Spain's Catholic leaders describe same-sex marriage as a "virus"

The Catholic Church on Monday blasted Spain's Socialist government for its plans to legalize same-sex marriage, saying it would be like releasing a "virus" into Spanish society. The cabinet is expected Friday to pass a bill allowing same-sex marriages, setting predominantly Roman Catholic Spain on course to join the vanguard of largely secular northern European countries that allow gay marriage or some
version of it. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took office in April with an ambitious agenda of social reforms, such as streamlined divorce and a relaxed abortion law. The church is furious and spoke out Monday with some of its harshest words yet on one of Zapatero's boldest endeavors, gay marriage.

Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, spokesman for the Spanish Bishops Conference, said the church had nothing against gays and lesbians but felt a union of two people of the same sex is simply not a marriage. Allowing this would create "a counterfeit currency in the body of society," Martinez Camino said in an interview on Spanish National Television. Such legislation, he said, is like "imposing a virus on society, something false that will have negative consequences for social life."

After Friday's expected approval in a cabinet meeting, the bill goes to the parliament for debate. Zapatero runs a minority government but is generally supported by two small leftist parties. The government says once the bill becomes law, gays would be able to start marrying next year. That would mark a sea change for this predominantly Roman Catholic country, although church officials admit that support for the church has fallen in the generation that's come of age since the death in 1975 of Gen. Francisco Franco, whose right-wing regime was closely linked to the church.

Polls say nearly half of Spain's Catholics almost never go to Mass, and one third say they are simply not religious. A survey published Monday in the newspaper El Pais, which supports the Socialist party, said 62% of those questioned support gay marriage. Spain would thus join Belgium and the Netherlands, which have legalized gay marriage. Sweden and Denmark have civil union laws for same-sex couples, short of allowing outright gay marriage. However, in both of these countries the union can be blessed by the Lutheran Church, which is the official state religion.

Zapatero's government is going so far as to plan an overhaul of church-state relations, a reform that Deputy Justice Minister Luis Lopez Guerra last week called "a road map" to correct what he deemed "undeniable advantages" enjoyed by the Catholic Church and to guarantee that Spain will be a secular state. Many Catholic schools are subsidized by the government, for instance, and on income tax returns, Spaniards can check off a box that will send 0.5% of their tax debt to the Catholic Church.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said at a news conference last week that the government did not plan to end state financing of the church, but she acknowledged that reforms are afoot, although she gave no details. "It is true that the government is talking about laicism, and we are going to keep working toward laicism because we think it is a mandate that is included in the constitution, and that's how our state is," she told reporters.

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