The Catholic Church has had a greater level of influence in the political and social development of Spain than can possibly be described. The depth of commitment of tens of millions of Spanish Christians has left an indelible mark on that country’s history. At present, just over 70 percent of Spain’s population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, with most of the remainder of the country’s population identified as Muslim. That the role of the Catholic Church in Spain’s development has been enormous and its influence all-pervasive is a major theme in Benito Perez Galdos’ 1876 novel of unrequited love and treachery, Dona Perfecta. Another major, and more consequential theme of Dona Perfecta, though, is the clash between modernism and science on the one hand and Christian orthodoxy on the other, and it is this latter theme that provides the story its drama.
Dona Perfecta, set in late 19th Century Spain, is the story of a young professional engineer, Don Jose (Pepe) Rey, the beautiful cousin to whom he is to be married per an arrangement between his father and aunt, Rosario, and the efforts of that same aunt, Dona Perfecta, to prevent the marriage she originally supported even to the extremes of causing Pepe’s death. Initially taken with her young, handsome and intelligent nephew, Perfecta turns against him when she discovers that he has eschewed religion for science. The story takes place mostly in the small, highly-orthodox town of Orbajosa, a village dominated by its cathedral and where Roman Catholicism remains the strongest presence in the daily lives of its inhabitants. Pepe’s arrival at Orbajosa, originally a cause of celebration for the socially-prominent Perfecta, turns nasty as the revelation of Pepe’s atheism turns her increasingly against the idea of his marriage to her daughter.
At first, Dona Perfecta attempts to block the marriage through moderate appeals to Pepe’s humanity – an effort in which she is supported by the local clergy in the person of Don Inocencio, to whom Perfecta is very close. Attempting to diplomatically resolve the dispute in Perfecta’s favor, while condemning Pepe’s rejection of theological principle in favor of science, Inocencio states,
"I am a poor priest, whose only learning is some knowledge of the ancients," responded Don Inocencio. "I recognize the immense value, from a worldly point of view, of Senor Don Jose's scientific knowledge, and before so brilliant an oracle I prostrate myself and am silent."
This is followed by a passage, though, in which one can detect the depths of Perfecta’s new-found but growing dislike of her nephew:
"Senor Don Inocencio," said Dona Perfecta, looking alternately at her nephew and her friend, "I think that in judging this boy you are more than benevolent. Don't get angry, Pepe, or mind what I say, for I am neither a savante, nor a philosopher, nor a theologian; but it seems to me that Senor Don Inocencio has just given a proof of his great modesty and Christian charity in not crushing you as he could have done if he had wished."
As Pepe continues to resist his aunt’s efforts at blocking his impending marriage to Rosario, with whom he is deeply infatuated, a feeling that is mutual, the mutual antipathy between Perfecta and Pepe becomes more intense. In one tense exchange, Perfecta denounces Pepe:
“Go away! You are dead to me. I forgive you, provided you go away. I will not say a word about this to your father. What horrible selfishness! No, there is no love in you. You do not love my daughter!"
Pepe, an equal to his aunt’s anger and bitterness, notes his own descent into a most notably unchristian state:
“I was reasonable, and now I am a brute; I was respectful, and now I am insolent; I was civilized, and now I am a savage. You have brought me to this horrible extremity; infuriating me and driving me from the path of rectitude which I was tranquilly pursuing. Who is to blame—I or you?"
Pepe’s eventual death as a result of Perfecta’s machinations and Rosario’s descent into madness and consequent commitment to an asylum provide Dona Perfecta its “Romeo and Juliet” ending in which no one really triumphs in the end.
Perez Galdos’ novel captures well the conflict between science and religion that continues to divide people today, and the extremes to which people will go in defending their beliefs while seeking to marginalize those with whom they disagree.