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FOCUS: How Catholic are people in Spain nowadays?

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
FOCUS: How Catholic are people in Spain nowadays?
Despite the decline of formal, practicing Catholicism in Spain, many Spaniards still describe themselves as Catholic and some of Spain's most famous festivals and tourist attractions are based on its Catholic heritage. Photo: Pixabay.

Spain is thought of as a Catholic country and known for its famous 'Semana Santa' procession and a whole host of other Catholic traditions. The Local considers how Catholic Spaniards actually are nowadays, and the extent to which the once devout country has become an example of 'cultural Catholicism'.


Whether it be Seville's world renowned Semana Santa celebrations, or the abundance of street names named after famous Bishops and Priests, or even the occasional nun you see walking down the street, Spain, along with perhaps Italy, Ireland, Brazil and Mexico, is a considered one of the world's 'Catholic' countries.

Or rather, it used to be. Over the years, Spain's Catholicism has declined more and more.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Semana Santa in Seville

In May 1978, 90.5 percent of Spaniards described themselves as Catholic. By October 2021, however, that figure had fallen to 55.4 percent, according to the CIS, Spain's sociological research centre.


Spain's Catholicism is changing, and has been steadily falling for many years. But what do the numbers say?

Can Spain really still be considered a Catholic country? Are Spaniards still practicing Catholics going to Mass (La Misa) or are they now more 'cultural Catholics'?

The numbers

As stated above, in the 43 years that the CIS has been tracking Spaniard's religious beliefs, the percentage of people who define themselves as Catholics has plummeted from 90.5 percent in 1978 to just 55.4 percent in 2021 - a fall of around 35 percent and the lowest figure in history, according CIS data.

Breaking down that figure, of the respondents who described themselves as Catholic, just 17.5 percent said they were 'practicing' and 37.9 percent were 'non-practicing'.

Asked how often they attended Mass for 'non-social occasions', in other words excluding baptisms, first communions, weddings, and funerals, 33.8 percent said they 'never' went to Mass, 19.7 percent said 'almost never', 21.2 percent said a 'few times a year', 13.1 percent said 'every Sunday and public holiday,' and 4.6 percent of respondents said they go 'several times a week,' something now that is now almost certainly a custom of the older generations.

READ ALSO: GALLERY: This is how Easter was celebrated across Spain

Equally, during that period the number of people who self-describe as 'non-believers' (whether atheist, agnostic, or indifferent) has increased fivefold from 7.6 percent to 39.9 percent. Of that, 12.9 percent were agnostic and 15.5 percent atheist.

The number of religious people in Spain who follow a religion besides Catholicism has risen slightly, from 0.6 percent in 1978 to 3.2 percent in 2021, but remains very low.

Interestingly, it seems the rate at which Spain's Catholicism is falling is speeding up, with the number decreasing faster than ever in recent years. According to the CIS, the biggest drop between two consecutive months was between March and April 2020: from 66.8 percent to 61.2 percent.


Demographic breakdown

Interestingly, according to the figures it seems that the decline in Catholicism is not evenly distributed across different demographic groups. Generally speaking, Spanish women have always been more likely to identify as Catholic than men. In February 1990, the first time the CIS began logging the data by gender, 92.1 percent of women said they were Catholic, 9.7 percentage points more than men.

Overall, though, the number of Catholics is falling among both men and women. In the October 2021 survey, 50.4 percent of men said they were Catholic compared with 61 percent of women, a very similar gap to back in 1990.

However, the over decline is almost identical: the number of Spanish women who are Catholic is 31.1 percent lower than 1990, and for men the drop was 32 percent.

By age group, it has always been the case that the younger generations are less likely to be Catholic. The 18-24 age range, however, is also the demographic group with the biggest decline: from 78.1 percent in February 1990 to just 28.2 percent in October 2021, a 49.9 percent drop in 31 years.

Equally, in 1990 all age groups surveyed had over 70 percent of respondents identifying as Catholic. By 2021, the only group that remained above the 70 percent threshold was the 65+ group.

Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, we can also track Catholicism by political ideology. 53.5 percent of PSOE voters, generally considered centre-left, identify as Catholic.

Just 19.2 percent of far-left Podemos voters identify as Catholic, however, whereas on the right Catholic identity has remained much stronger: 84.9 percent of PP voters and 77.0 percent of far-right Vox voters.


Cultural Catholicism?

So, it seems clear that over time Spain has become less and less traditionally Catholic. Less people (of all ages) describe themselves as Catholic and regularly go to Mass, while atheism and agnosticism are on the rise.

Of the 55.4 percent of people who identified as Catholic in 2021, just 17.5 percent said they regularly go to Mass. 37.9 percent, in fact, said they were Catholic but were non-practising.

Despite the decline of formal, practicing Catholicism in Spain, many Spaniards still describe themselves as Catholic and some of Spain's most famous festivals and tourist attractions are based on its Catholic heritage. Despite this decline in devoutness, Seville's Semana Santa is still an enormous event, as are Holy Week festivos across the country, and Spain is generally considered a Catholic country.

How can this be?

To this writer, at least, it seems that modern Spain is a country that still maintains a strong sense of 'cultural Catholicism'; that is to say, less and less people are believers or go to Mass but would likely still describe themselves as Catholic and adhere to the cultural traditions of being baptised, doing their first communion, confession, confirmation, and so on, and then maintain a more 'social' relationship with the church by attending Catholic weddings, funerals, and baptisms but little else.

If you live in Spain, you'll likely have seen what a huge deal first communion is for a Spanish family, for example, despite it being statistically likely that nobody in the family is a practicing Catholic or perhaps even a believer - beyond the grandparents, of course. 

Contradictory though this may sound, for anyone who grew up with an Irish granny or Italian nonna, the concept of a 'Catholic atheist' won't sound so strange at all.


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