Following last night’s documentary on BBC2: This World, Spain’s Stolen Babies, the obligatory anti-Catholic meme is spreading like wildfire across the net, perpetuated with glee by Richard Dawkins on his website.
Here’s the gist – under Franco, the Catholic Church formulated a plan in which the aim was to make as much money as possible by stealing newborn babies from unmarried couples, pretending to mothers that their newborn babies had died whilst secretly selling them on to suitable couples. The Catholic Church can now add this to its charge-sheet of heinous crimes. Further proof that we are wicked evil and corrupt organisation, far removed from the teachings of Christ and an organisation that must be stripped of any remaining credence and power. Don’t believe those evil Catholics, look, they are BABY TRAFFICKERS and this was obviously all sanctioned and secretly hidden by Pope Benedict himself.
If Johann Hari was not currently enjoying his rehabilitation, he would be spasming in paroxysms of outrage and sympathy. “Walking through the backstreets of Madrid, the repression of Catholicism still hangs heavily in the air, the spires of cathedral dominating the skyline. I meet Maria, the cares of the past fifty years and the pain of loss etched into every deep furrow on her face. One minute she was in the confessional, the next her baby had disappeared through an invisible trapdoor, never to be seen again. She grips my hand tightly, draws heavily on her cigarette and directs the power of her soulful dark gaze upon me.” One can only imagine the write-by-numbers Hari verbiage.
Of course, I do not mean to detract from, or make fun of the genuine loss and pain of the women who had their babies taken from them. There are no words adequate to convey my sympathy or express consolation and if this was done in the name of the Catholic Church or in the name of Christ, I am truly sorry. I would like to note a few thoughts, I am hoping that a historian or apologist of gravitas investigates this further, but here’s what occurs to me.
Katya Adler, the BBC reporter, has form when it comes to religious bias, equating Jeruslaem’s rabbis with Islamic Jihadi fanatics and orthodox Judaism as extreme, right-wing and aggressive. Secondly, this is not a new story. Both Time magazine and the New York Times ran the story back in March and July, which gave some interesting history/background that seemed to indicate that the numbers, whilst shocking, did not amount to 300,000 which is sensationalised speculation. A Business Insider report from a few weeks ago states that the current number is in its thousands, not hundreds of thousands, as estimated by the programme. If you do the maths, 300,000 babies stolen over 50 years, amounts to over 100 a week, which requires a stretch of the imagination. If the practice was as common as this, surely it would have come to light sooner?
“Attorney General Candido Conde-Pumpido announced on June 18 that 849 cases were being examined, adding that 162 could already be classified as criminal proceedings because of evidence pointing to abudctions”.
Whether one baby or thousands of babies, it is nonetheless shocking and painful and not a practice anyone would seek to defend, however it is important to consider the period in history in which this occurred. We tend to judge the culture of previous times, by today’s social mores; what needs to be remembered is that the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath was a time of social upheaval and repression. Single mothers were socially unacceptable in the same way that they were throughout the rest of European society in the post-war era, and no social welfare would have been available. Inconceivable though it is, by today’s standards, those responsible for removing the babies and placing them with “suitable couples” may well have believed that they were doing a work of great charity or mercy. The mothers were told that their baby had died, presumably those involved thought it was kinder to let the mother think that her child had died, rather than live with the pain of separation and genuinely thought that it was in the baby’s best interests to be be placed with those in a better position to be able to bring up a baby. The children were not, as under some regimes, forcibly aborted.
Whilst not defending those actions, it was commensurate with the spirit of the age and a feature of society following a period of military upheaval. Argentina is facing a similar glut of claims. Where Catholicism comes into the mix is that Franco’s brand of ultra right wing nationalism relied heavily upon “traditional” Spanish or family values, which dovetailed with the Catholic teachings on family. In Franco’s mind Catholicism was an essential part of his vision, therefore the local Catholic church in Spain often became an unofficial arm of Franco’s state. That’s not to say that all of the Catholic Church in Spain supported Franco, on the contrary, some members of the priesthood did make a stand against fascism, but they didn’t stand much of a chance against the state and were in a minority. If nothing else, salutary lessons may be learned from what happens in a society where Church and State are too close, in Franco’s Spain, the relationship was distinctly too close for comfort and unhealthy in nature.
The truth is, as ever, somewhat more nuanced than the sensationalist headlines suggest. The Vatican was not complicit in a great conspiracy to profit from baby trading, or baby snatching. Any money that was raised from this practice, in all likelihood would have gone back into various social causes, or supporting a fund directed towards the welfare of the mothers and the adoptees, as opposed to being siphoned off into some secret slush fund. It’s likely that this practice was localised as opposed to a nationwide conspiracy, and had as much to do with Franco’s regime as some secret Vatican plan.
As the New York Times notes: a few nuns have confessed to selling children, but without suggesting that they were part of a criminal network.
Though I am a Catholic, I am something of a natural sceptic, in common with Dawkins. As a sceptic, I thought the point was to focus on proven details, not sensationalised beliefs in the possible. The notion that the Catholic Church deliberately stole and profited from the sale of 300,000 babies is certainly the later.