Catholicism a la carte for the Pope in Spain: Papal visit looks likely to spark controversy, Phil Davison reports from Madrid

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NO SOONER had the election campaign posters of Felipe Gonzalez and his rivals been torn down than another portrait, of a gently smiling, white-haired man, sprouted from trees, lamp posts and facades throughout Madrid. 'The Pope is coming to see you,' it said. Or should that read 'warned'?

Pope John Paul, who will meet Mr Gonzalez today in Madrid, made it clear long before his arrival that he does not approve of Spain's increasing secularisation of the past 10 years - neo-paganism, he called it - under the Socialist Prime Minister who is about to form his fourth government.

Sources in Spain's Catholic Church say that the Pope is unlikely to 'waste his breath' on Mr Gonzalez, a self-confessed agnostic, but his warnings about Spain's drift away from the Church and Catholic values will reach a peak at a mass rally in the centre of Madrid this afternoon.

'Moving away from God has led to a deterioration in family life, now torn apart by increasing separations and divorces, by the systematic exclusion of birth, including the abominable crime of abortion,' the Pope told the faithful in the southern city of Huelva, before flying to Madrid for a meeting with Spain's royal family yesterday. 'The exclusion of God produces a vacuum that people try to fill with a culture, or rather a pseudo-culture, of unbridled consumerism,' he said.

He will be in the heart of that 'pseudo-culture' today, when he addresses the faithful in Colon Square in the Salamanca district - Madrid's Knightsbridge - a stone's throw from one of the capital's best-known landmarks, Marks and Spencer.

If, as the Pope warns, consumerism is becoming a new God for Spaniards, it is one of Marks and Spencer's bigger rivals, the renowned Corte Ingles chain store, that has become their equivalent of Sunday Mass. The Pope's attacks on Sunday trading notwithstanding, el Corte, as it is known here, now draws worshippers in far greater numbers than the Mass.

When the Polish Pope moved into the Vatican in 1978, General Franco had been dead three years. The Church, which supported him during the 1936-39 Civil War and for most of his rule, had almost completely disowned him by the time he died. But it remained with an identity crisis and credibility gap that it has yet to overcome.

One of John Paul II's predecessors, Pius XII, sent a telegram to General Franco immediately after the end of the civil war, congratulating him on his 'Catholic victory'. During Franco's regime, divorce became illegal, adultery a crime, and religious education compulsory, with the Church controlling text books. Children had to be given at least one name with religious connotations. Maria had always been the commonest name, but it became even more popular.

With such a history, it was not surprising that the Church found itself marginalised as the Socialists emerged from clandestinity in the Seventies and surged to power in October, 1982. Pope John Paul II's first visit to Spain that year was postponed so that it would happen after the elections. This time, on his fourth trip here, he again found himself in the aftermath of an election, and one won again, though only just, by the Socialists and Mr Gonzalez.

When Mr Gonzalez called a snap poll for 6 June, almost six months ahead of schedule, he undoubtedly took the Pope's visit into account. The pontiff's attacks on unemployment, corruption and increasing secularisation, which he has made since arriving in Seville on Saturday, were not unexpected. Mr Gonzalez would not have wanted to give his conservative opposition the benefit of a campaigner with such mass appeal.

The Pope finds himself in a country where, though more than 90 per cent of people describe themselves as Catholic, only a quarter regularly go to Mass. Divorce is common, adultery in fashion. Confessions are rare, except in bars or on the psychiatrist's couch. The Church has become a place where you go for weddings or christenings.

Spanish writers call it a-la- carte Catholicism. That outlook is reflected in attitudes to the Pope's visit. He has pulled in huge crowds, equipped as always with the trappings of the consumerism he attacks - the posters, the banners, the badges, the pins - and the chanting crowds usually associated with pop stars and football matches. 'Que maravilla, the Pope is in Sevilla,' nuns and others chanted in the Andalusian capital.

But there is an equally strong strain of cynicism. This week's edition of the weekly magazine Cambio 16 carried a cover picture of the pontiff and the words 'Pope, God, Devil'. Another weekly, Tribuna, had an article suggesting that many of those who flocked to see the Pope went out of sheer curiosity. 'It's just like a bicycle race,' it said.

(Photograph omitted)