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National identities draw from history: from the jumbled tales of the past, politics attempts to create a cohesive story, a “national myth.” But confronting the national myth can be dangerous and spur resistance, as discovered Pope Francis, who inadvertently challenged Spanish reactionaries with his letter to Archbishop Rogelio Cabrera Lopez of Monterrey, Mexico.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s Independence from the Spanish Empire on September 27, 2021, the Pontiff called upon the Mexican people to, “re-read the past, taking into account both the lights and the shadows that have shaped the history of the country.” Recognizing the role of the Church in Western colonialism in the Americas, Pope Francis asked for the forgiveness of grave sins committed by individuals and institutions in the name of Catholicism. The letter spurred outrage, not in Mexico, but in Spain, among conservative and far-right circles which saw their national mythology under attack.

Resistance to Pope Francis’s penance was led by Partido Popular (The People’s Party). Founded by officials from the Franco regime, the party is a far-right heir of sorts to the not-so-long-ago fascist dictatorship but which now attempts to distance itself from the past by adhering to Christian democratic ideology. Isabel Diaz Ayuso, a member of The People’s Party and president of the Community of Madrid, was particularly outspoken about the Pope’s letter. She stated that she was “surprised that a Catholic who speaks Spanish should talk that way about a legacy such as ours, which actually took Spanish, Catholicism, and therefore civilization and freedom, to the American continent.” Ayuso accused the Pontiff of spreading the idea of a “supposed original sin,” that of colonialism, which is a tool of left-wing politicians. She claimed that Spain’s legacy in the Americas was “one of the greatest landmarks in history” and that Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and opposition leaders were, “promoting an indigenism that is the new Communism.”

The rebuke of colonialism as one of the West’s “original sin” is shared by other nationalist and far-right political movements across the Western world. Within the United States, the radical right has coined the term “white guilt” for similar ends. The Alt-Right insists that movements, such as Black Lives Matter, reinterpret history to legitimize new ideologies that socially and politically repress white Americans.

Likewise, the Spanish far-right claimed that Francis’ penance is “part of cancelling culture, of destroying the history of the nations of which we are so proud.” Ayuso’s unapologetic stance attempts to shift the boundaries of what is politically acceptable by positioning the proponents of Spanish colonialism as victims of this new leftist domination which tries to silence them. This shift then encourages others to express similar views. For example, former prime minister José María Aznar defended the Spanish Conquista, stating, “I’m inclined to feel very proud of it, I’m not asking for forgiveness”.

The People’s Party’s position on the memory of America’s colonization has normalized more radical beliefs. Vox, the Spanish far-right party, founded by members who broke away from The People’s Party in 2013, has, for instance, “leaned deep into Spain’s nationalist taboos and at times has defended Franco.” The party has happily joined the heavy criticism on Francis’s letter.

Attempts by Ayuso and Vox to reinterpret the Pope’s September letter as a leftist political stunt, fueled by modern censorship, fails to account for history. Pope John Paul II spurred this practice as early as 1985 when he apologized for another colonialism-related horror, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Since elected Pope, Francis has been fighting for recognizing the role of Catholicism in Western colonialism for years. In 2015 in Bolivia, he had for instance beseeched forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s actions in the Conquista, noting that “many grave sins were committed [against] the native people of America in the name of God” and “humbly ask[ing] forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” At that time, these statements did not elicit such strong resistance, since “cancel culture” was not an existing concept at that time.

The national-populist and far-right reaction to Pope Francis’s letter illustrates how the right has been trying to empower itself by denouncing a new leftist censorship. It has connected this accusation, often used under the denunciation of a supposed “cultural Marxism,” to narratives of white victimization and thinly-veiled racist remarks under the guise of “civilization,” contributing to reinforcing, in this case, old-fashioned Spanish nationalism.

Matthew Paolino is a second year graduate student at the Elliott School within the MAIA program, focusing on security studies and Eurasian area studies. He is interested in disinformation and the use of history to create and manipulate national identities and political narratives. He is also an international analyst at Noblis ESI.

Photo: “ISABEL DÍAZ AYUSO EN FUENLABRADA,” by Populares de Madrid licensed under CC BY 2.0.