Spain's reigning championship team lost to Chile in World Cup competition yesterday. According to contemporary values, that may have been a greater loss to some than the loss of their 76-year old king - King Juan Carlos I - who signed the instrument of abdication last night ending a reign of almost 39 years. Unlike soccer titles, however, losing an old king usually means getting a new one - in this case the 46-year old Felipe VI.
Juan Carlos was the grandson of King Alfonso XIII, who had literally been born a king in 1886. (His father, Alfonso XII, had died a few months before, while the future king was already gestating in his mother's womb). Alfonso XIII was forced into exile in 1931, which led directly to the murderously anti-Catholic Second Republic followed in 1936 by three tragic years of bloody Civil War, followed by the long 36-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco. It was Franco who opted to restore the Bourbon monarchy. In establishing the succession, however, Franco passed over Alfonso's rightful heir, Don Juan de Bourbon, Conde de Barcelona, in favor of Don Juan's presumably more pliable son Juan Carlos, whom Franco had educated in Spain in the ways of the regime. Juan Carlos' accession upon Franco's death in 1975, however, was immediately seen as a harbinger of something new - a modern Spain, re-integrated into Europe, and moving slowly but surely toward constitutional democratic legitimacy. I remember the news coverage of the new king's accession Mass of the Holy Spirit and the presence of US Vice President Rockefeller and European leaders who were not there for Franco's funeral.
Spain has been well served by the monarchy's restoration. Much of the credit for the monarchy's success must rest with King Juan Carlos himself, with his astuteness and the gradual but determined way in which he slowly and safely led Spain from absolutism and isolation to democracy and European integration. The media's more recent focus on his personal problems and royal scandals just illustrates the post-modern tendency to forget serious history and to focus on the ephemeral.
The media keeps referring to King Felipe's oath-taking and accession ceremonies as a "coronation" - although in fact no Spanish king has actually been crowned in centuries (not since 1479 in fact). The crown, symbol of sovereignty, was on display at Felipe's ceremony, along with the scepter, but not the crucifix that was also conspicuously on display at his father's 1975 ceremony (see photo at left). As with all symbols, that too spoke volumes. For Spain has not just become modern and democratic since Franco's death. It has also become post-modern and secular. The former transformation was widely hoped for and certainly imaginable in 1975, although the ease with which it happened under King Juan Carlos' leadership may have been something of a surprise. The latter transformation, however, would still have been unimaginable then. Only in this past quarter-century - since the end of the Cold War - has so complete an abandonment of Europe's Christian heritage become readily imaginable.
While Europe's radical dechristianization may have occurred more rapidly and thoroughly than anyone had been expecting just a few decades ago, the Spanish situation should really not seem such a surprise, given the 20th-century experience of the anti-Catholic Second Republic. It seems to be one of the lessons that should have been learned from the French Revolution that wherever the Church has exercised great political power it has put itself in peril of a comparably strong reaction. France in the 1790s and Spain in the 1930s represented particularly violent and murderous examples of such reactions. The precipitous decline of Church influence in once super-Catholic and now increasingly secular societies, such as contemporary Ireland, Poland, and Spain, while thankfully free from the violence of earlier revolutions, may yet prove to be no less thorough.