20 October 2011

Spain's Stolen Babies: Where Angels Fear To Tread

Without spending much time on this -- I'm swamped with work -- I was sent a link to a blogpost this morning that's worth addressing simply because misconceptions should be tackled as quickly as possible.

The blog in question seems to tend toward the obsessive, not to mention lacking in knowledge of what it is it's opposing -- it could learn a lot from Sun Tzu's greatest precept -- but I'd agree with more if it than the author would expect and its author has posted a couple of fairly reasonable comments on other blogs, so it strikes me that it's worth engaging.

You'll know the story, of course, if you've been watching telly this week. There was a programme on BBC the other night called Spain's Stolen Babies, which claimed that under Franco numerous Spanish Catholic doctors and nuns misled the parents of newborn children that their babies had died, whereas in reality they'd been sold on to more 'desirable' couples. What the BBC documentary revealed* was horrific, and what it suggested was far worse.

That said, it was only a TV programme. No serious historical work has been done on this. We need to tread cautiously.

As far as I can figure out, it looks like there have been about a thousand certain cases of this sort of thing; the programme's 300,000 figure was just speculation. That's one of the things Caroline Farrow was getting at on her blog, linking to some useful articles: that we just don't have the data to judge, and until we do it makes no sense to be shrieking about it. It's horrible, but we just don't have enough information to evaluate how historically significant this was, let alone into what was driving this, whether individually or systemically. I have my own suspicions of how this will play out in terms of numbers, time, and geographic prevalence, but they're just speculative too. As long as facts are thin on the ground, the only honest and reasonable think for anyone to say about the situation is that we just don't know. I think a prudent reserve is the best response to this.

William Oddie made some interesting points about the documentary on the Catholic Herald site, and though I think Oddie was slightly wrong in what he said, it wasn't in the way the anonymous author of the Catholic Internet Watch blog seem to think.

Oddie's completely right to say that the same principle was at work in Franco's Spain as in today's United Kingdom, that being that the State knows best and has the right to decide that children would do better when reared by people other than their natural parents. The fact that there are more checks and balances here in England than in Franco's Spain doesn't change the fact that the same principle is in play. That said, he's wrong to omit the issue that those who engaged in this activity in Spain seem, at least sometimes, to have had a financial interest in doing so. That's an important omission.

(Though again, until the facts are in, we shouldn't be rushing to any kind of judgement on this. It was just a TV show, after all.)

On a broad historical point, the fact that Franco's gang had taken power with the support of Hitler and Mussoline doesn't really mean anything; his opponents were backed by Stalin. It doesn't make sense to view the Spanish Civil War with external eyes: it was a profoundly Spanish conflict, and one in which both sides were glad of whatever help they could get, from wherever it came. Certainly, the defeated side was no more pleasant than the victorious one, as is shown by how they raped nuns and mutilated and killed thousands of priests. Orwell, who'd gone to Spain in naive support for the Republican forces, was turned off his natural allies to a massive degree when he realised their willingness to trade atrocities with Franco's people.

The CIW blogger is spectacularly wrong, I'm afraid, to say:
'And those priests and nuns were not just authority figures; they were the face of a religion possessing divine authority to determine whether you go to Hell or not.'
I'm not sure whether he sees this as being reasonable grounds for said priests being murdered or mutilated and said nuns being raped, though that seems to be the case, but that aside, he's completely off the mark when he says the Church possesses -- or claims to possess -- divine authority to determine when people go to Hell or not. In point of fact, the Church never says anybody is destined for Hell, and it does not teach that anybody is there. Indeed, it's theologically impossible to say that anybody in particular is in Hell.

That the blogger thinks that the Church makes such claims really just shows his complete incomprehension of what it is he's attacking. Again: read Sun Tzu.

The rest of the piece is little more than an ad hominem attack on Oddie for having once said he found himself agreeing with Stephen Green's Christian Voice group more often than he disagreed with them. Green seems a fairly unpleasant piece of work, but note that Oddie has never said  he agrees with Green all of the time, or on what issues, merely that on balance he found himself agreeing with him more often than not. I can think of lots of people who I'd agree with more often than not, while nonetheless differing from strongly on some major issues.

It concludes by turning to a couple of forum threads, one of which raised the question of whether the Pope would have known of this. The blog takes the view that these are just instances of Catholics whining and feeling victimised by the media; I'm not sure that's fair. The problem with the bulk of the media, surely, is not so much bias -- not that there's not plenty of that -- as ignorance, with ignorance of both science and religion being particularly prevalent. This ignorance results in all sorts of crazy ideas, such that many people seem convinced that the Pope wields absolute control in the Catholic Church. As John Allen puts it:
'The implied image seems to be that he sits behind a computer terminal deep inside the Apostolic Palace, making all the decisions for the Catholic Church. However entertaining it is to think such thoughts, reality is a good deal more prosaic.'
So, lest Catholics panic or anti-Catholics sneer, let's be clear on this: whatever was happening in Spain, it's almost 100 per cent certain that the Pope didn't know about it, much less command it. There's very likely that hardly any Spanish bishops ever knew about it either. And indeed, in a very important sense, it doesn't make sense to say 'the Church' did this or even that 'the Church' was complicit. People throw out such claims all the time. They should take some time to find out and think about what the Church is.

Hint: it's not a corporation with a pyramidal structure and clear lines of command.

* I say 'revealed'. The story was new to me, but wouldn't have been new to anyone who'd read Time magazine back in March, the New York Times in July, or Business Insider a fortnight back.


Anonymous said...

What's clear is there is much more NOT known about this phenomenon than is known. This has allowed a Media - which mostly values sensation over facts and is mostly hostile to the Catholic Church - to flagrantly fill the gaps with anti-Catholic innuendo, rhetoric and wild guesswork. Thank you for simply stating the situation as regards what of the story is actually known to have occurred. Lynda

Scout said...

Some very good stuff in there, Gargoyle. My response is here: http://catholicinternetwatch.blogspot.com/2011/10/response-to-thirsty-gargoyle.html

Courtney said...

This number of 300 000 seems strange to me.

If we consider it to be over 50 years we are talking about an average of 6000 babies a year.

In the UK, adoptions of babies in 1974 was around 5000. Even though the Spanish fertility rate was higher we are still talking about 1.5 to 2x as many babies being born in the UK and so although we might suggest that the new born adoption rate per birth might have been higher in Spain (Do we have that data?) it would still appear that we would need a large majority, if not most, of all such adoptions to be "stolen" babies over 50 years. Is this credible?