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European RoyalsFeaturesHistoryHistoryInsightSpainState & Ceremonial

King Felipe and the Catholic Church: a changing tale of faith and diplomacy

To analyse the religious situation in Spain, one must consider faith and diplomacy as inextricably linked.

Spain is one of the world’s most religious countries, officially, with some statistics putting the percentage of the population that ascribes to the Roman Catholic Church as high as 96%. 

To put that number in context, that same survey put Italy’s percentage of Roman Catholics at around 87%, a significantly lower number, especially if we consider that the country is home to Vatican City, the seat of the Papacy.

This is easily explained by Spain’s history, as the country was home to one of the darkest pages of Roman Catholic history: the Inquisition tribunal. They managed to be selected because of their historic role in supporting the Catholic church’s many conquest campaigns, both in Europe and abroad. 

In fact, the kingdoms that came together to form modern day Spain were among the biggest financiers of the many Crusades into the Middle East, and their conquest of Latin America has left a legacy of language and religion that is still in place today. 

On the flip side, this makes Spain a country that is different to many other monarchies, especially in Europe: while the Royal Family is Roman Catholic, King Felipe is not the head of the church, as happens in the United Kingdom, for instance. 

In fact, religious authorities are viewed as standing above the King of Spain as emissaries of God on earth, which is why we see both King Felipe and Queen Letizia bow and kiss the ring of Bishops and Archbishops in Spain, and bow/curtsey and kiss the hand of the Pope when they meet him. 

Technically, the Pope and the King are on the same plane, as they are both considered to be Heads of State; however, for Roman Catholics the Pope is not a mere Head of State, but the direct expression of God’s will on Earth, and therefore enjoys a higher status even among Heads of State. 

This also directly translates in diplomacy; all Catholic-majority countries, Spain included, follow a rule for which the Apostolic Nuncio, the Ambassador for Vatican City State, is automatically considered the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in the country, regardless of how long he has held the post. 

In comparison, protocol dictates that the criteria with which other Ambassadors are ranked for any event is according to length of service in the country. Basically, the earlier an Ambassador has presented his Letter of Credentials to the Head of State of the country hosting him, the higher rank they will have. Once they change their posting location, their rank falls again to the back of the line, which means that a young Ambassador that has been posted to a country for three years will hold a higher rank than an older Ambassador that arrived in the country only a year earlier. 

However, like so many other things, the relationship between the Spanish Royal Family and religion seems to have undergone a change under the rule of King Felipe. While both of King Felipe and Queen Letizia’s daughters have completed their faith journeys within the Catholic Church, having been confirmed into it, it seems that King Felipe has taken the decision to slowly start to separate the religious life of the family from the public. 

If the trends of the past couple of years continue to be true, where the King and his family choose to practice their religious beliefs behind closed doors, it could have significant repercussions on state protocol. This decision seems to have been taken by the King to show more inclusivity, to demonstrate that he is a Monarch for all of those who are his citizens, and not just the Roman Catholics. 

This could be due to a number of factors that are changing the makeup of the country; in part, a significant rise in the Muslim population of Spain. Also, an increasingly large number of young people are coming to Spain from all corners of Europe, not all of whom come from Catholic countries. And finally, there is a general tendency of the younger generation towards atheism. 

All of these factors may be behind the King and Queen’s decision to live their faith in a more private fashion. This could mean simply a permanent cancellation of the appearance at Easter Mass in Palma de Mallorca, but it could also lead to a reshaping of relations between the State and the Catholic Church, all the way to the removal of the preferential status that Vatican City State is accorded in bilateral relations.

However, this change, if it will indeed happen, is still a very long way away; for now, the Roman Catholic Church remains a powerful influence in the country and within the Spanish Royal Family, both in terms of faith and as a diplomatic partner.