others can be called "heroes" or "victims" for various causes, sometimes questionable, but are referred to as "martyrs," since this word is abused, being extended to those suffering for somebody or something.

"Christian martyrs" have no ideological or political motivation except their faith in God and love of their neighbors. These martyrs never waged or fomented any war; they were never involved in party strife. They brought an everlasting message of peace and love, which lightens our faith and feeds our hope.

The beatification of these martyrs coincides with the Spanish Parliament's decision to commemorate the victims of Franco's regime. Who were they?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: They were people killed in the civil war and in the ensuing wave of repression. This involved the winners' ideological enemies. Franco's reaction was violent, but did not last too long. Republicans were tried, though by court-martials, and documents of these trials have come down to us.

A point must be made: those who fought for the Republic at that time did not fight for freedom or democracy, but to set up a regime like the one in power in the Soviet Union. Franco was therefore right when he said that he was making war on Communism. If he had not won, there would have been the Spanish Soviet Union.

All over the world left-wing parties have always idealized the Spanish Republicans and depicted Franco as the incarnation of evil.

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: Franco saved the Church from total destruction. Without his intervention the Church would probably have been blotted out. Yet no one knew at the time that he would become a dictator.

Franco also saved Spain from the Second World War.

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: This is another very important element. At the end of the civil war, Hitler paid a visit to Franco and asked his permission for the German army to cross Spain as far as Gibraltar (he intended to conquer North Africa and occupy the whole Mediterranean). Franco did not give his consent on the grounds that the country had been devastated by the civil war and could not afford to be involved in another conflict.

Pius XI, who was in contact with Franco, warned him against Hitler (Franco declared himself a Catholic, Hitler was a pagan).

At the end of the Second World War Franco established relations with the U.S.A. and brought his country into the U.N. Spain was recognized by all states. When certain circles demand that the Spanish Church apologize for her relations with Franco's regime, I therefore ask myself: "What do we have to apologize for? For having ten thousand martyrs?"

Such requests are made by the ideological heirs of those who persecuted the Church. They do everything to erase all memories of her martyrdom.

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: These requests are only demagogical. In addition, the Spanish Church produced a document many years ago, recognizing that mistakes had been made and forgiving her persecutors. In this document it was also pointed out that no other course of action was possible under those circumstances.

Why is the struggle against Franco still a myth to the whole of the Left, a symbol of the fight for democracy against dictatorship?

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: Most of the European Left was and is Communist. Since Franco was the only one to defeat Communists on the battlefield, these have reacted by presenting the fight of the International Brigades as the fight for freedom against dictatorship. Unfortunately Communist organizations are the most backward and the most conservative ones nowadays; they are unable to revise their past or make any self-criticism.

Socialist, Communist and Masonic parties are in power in Spain nowadays. They see the Church in the same way as the Republicans who tried to destroy her 70 years ago. Needless to say, nobody kills priests and nuns or burns religious buildings, but the Church is perceived as a hindrance to the real progress of Spain and the whole of mankind, as an institution to marginalize and reduce to silence, being the holder of a conservative vision of man, an ideological adversary. Zapatero seems to be willing to create a new world, a new man in Spain.

VICENTE CARCEL ORTI: This is typical of all left-wing totalitarian regimes. Stalin too intended to create a new man; so did Pol Pot. Freedom is at risk in Spain, as the state is trying to interfere with people's private lives, to impose a given way of life, to decide how they must bring up their children, etc. It is not enough for laws to be passed by a parliament to be right. As there is only one voice to defend man's good, attempts are being made to hush it. Yet, whilst politicians are voted into and out of power, the Church remains.

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