For members


FOCUS: How Catholic are people in Spain nowadays?

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'.

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.

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Spain pushes Catholic Church to compensate abuse victims

Spain's left-wing government on Tuesday upped the pressure on the Catholic Church to compensate victims of sexual abuse committed on its watch.

Spain pushes Catholic Church to compensate abuse victims

Unlike in other nations, clerical abuse allegations have only recently started to gain traction in Spain, once a deeply Catholic country which has become increasingly secular.

Six months ago, a first-ever official report estimated that more than 400,000 people had suffered sexual abuse by the clergy and other lay people, proposing a compensation fund be set up — but the Church declined to participate.

“I don’t think anyone would understand if the Spanish Church did not proceed as others did in countries like Ireland, France, Belgium or the United States,” said Justice Minister Felix Bolanos, referring to nations where the Church had compensated victims.

The government, he said, had “initiated such conversations with the Catholic Church so that it would meet the cost of compensating the victims of sexual abuse committed within its ambit”.

Bolanos outlined details of a plan adopted by ministers at Tuesday’s weekly cabinet which includes recommendations laid out in an October report by a commission of independent experts working under the Spanish ombudsman.

This included the creation of a state compensation fund for victims – an idea backed by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

“We would like to work with the Catholic Church,” Bolaños said, stressing that the Church had “for decades failed to offer an adequate response.

READ ALSO: How Catholic are Spaniards nowadays?

Spain’s Catholic Church has ruled out taking part in such a fund if was only for compensating victims of ecclesiastical abuse, and not to abuse victims in any setting.

“The Church cannot accept a plan that discriminates against the majority of victims of sexual abuse,” the CEE Episcopal Conference, which groups Spain’s leading bishops, said Tuesday.

The CEE had in March approved its own “comprehensive compensation plan” for victims but did not give details about how or when it would be implemented, nor did it give figures.

Victims groups have denounced the Church’s opacity and its failure to offer any reparations.

The ombudsman’s report said more than 200,000 minors had been sexually abused in Spain by Roman Catholic clergy since 1940.

READ ALSO: Spain’s Catholic bishops apologise after report of 200,000 abused

That figure rose to more than 400,000 when abuse by associated Church figures, known as lay members, was included — equal to 1.13 percent of Spain’s adult population of 39 million.

The CEE expressed doubt about the “dubious reliability” of the figures, pointing to an audit it commissioned from law firm Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo which found some 2,056 minors were abused by the clergy.

A few days after the audit was released, the CEE published its own report which was nearly 1,000 pages long, with figures which were even lower.

In its latest update on March 2, it said it had counted 1,057 “registered cases” of sexual abuse, of which only 358 had been “proven” or were “plausible” while another 60 were under investigation.

READ ALSO: Spanish Catholic Church suspends priest accused of selling Viagra