Is Everyone Sharing the Pain in Spain?

BY Paul Solman  June 7, 2012 at 11:42 AM EDT

Church of Our Lady of Incarnation in Spain. Photo by SantiMB via Flickr Creative Commons.

In the second part of her dispatch from Spain, former New York Times correspondent and friend of Making Sen$e, Ana Westley describes the privileges of the Spanish Catholic Church at a time of major government cutbacks. You can read part one here.

With the pressure on, some of the city halls, including some governed by the conservative Popular Party, have started to charge the Catholic Church property taxes, which has caused outrage in the Church. The Church, which is probably the wealthiest property owner in Spain, is exempt from taxes, as are other religions, foundations and NGOs. However, the other religions are super minorities, and most of their places of worship — with the exception of palatial mosques built by the Saudis — are not owned but rented.

There’s one synagogue in Madrid, a historical building and, I heard, mostly Orthodox, while the various reformed or more modern congregations have rented places. (We went to the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a friend of ours — an American — and it was in a rented hotel conference room. The congregation regularly meets in a rented apartment.) The Brits have actual church property in Madrid — the Anglican Church. Evangelists have rented store fronts and NGOs operate out of rented offices. Probably none of them own their headquarters.

>So the Church argues that the unions and political parties also don’t pay property taxes (headquarters for most of the political parties are rented offices, while unions were given back property they owned during the Republic). Of course, the argument goes that the comparison isn’t fair. The Church is a huge property owner — from national monuments (the government pays for maintenance, restoration, and security, etc.) to parish churches to thousands of private schools, retirement homes for elderly priests and clergy, etc.

So the argument is: “OK, national monuments, we get that. OK, schools, because the government could never fill in the gap if there were no Catholic schools. OK, all the local fiestas and patron saints days. OK, all the charities. OK, works of art.”

But once you open the door, a flood of questions rush in, especially in times of austerity and belt tightening: What about Spanish taxes subsidizing the salaries, stipends, living allowances, etc., of the clergy? What about all the income earned by the church from weddings, communions, funerals? Not to mention all revenue from private Catholic schools and private Catholic hospitals. How come they don’t pay taxes?

So, while the government cuts back on health care and social services, the Church and the rich don’t pay their fair share. This is the first time I’ve heard these arguments come from people other than secular leftists. Now, it’s even local Popular Party run city halls that want to collect property tax from the Church. Why not? Hey, if you are bankrupt, take it from where you can. It’s a start.

The Church has countered, saying that if they have to pay taxes, they’ll just have to cut back on their charities: no soup kitchens for the homeless, etc. But charities only represent a ridiculously small percentage of their budget expenses, I heard on the radio, and are mostly self-funded by donations.

For a laugh, there is an Internet photo circulating of Cristobal Montoro, the minister of finance (i.e., the Treasury). With austerity, taxes are to be raised on the middle classes and the poor with higher Value Added Taxes, fewer exemptions, etc., while the tax cuts for the rich are untouched. (Sound familiar?) The photo caption goes: I knew this guy reminded me of somebody…”

David, our youngest son, who is a painter, has emigrated to Santa Fe, N.M., where he is working for a graphic arts company and, since that work is on a freelance or outsourced basis, and not enough to pay his expenses, at Pizza Hut. He loves it there. Erik, our eldest, who is a writer, has been living in Hollywood for the past nine years.

Only our daughter Andrea is left in Madrid and she’s changed companies. She’s now with an advertising multinational — senior executive and team leader in online accounts. The salary is better than what she had before, but not great. Employees were asked to consider and negotiate various options: layoffs, salary cuts in percentages from 0 percent to 20 percent (the bosses would have the biggest cuts) or unpaid voluntary vacation. The last option to avoid layoffs won: 18 days of unpaid vacation time. Since there are 14 yearly payments (a bonus salary in July and December) most will take the unpaid leave then as they will still have a full salary for those months plus their paid vacation time.

At other companies, employees have voted for layoffs instead of reducing salaries to avoid them. That’s a kind of Russian roulette as you can’t really be sure you are not on the layoff list unless you are a union rep and therefore exempt from layoffs. Layoffs all over and rising unemployment which is now 23 percent and almost 50 percent for those under 35. No wonder the young people leave.

Well, since the euro is falling, I’m gonna transfer some money to my U.S. account before it falls even more. But my account there is just for travel expenses when we go to the U.S. But, actually a fall in the euro is good, as it will make Spanish products and all eurozone products more competitive and is good for tourism — a major industry in a Spain still in recession, though there are signs of it picking up thanks to rich Russians who are colonizing the Costa del Sol!

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.