Divided Church looks ahead to March vote

27th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

27 November 2007, MADRID - The Spanish Catholic Church has traditionally tried to keep dissent within its ranks out of the public eye, but as bishops prepare to elect a new leader in March, the rift between conservative and progressive clergymen is becoming more acute - and more visible.

27 November 2007

MADRID - The Spanish Catholic Church has traditionally tried to keep dissent within its ranks out of the public eye, but as bishops prepare to elect a new leader in March, the rift between conservative and progressive clergymen is becoming more acute - and more visible.

The decision last week of the current head of the Episcopal Conference, Ricardo Blázquez, to break an unwritten rule and apologise for the Church's role in the Spanish Civil War may have fired the starting shot for an intense and possibly acrimonious campaign to choose his successor. Soon after Blázquez, who may seek re-election, made the comments suggesting that the Church should seek forgiveness for supporting Franco's uprising, conservatives sought to reaffirm their traditional stance, portraying the institution as one more victim of the war, and Franco as a crusader of God.

Many conservatives would like to ensure that position remains entrenched so as not to have to deal with uncomfortable questions from the past, and therefore are eager to get Blázquez, the bishop of Bilbao, out of power.

The deeply conservative archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela, who preceded Blázquez as president of the Episcopal Conference, is a serious contender, as too is Antonio Cañizares, the no-less conservative archbishop of Toledo who was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in March last year. As of Saturday, they have been joined on the top tier of the Spanish Catholic Church by three other clergymen appointed to the cardinalate by Benedict XVI. The new Spanish cardinals - Lluis Martínez Sistach, archbishop of Barcelona, Agustín García-Gasco, archbishop of Valencia, and Urbano Navarrete, a former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University - are less clear in their political leanings.

Blázquez, whose election three years ago surprised many, has evidently won less favour with the Vatican. He is still a mere bishop - the first to hold the post of Episcopal Conference president - and has consistently been passed up for promotion by the pope.

Whether a moderate or conservative takes over the Episcopal Conference will all but certainly have implications for the Church's relations with the state.

Although the Church remains bitterly opposed to many of the Socialist government's policies - from legalising gay marriage to making divorce easier - Blázquez has refrained from using the kind of inflammatory language favoured by Rouco and tensions have eased of late. A small sign of the better relations came at the weekend when Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega attended a dinner at Spain's Vatican embassy in honour of the new cardinals. During the meeting she called for mutual "respect" and noted that without it "there can be no understanding in a democracy."

Spanish diplomatic sources described the meeting as "cordial" and a reflection of the "current good relations between Spain and the Holy See."

Whether Church-state ties remain that way will depend on more factors than the outcome of the Episcopal Conference election on March 3, however. Days later, Spaniards will also go to the polls to elect a new government. It remains to be seen how the clergy will react to a second Socialist term or a new Popular Party administration.

[Copyright EL PAÍS, SL./ JUAN G. BEDOYA / Ángeles Espinosa 2007]

Subject: Spanish news

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