In a letter to Mexican bishops last month, Pope Francis called for a revisiting of the country’s history, especially the role of the Roman Catholic Church, and urged clergy members to “recognize the painful errors committed in the past.”
Yet it wasn’t in Mexico where his remarks drew controversy, but in Spain, where the right wing soon rallied behind the country’s role in conquering the Americas, alongside the church, more than 500 years ago.
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative leader of Madrid, said she was surprised that “a Catholic who speaks Spanish would talk that way,” adding that Spain had brought “civilization and freedom” to the Americas. And a former prime minister said he was proud of the conquest.
Ms. Ayuso’s Popular Party was founded decades ago by politicians from the Franco regime who wanted to turn over a new leaf. They treaded carefully when it came to nationalism, wary of any accusation of a return to the past.
The Popular Party has spent much of the past few years defending itself against a raft of corruption cases, which have engulfed a former treasurer and past prime ministers. But perhaps the party’s biggest challenge has come from the extreme right in the form of an upstart nationalist party called Vox.
The party’s growth — it’s now the third-largest in the national Parliament — has some veteran politicians concerned that conservatives are increasingly tempted to follow Vox further to the right.
On Sunday, the Popular Party president, Pablo Casado, laid out the group’s platform in a fiery speech from the floor of a bullfighting ring. He surprised some analysts with a hardened tone against immigration, abortion and a separatist movement in the Catalonia region.
“We’ve come seeking a reset on the disasters of the government,” he said, speaking of what he called the last “three dark years.”
The pope’s latest pronouncement on Mexico, in a letter last month, wasn’t the first time that Francis sought to make amends for the church’s role in the colonization of the Americas, which included the forced conversion and enslavement of Indigenous people and Africans. In 2015, he made a historic public apology during a visit to Bolivia, where he expressed regret for the church’s “grave sins” against native people during the conquest.
But this was the first time that his comments on the topic became such a political issue in Spain.
Asking for forgiveness is “part of cancel culture, of destroying the history of the nations of which we are so proud,” said Jorge Buxadé, a top leader of Vox.
One of the first to chime on the pope’s comments was Ms. Ayuso, the leader of the Madrid region and perhaps the most powerful rising star within the Popular Party, known for her contentious statements.
Then José María Aznar, a former prime minister, defended the Spanish conquest at the party’s national convention last week.
“I’m inclined to feel very proud of it, I’m not asking for forgiveness,” he said of the colonial era.
It was a topic that his party’s leaders have not spoken much about in the past. But Vox leaders have, giving the impression that the Popular Party was trying to seize on the issue to boost its support.
In an interview in her office this week, Ms. Ayuso said there was nothing radical about defending the Spanish conquest of the Americas. She accused those who were pushing the historical debate of promoting a kind of left-wing identity politics, which she sees as the main source of the country’s divisions.
“There are politicians who want to revise history and the Spanish legacy, and there is a feeling that we now have to blame the Spanish for a supposed original sin,” she said.