Although the religious situation in Palmar de Troya was very weak before the first apparitions in 1968, it was not extreme (For a study of the early apparitions). In many rural parts of southern Spain, the share of Catholics who practiced their faith by going to church regularly was low. Only a small minority fulfilled the church’s precepts: confessing and taking communion at least once a year. Priests were rare guests and, due to their working conditions, day laborers had few possibilities to attend religious services.
From the 1940s onwards, there were attempts to catechize rural inhabitants in Andalusia and other regions through popular missions as the clergy claimed that most inhabitants were only nominal Catholics with deficient knowledge of the church’s teachings. The great majority’s religious practice was almost reduced to the rites of passage: baptism, marriage and burial. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, sociologists made studies of religious beliefs and activities in Spain. They found that in Andalusia, about one fifth of the Catholics attended mass on a regular basis, but among the rural workers, only seven percent were active churchgoers and anticlericalism was very common.
Francisco Franco’s (1892-1975; r. 1939-1975) Spain is often looked upon as a very religious society, where the so-called National Catholicism was a dominant ideology, implying that church and state were closely intertwined. The Generalissimo was the country’s leader for almost four decades. He successfully assumed power during the Civil War (1936-1939), which the nationalists described as a crusade against the anticlerical Second Republic, communism and freemasonry. Many clerics were killed by republicans during the war: 13 bishops, 4,184 diocesan priests, 2,365 male religious and 283 nuns, and in several areas dominated by the Second Republic, the church had to go underground and priests went into hiding. The Catholic hierarchy, including the Vatican, drew parallels between the situation in Spain and the religious persecution in Mexico and the Soviet Union.
After their victory in 1939, the nationalist regime wanted to strengthen Catholicism’s role in society. They wished to “re-Christianize” Spain. Not surprisingly, the official church celebrated the end of the Second Republic. Franco now defined Spain as a totalitarian state, which can be described as an autocratic dictatorship. He referred to himself as Head of State, Generalissimo or El Caudillo (The Leader; thus mimicking Der Führer and Il Duce). After the end of the war, numerous groups of political opponents were executed, put to forced labor, or imprisoned in concentration camps; others were forced into exile. Franco consistently opposed any kind of regional independence, by counteracting languages such as Catalan, Galician and Basque; strengthening the central power; and making Castilian the only acceptable language. Though influenced by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, Spain officially remained neutral in World War II.
In the “organic laws” (i.e. constitution) of the Franco era, Spain was declared a confessional Catholic state, and following a long discussion, a concordat with the Holy See was signed in 1953. Religious minorities, such as Protestant communities, were actively, and during periods even violently, repressed as they were not allowed to show any public manifestations of their faith. A law that guaranteed some freedom of religion for minorities was not issued until 1967, following the Second Vatican Council. It is safe to say that this development was not welcomed by the Caudillo. Freemasons were regarded as a particularly serious threat to society and religion, and a special Tribunal for the Suppression of Freemasonry was founded in 1941.
In the nationalist rhetoric, Spain was a providential nation, being a faithful Catholic bulwark against liberalism and communism, under the strong leadership of its great Caudillo. His longevity as a leader had much to do with his ability to balance different rightist groups: conservatives, authoritarian monarchists, Carlists and members of the Fascist Falange.
During the Franco years, the Catholic church had many privileges and much influence. Its hierarchy took part in many official ceremonies, and the state contributed to the salaries of the clergy and other ecclesiastical expenses. Catholicism had a great power over the school system, and ecclesiastics were given a prominent role in the state censorship of printed texts and movies. Many clerics were pleased with the situation. Nevertheless, the marriage between state and church was not always a harmonious one. The church hierarchy’s support of the Caudillo was not unanimous or consistently enthusiastic, and there was a clear element of power struggle. Many higher ecclesiastics thought that Franco had too great religious influence and threatened the “Liberty of the Church.” In the 1940s, the Vatican opposed the idea that all bishops should swear an oath of loyalty to the Caudillo, and many Spanish bishops were cautious about influence of the fascist Falange, whose corporatist ideology they thought would diminish the church’s influence.
Particularly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), a growing number of Spanish bishops became more critical of the regime, and as part of the same development, the state turned more anticlerical. Not that all bishops wanted a democratic society, but they thought that Franco was unsuitable to lead a modern state. They wanted someone more competent, who could deal with the major societal problems, but not necessarily a radical change of the political system. In the later part of Franco’s rule, a number of so-called technocrats, who were members of Opus Dei, had substantial influence over the politics and economy, several being ministers. Despite its relatively small membership, Opus Dei thus had a powerful role in Spain from the late 1950s onwards, contributing to the economic development of the country. Still many Spanish people remained very poor.
The episcopal opposition against Franco in the 1960s was led by the president of the Bishops Conference, Cardinal Vicente Enrique y Tarancón, while some bishops continued to laud Franco until the end, or at least remained loyal to him. Many younger ecclesiastics increasingly criticized the regime for abuses against civil rights and supported greater independence for regions, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country. A special prison for “rebellious priests” was opened towards the end of the 1960s. Still, many priests clearly sided with the Generalissimo until his death, including the 6,000 members of the Hermandad Sacerdotal del Clero. (For a very good analysis of the twentieth-century Catholic church in Spain, see Callahan 2000. On Vatican II, see O’Malley 2010 and for the Spanish bishops’ role there, cf. Laboa 2005. For a good and very comprehensive biography on Francisco Franco, see Preston 1994).