Pedro Sánchez has adopted an aggressively secular agenda

When a new Socialist premier took office in Spain on June 2, the Catholic Church was careful to emphasise its readiness to co-operate. Yet within barely a week, as tensions emerged over Pedro Sánchez’s policies, many Catholics were wondering whether the conflicts of past years were fated to return.

The 46-year-old economics professor was sworn in after an unprecedented censure motion over alleged corruption brought down the centre-right Mariano Rajoy. But with his Socialist Party, or PSOE, claiming just 84 places in the 350-seat Cortes, and relying on support from Catalan and Basque nationalists, Sánchez will have trouble fulfilling his promise to tackle the “pressing social needs” brought on by unemployment and economic hardship.

Sánchez broke with tradition by declining to have a Bible or crucifix present when taking his oath before King Felipe. Undeterred, the bishops’ conference president, Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez, wished him God’s help in upholding “unity, prosperity and social cohesion”, and reiterated the Church’s readiness to “collaborate sincerely”.

Meanwhile, other Church leaders, such as Bishop Adolfo González Montes of Almería, played down the new premier’s “personal decision” to avoid a religious oath, as Catholic family and education groups sent open letters urging him to place national interests above ideological preferences.

Yet there are hints of trouble ahead. Sánchez, a self-declared atheist, has campaigned against state funding for Church activities and school religion, and for the removal of religious symbols from public institutions.

The PSOE is committed to legalising euthanasia and strengthening LGBT rights. When it was last in power under premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004-2011, the PSOE clashed repeatedly with the Church over its secularising reforms, which included relaxing Spain’s divorce and abortion laws and legalising same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, the new foreign minister, Josep Borrell, plans to re-examine Spain’s 1979 treaty with the Holy See. In his first interview, he declared that the government must “take the state’s secularity seriously”.

When the Guardia Civil moved in at the orders of a local Socialist mayor to demolish a memorial cross in Castellón on June 6, defying a petition by 13,000 Christians, many saw it as a sign of things to come.

In a country where only a small proportion of Catholics attend Mass, and where the average age of priests is 65, Sánchez may believe that feuding with the Church is a risk worth taking.

Yet the Spanish Church remains a force to be reckoned with. In a website statement last week, the bishops’ conference recalled the “diversity and breadth” in the Church’s action across society, and urged citizens to “abandon judgments and stereotypes connected with the past”. Whether Sánchez’s Socialist government will adopt a similarly gentle tone remains to be seen.