Election of Catholic leader eagerly awaited as Church-state ties hit low

4th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

Outcome of today's ballot will be crucial for relations with government

4 March 2008

MADRID - Spain's bishops will today elect a new leader for the next three years in a vote that will all have a direct impact on Church-state relations over the coming legislature.

Just five days before the Spanish general election, the 78 members of Spain's Episcopal Conference are being asked to choose between the moderate incumbent leader of the body of Spanish bishops, Ricardo Blázquez, and his fiercely conservative predecessor Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, the archbishop of Madrid.

The outcome of both polls will determine whether Spaniards are in for a continuation of the tempestuous relations between the Church and the state that have marked the last four years, a strengthening of ties, or, quite possibly, an even greater rift.

Since taking over the Episcopal Conference from Rouco in 2005, Blázquez has attempted - frequently unsuccessfully - to steer a middle course between Catholic hardliners and the Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. While he has joined angry churchgoers and conservatives in criticising legislation legalising gay marriage, making divorce easier and changing the way religion is taught at schools, he has stopped short of inflaming tensions too far.

Rouco, on the other hand, has consistently attacked the government, often resorting to a fire-and-brimstone rhetoric that undermined Blázquez's authority and led the government to hit back. Along with two other conservative archbishops, Agustín García-Gasco of Valencia and Antonio Cañizares of Toledo, he claimed at a meeting in December that Zapatero's policies had put democracy at risk and constituted a violation of human rights.

Should Rouco be elected today and Zapatero retain power on Sunday, Church-state relations will all but certainly be in for an even rockier ride - a possibility the prime minister appeared to acknowledge at the weekend.

"Some bishops have overstepped the mark... I'll make things very clear (to them)," Zapatero said, apparently confirming proposals to revise the hefty financial benefits the Catholic Church receives in Spain.

If Blázquez and Zapatero win, the situation would likely continue on very much as it has during the past legislature, while, conversely a victory by the conservative Popular Party, which has closer ties to the Church, would undoubtedly help smooth Church-state relations no matter whether Rouco or Blázquez lead the Episcopal Conference.

While opinion polls ahead of the general election give Zapatero's Socialists a narrow lead, how bishops will vote today is less clear. What is certain, however, is that Rouco has strong chances of reclaiming his old job.


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