The Martyrdom of Ferrer/Chapter II

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Nearly four hundred years ago a rebellious monk set Europe aflame with insurrection against the authority of Rome. Corrupt, sensual, sceptical, laughing at its own devices, the Court of Rome ruled a densely ignorant world with a levity born of ten centuries of secure domination. The world was growing, however, and the sonorous appeal of Luther brought it to sudden manhood. As is well known, one of the historic abuses that fired the indignation of Luther was the sale of indulgences. Scornfully he tossed aside the priestly casuistry that would represent the transaction as no "sale," but the “giving” of a spiritual favour—in return for a sum of money. Half of Europe followed the German monk. But for the armies of Spain and Austria the Papacy would probably have been erased from the map of Europe two hundred years ago. Sell indulgences! Protestants look back with amazement on the Papal audacity, and take it as a measure of the dense ignorance of the Middle Ages that even the attempt should be made. It is a test of medieval conditions, a plumbing of the depths of ignorance. And indulgences are sold by the million all over Spain to-day, under the direct and annual authority of the Vatican!

The sale of indulgences is so historic a symbol of Papal corruption that I cannot do other than take it as the first point in my indictment of the Spanish Church. I refused to believe the fact when it was first brought to my notice, long after I had quitted the Catholic ministry. My informant, an American gentleman who had lived in Spain for more than ten years, forwarded to me copies of these bulas, as they are called, and the truth was evident. I have since made full inquiries, written on the subject, been “answered” by an English Jesuit—who explained that the indulgence was a pure gift from the Church, in return for a specific sum of money, much as (he did not say this) your soap or your butter is—and have lost all doubt on the subject.

On the windows of Catholic book-shops in Spain one often sees the word “Bulas” in large type. You enter and ask for a “bula”—or you may go to the nearest priest's house for one—and find that there are four species, at two different prices. Lay a peseta on the counter, and demand the ordinary “bula de la Santa Cruzada.” A flimsy piece of paper, much sealed and impressed, about a foot square, and with the signature of the Archbishop of Toledo, is handed to you, with your change of 25 centimos. You have not bought it. You gave an “alms” of 75 centimos (about 6d.) to the Church (minus the shopman's commission), and the Church graciously accorded you—but it would occupy too much of my space even to enumerate the extraordinary spiritual privileges which you can purchase for sixpence in that favoured land. The central grace is a “plenary indulgence.”

Catholic theology teaches that there are two alternatives to heaven, two unfathomable pits of fire—Hell and Purgatory. If you die in serious, unabsolved sin, you go to hell; but few Catholics ever think of going there. It is so easy to get oneself drafted into the second department. But the second department, Purgatory, is exceedingly unpleasant; the fire and other horrors are the same; the duration is uncertain. Here, again, however, the Church comes to the relief. Confession and sorrow have relieved you of the first danger; something may be done to avoid the second. In earlier and harder times one went on the Crusades to achieve this. Some Spaniards offered the Papacy money instead, and received the comforting assurance that the Purgatory-debt was cancelled (a “plenary indulgence”). The sum has sunk with the course of centuries, and now in Spain you gain this gorgeous assurance, with a dozen others, for an “alms” of sixpence. But attempt to give your alms to the poor, and you get no bula.

That is the common bula of Spanish church life. The rich, of course, pay more than the small sum which is stated on the paper; and as the ignorant peasants find frequent need of this comforting assurance, since it only lasts until they sin again, the amount which the Church derives annually from this sordid source of revenue can be imagined. Another bula, of the same price, gives you the same comforting assurance in regard to any deceased friend to whom you may wish to apply it. Since, however, it is never quite sure that your "disposition" came up to the required altitude, you do well to continue buying and trying. A third bula is even cheaper, yet more substantial in its advantages. For 50 centimos (less than fivepence) you obtain permission to eat meat on Fridays and on most of the days on which Catholics in less favoured countries must not eat meat. Unfortunately, you find that the bula is invalid unless you buy the other bula as well; but ten pence is fairly cheap for a year's permission to disregard the fast-days.

The fourth bula is the most infamous, unless the reader chooses to regard it with humour. Technically, it is known as the "composición"—an excellent word. It says that, if you have any stolen property of which you cannot discover the rightful owner, the purchase of this bula makes the property yours. The pickpocket does not usually know the address of his victim; and though the bula declares that the theft must not be committed in view of the bula, the practised conscience of a Spanish thief easily negotiates that difficulty. But this is not the full enormity or the full justification of the title "composition." One bula costs about a shilling, and covers about twelve shillings' worth of ill-gotten goods. For every additional twelve shillings you have stolen you must give one to the Church; in other words, take out a fresh bula. And—let me quote the incredible words of the document—in the event of the sum due exceeding 735 pesetas 50 centimos [£25], the amount compoundable by fifty Summaries, application must be made to Us for a fitting solution of the case"! The priest will take his tithe of your knavery on a scale he thinks fit to determine.

Let it be clearly understood that I am not reproducing the statements of writers, travellers, or residents; I am describing, or translating, the very words of the bulas, copies of which lie before me. Incredible as the facts will seem to most readers, there is only one quibble which the zealous Catholic, in his misguided wish to defend the Spanish Church, can raise: he will demur to the phrase "bought" and "sold." I may safely leave that question of casuistry to the British reader. From this appalling traffic the Spanish Church draws millions upon millions of pesetas every year—from the rich, who thus pay for its political support, and from the densely ignorant peasantry, whose hard-won centimos are stolen by this abominable chicanery.

English Roman Catholics who heard of the traffic for the first time innocently drew the attention of the Vatican to it, and were, after repeated letters, snubbed for their intrusion. The truth is that the whole traffic is under the control of the Vatican. These bulas are no bits of medieval parchment that have lingered into the dawn of the twentieth century; they are printed afresh every year, and they cannot be issued until an annual permission comes from Rome. Then a procession of heralds marches through the streets of Madrid announcing the glad news that Spain's unique privilege has been renewed. What a spectacle! Through streets equipped with the latest achievements of modern science there still marches the medieval troop, crying in the ears of educated Madrid that Spain still lives in the fifteenth century. I have only to add that until 1870 the Vatican openly took a percentage on this sordid traffic. In these days of inquisitive American and English converts we do not know what the understanding is between the Papacy and the Archbishop of Toledo, who issues and seals those symbols of the Spanish Church's degradation.

From the sale of indulgences I pass to other features of Spanish Church life which are hardly less repellent. One of the most offensive practices that the traveller notices in modern Spain is the persistent begging. There are 91,226 beggars in Spain, and they regard themselves as practising a profession which has the peculiar sanction of the Church. A resident in Spain informed me that he was boldly accosted for alms by a man whom he knew to have a flourishing market-garden near his own residence. Mrs. Bates, in her Spanish Highways and Byways, tells a story of a German lady who was accosted by a beggar. With modern feeling she explained to him that she would do something more pleasant than give him alms; she would give him an opportunity to earn the money. He drew his cloak about him with the dignity of a hidalgo, as he replied: "Madam, I am a beggar, not a labourer." The Church is directly responsible for this tribe of repulsive idlers. Her edifices are thrown open periodically that pious ladies may distribute bread, wine, and cigarettes to the sitting crowd of professional beggars.

Far heavier, however, is the guilt of the clergy in regard to the atrocious proportion of illiterates in Spain. We in England are urged to regard the Catholic Church as the great founder of schools, the educator of Europe. The claim is easily tested. There are still three parts of Europe where her power is unbroken—Spain, Portugal, and Southern Italy. In Spain the proportion of illiterates is 68 per cent., in Portugal it is 78 per cent., and in southern Italy—in Calabria—it is 79 per cent. of the population.

I have explained that a law of compulsory education was passed in Spain, under Liberal pressure. By 1877 four millions out of sixteen could read and write, and in the subsequent thirty years the ratio has only arisen to six in eighteen and a-half million people. The teacher is awarded a salary of about £20 a year, so that the character of such instruction as is given may easily be conjectured. But the State will not even provide this sum, and schoolmasters are thrown on the voluntary donations of parents. The result is that the vast majority of the children get no instruction, and the schoolmaster is the butt of Spanish wit. The Madrid papers gave a case in 1903 of a master who canvassed a district to find how many parents would contribute if he opened a school. Three families in one hundred promised to contribute. In another place, not far from Madrid, the alcalde endeavoured to enforce the law, which is universally disregarded, that there should be no bull-fights where the master's salary was not paid. The infuriated people drove the teacher to the plaza and baited him. Thousands of children in Madrid itself have no school accommodation.

For this state of uncivilisation the guilt must be equally divided between the Church and the State. Neither wishes to see the people educated. The reasons of the Church will be suspected by the reader without difficulty. The reasons of the statesmen of Spain for withholding education will become apparent in the next chapter. In one important respect, however, the Church has the greater guilt. Poor the State is, undoubtedly, though no sane social student will fail to see how profitably a large part of its expenditure would be diverted to education. But the Church is wealthy, immensely wealthy. The vast revenue I have already described, together with all parochial dues and collections, goes to the secular (or parochial) clergy, in whose larger churches and cathedrals immense treasure has accumulated. While the workers in parts of Spain must labour for about five pesetas (3s. 6d.) a week, and while despairing schoolmasters must set their hands to whatever incongruous employment they can discover to augment their £10 to £20 a year for teaching in barn-like structures, the wealthier churches house incalculable treasure, and the clergy usually live in great comfort. The wardrobe of the image of the Virgin at Toledo would alone suffice to build hundreds of fine schools. One robe bears, says Mrs. Bates, “85,000 large pearls, and as many sapphires, amethysts, and diamonds.” The crown used to decorate the statue is worth £5,000, and the bracelets £2,000. The total value of this useless and senseless jewellery in the great churches of Spain is beyond calculation; and the country is too poor to educate more than a part of its children, and that with ridiculous inadequacy. Cordova alone has 600 priests to 55,000 people; and Cordova is on the verge of bankruptcy.

But this overwhelming sufficiency of parochial clergy with its incalculable wealth, is not the chief source of offence to enlightened Spaniards. A vast population of monks and nuns and Jesuits, who do no parochial work, is spread over the land, and amasses wealth with even greater success than the secular clergy. In the heated conflicts of the two bodies the truth is suffered to leak out. A Spanish prelate, Mgr. José Veleda de Gunjado, has recently declared that these regulars (monks and nuns) own two-thirds of the money of the country and one-third of the wealth in property, etc. While they flaunt vows of poverty before the ignorant peasantry, they draw out of the healthy circulation of the impoverished country a colossal proportion of its resources. A religious review (the Revista Cristiana—quoted in Diercks's Das moderne Geistesleben Spaniens) gave the income of the Jesuit body at Manresa alone as more than £15,000 a year, and this is only one among a thousand instances of an intensely wealthy community. Before the Philippine Islands were taken from Spain the Church drew 113,000,000 pesetas a year from the Islands, the State being content with a further 66,000,000. Barcelona had 165 convents until the recent riots, many of them worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The province of Catalonia supported 2,300 of these institutions.

Nor must the English reader be misled by audacious Catholic assurances that these wealthy communities represent the voluntary piety of the faithful, and are holy retreats to which the timid may retire from "the world." Even in this country the Catholic clergy generally—I am not speaking at random: I have been a priest and a monk—disdain and detest the communities of monks. Cardinal Manning was sternly opposed to them. The idleness and petty hypocrisy to which their ascetic professions lead is fully described in my Twelve Years in a Monastery. As I had the further advantage of living in monasteries in a “Catholic” country (Belgium), I obtained some idea of the real nature of such institutions under more or less normal conditions. The appalling laziness of the vast majority, the gross ignorance which masquerades as humility, tire enormous consumption of alcohol behind closed doors, the all-pervading hypocrisy and very widespread immorality would, if they were fully appreciated by the educated laity of Belgium, turn the smouldering anti-clericalism into a fierce blaze of anger. Not one monk in twenty merited respect, even in his superstitions. The great majority were grossly sensual, lazy, and hypocritical. But even in Belgium there is a large body of critical observers, and the monasteries of Spain have the same corruption in a far greater degree.

The gross animality of the monks, the unscrupulousness of the Jesuits—for the Jesuit in Spain is a Jesuit—and the widespread immorality of the clergy are well known to Spaniards. Any who imagine that the charge of flagrant immorality against the Spanish clergy is a Protestant or Rationalist calumny should read the article, “The Priest and the People in Spain,” in the Daily News, October 18, 1909. It is written by an Irish Roman Catholic, Mr. Doran, who wisely chooses to dissociate his co-religionists in the United Kingdom severely and emphatically from the Roman Catholicism of Spain. “I can remember the time,” he says, “when I would have dropped the acquaintance of my best friend had he but said, or hinted, half the things I now know to be true in regard to the condition of the Church in Spain.” He states that on one occasion, when he was dining with a number of Spanish priests, he remarked, “without giving the least offence,” that “if some of them ventured to say Mass in Ireland they would be dragged off the altar.” They replied, genially, that they always confessed to a companion before Mass. He found a state of immorality among the clergy “which it takes an Irishman half a lifetime to understand and all eternity to forgive.” The sister of the gentleman at whose house he was staying was the mistress of a priest. He adds that the Spanish clergy will marry uncles to nieces readily, “given a sufficient amount of money,” and that “nine Spaniards out of ten will tell you that the desire to earn an easy living is the motive which induces so many to join the clergy.”[1]

After this Catholic testimony I need not linger over the morality of the Spanish clergy. As an ex-priest I have always refused to create prejudice against my late co-religionists by discussing this side of their affairs; but when a body of priests like those of the Spanish Church egg on the civic or military officials to murder in their corrupt interests it is time to speak. There is immorality enough even among the priests of this country. Sordid cases came to my personal knowledge. In Belgium the condition—a condition that any candid person will expect from their enforced celibacy and good living—is far worse. In Spain and the south of Italy it is flagrant, nor is it confined to the lower clergy and the monks. A writer in the Church Quarterly (October, 1902) relates how an Italian prelate calmly discussed with him the fact, which he neither resented nor denied, that one of the candidates for the papal throne, one of the most distinguished cardinals in the Church, was a man of “conspicuous immorality.” The cardinal in question, whose life was described to me in Rome, kept a mistress in a villa not many miles from the Vatican. The hypocrisy that asks English people to shudder over the very intelligible and quite open conduct of Ferrer, whom the Church of Spain prevented from marrying when he wished, and cheerfully acquiesces in this sordid condition of the clergy wherever the mass of the people are still Catholic, is too revolting to characterise.

It must not be imagined, however, that this condition of the clergy in Spain is one of the popular charges against them. From time immemorial, in the Latin Countries, the clergy have withheld their strictures on the conduct of their followers, and the greatest laxity prevails. In Seville, a town renowned for its Catholicism, a French Catholic writer, M. Bazin, was told by a priest, he says in his Terre d'Espagne, that more than half the unions of men and women were "free unions." While the Church parades before the world its high ideal of chastity, and speaks hypocritically of the growth of immorality in the wake of heresy, it is precisely in those regions where it retains enormous power to-day, and has held absolute sway for ages, that we find the most immoral parts of Europe. Northern Italy, predominant in rebellion against the Church, has a ratio of illegitimate births of only six per cent.; the Roman province has a ratio of twenty per cent., and the southern provinces much the same. It is a foolish superstition, encouraged by Catholics, that the laxity of the Latin races is a matter of temperature. The northern races were just as bad before the Reformation. That notorious laxity is due solely to the fact that an immoral clergy never dared to press on the people their theoretic gospel of chastity.

But if the bulk of the Spaniards smile at the immorality of their priests, those more enlightened Spaniards who see the life-blood of their country being drained to sustain such a system feel a pardonable bitterness. Let me give one detail by which one may measure the whole monstrosity. Diercks relates that the Revista Cristiana at one time made a calculation of the value of the wax and incense burned in Spanish churches in the course of a year. The total reached the extraordinary sum of £1,500,000—a sum little short of what Spain spends on education! And this is one small item of the total cost to the country of its religious system. Add to this the millions obtained in the ordinary way of fees and collections, the millions received for bulas, the millions charged (on one pretext or another) for scapulars, rosaries, bullet-proof prayers, agnus-deis, and the whole medieval magazine of charms, the millions received for obtaining dipensations to marry, for baptisms, funerals, masses (each of which costs from two to twenty pesetas), and other ceremonies, the millions acquired by wills, by taking over the goods of monastic aspirants, and in other ways. And the whole of this vast proportion of an impoverished circulation goes to feed the parasitic growth, with no spiritual vitality or social usefulness, which I have described. Let the light fall on the mind of Spain, and this decrepit and corrupt agglomeration of medieval vices and abuses will be swept ruthlessly away. Rebellion against the Vatican has followed immediately upon the extension of popular enlightenment in France, in northern Italy, and in those South American Republics which have dared to educate. Beyond all question, it is following the same course in Spain.

Will this effete and corrupt body, with all its dependent industries, contemplate impartially the spread of education in Spain? Will that colossal revenue from bulas and other medieval barbarities continue when Spain is Europeanised—to use the phrase of its own social students?

The reader will see that we are coming back to the question of Ferrer and his work. It was quite impossible to set that work in its true perspective without first describing the institution it imperilled. Assuredly Ferrer was disseminating an explosive—the explosive of an enlightened spirit and a sense of dignity and independence. We shall see how the Church marked him out for destruction. A few years ago the greatest Spanish writer, Perez Galdos, put a drama (Electra) on the stage at Madrid, in which a beautiful young girl hesitated between the sombre call of the Jesuits and the call to life and happiness of sane heretics. It ended with her choosing life, instead of the living death of the medieval Church. The figure of the young girl was meant to be, and was recognised as, a symbol of Spain; and that Madrid theatre, and many a theatre after it, shook with the ringing applause of the Spanish audiences.

But if Spain is so largely anti-clerical, how comes the Church to retain the power it does? Spain is seething with anti-clericalism. Mr. Isaacson, in his Rome in Many Lands, quotes an orthodox Spanish paper, El Correo Español, to the effect that only 1,500,000 men and 3,500,000 women, in a population of 18,500,000, now obey the clergy in Spain. I have dealt thoroughly with the question in my Decay of the Church of Rome. If that be so, how can we explain the power of the Church?

Here we come to another and not less sordid aspect of Spanish life, which it is absolutely necessary to understand if we wish to understand the murder of Ferrer. The political system is not less corrupt than the clerical, and the two corruptions support each other with despairing unscrupulousness. Many who are willing to admit the corruption of the Church will hesitate here, but it is a platitude of recent Spanish literature, and I will, in the next chapter, adduce such a series of witnesses to it—including the ex-Premier Maura, the present Premier Moret, and the gravest authorities in Spain—as will make the reader wonder rather why we treat with the Spanish Government as a civilised Power.

This is the opportunity of the clergy. Driven from other lands, they make their last stand in Spain and Portugal. From France, from Cuba, from the Philippines, they have concentrated on the land where only a few millions can read and write, and the political power is manipulated by a system as corrupt as their own. Within a few years, probably, they will be reinforced by the exiled monks of Italy. So long as Spain is ignorant, or only taught a smattering of letters and a vast amount of terrifying superstition in their own schools, they are safe. But they cannot wholly shut out the light from France and England, and they play a desperate game. Jesuitry is Jesuitry in Spain. From the boudoir of the Queen-mother, and now, I am informed, from the boudoir of the Queen, whom they have won, they rule Spain and swoop down with ferocity on all eruptions of revolt.

  1. But even Mr. Doran is apparently ignorant of the infamous traffic in bulas, since he reproaches the priests with eating meat on Fridays. They had, of course, purchased bulas.