"Alea iacta est," said a clergyman who recently spoke with Pope Francis about Spain. "The die has been cast. But there's no date yet." But other sources consulted by EL PAÍS were more categorical: they believe that the archbishop of Madrid, 77-year-old Cardinal Antonio María Rouco, will have a replacement by Christmas (even though he will remain in his post for three more months).
Despite the anxiety that is clearly felt in ecclesiastical circles, where change had been expected since before the summer, Rouco will very likely also be allowed to complete his fourth three-year term at the helm of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, a national assembly of Catholic leaders, which he is due to head until March.
Whenever it happens, it will be the end of a long tenure marked by Rouco's remarkable power and influence, very traditional views of the Church, and a taste for public controversy. In his latest address to assembled bishops on Monday, the man who has been the unquestionable leader of the prelates since the late 20th century did not veer from his usual rhetoric of the last 12 years. Not a word was said about the changes brewing within the Catholic Church since Pope Francis came to power in the Vatican; nor did any personal proposal for internal renovation issue from his lips. Instead, Cardinal Rouco insisted not once but up to three times on the importance of the unity of Spain. This was a reference to the independence drive by Catalan nationalists, which the region's clergymen have said does not run contrary to Church doctrine, reflecting an internal rift.
Rouco ignores reform and insists on the importance of Spanish unity
"We are concerned that the fraternal union among all the citizens of the various communities and territories of Spain, which share many centuries of common history, could break up," said Rouco. "The unity of the nation is a major part of our society's common good, and it must be treated with moral responsibility."
Besides the unity of Spain, another favorite topic is what he sees as legal attacks against the institutions of marriage and the family (he particularly abominates Spain's abortion and gay marriage laws). Rouco also insists that state-Church relations were perfectly defined by the 1979 Concordat, which he feels needs no further reform despite social concern that the agreements grant unfair advantages to the Catholic faith in a country that formally has no official religion. A recent poll showed that more than half of Spain's practicing Catholics would support an end to these privileges.
And so two years after tendering his resignation - which is mandatory at age 75 - Rouco comes to the end of his mandate showing strong signs of wear after many years as a force to be reckoned with. This at least seems to be the impression of Carlos Romero Caramelo, president of the Catholic Association of Propagandists, head of San Pablo CEU University Foundation, and the driving force behind an annual convention called Catholics and Public Life.
You need to engage humbly in dialogue, putting forward proposals"
"The Church's work is so vast that it cannot be encompassed, but it needs to improve its image on many fronts," says Romero Caramelo. "You need to engage in dialogue with a humble attitude, putting forward proposals, which is not what you see sometimes: you'd think [Spain's religious leaders] were angry at something."
If one thing is clear after consulting with many sources, it is that Pope Francis is personally aware of the situation in Spain, and he does not like what he sees. He even has first-hand experience with the Spanish Catholic Church: as a novice of the Company of Jesus, he studied in Alcalá de Henares and has visited the country many times, most recently to participate in the World Meeting of Families in Valencia in July 2006.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI both considered Spain "the number one problem among Western countries." The phrase is taken from the Episcopal Conference's publication of reference, Ecclesia, following speeches made by Rouco and his secretary general, Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, citing rampant anticlericalism, religious persecution, radical secularism, suppression of marriage between men and women and default on the 1979 Concordat among the ills afflicting the country. In his alarmist depiction, Rouco once said "a situation of martyrdom" existed for Catholics in Spain, while Martínez Camino asserted that "the Catholic Church has never encountered anything like this in its 2,000 years of existence." He was talking about same-sex marriage.
Francis is aware of Spain's situation and he does not like what he sees
But Pope Francis, who cut his pastoral teeth in Argentina, a country that also suffered criminal dictatorships that acted in the name of "Christian civilization," disagrees with this diagnosis. Instead, the reforming pope supports being merciful and begging forgiveness for mistakes of the past - which he personally did when he presided the Argentinean synod. Francis is now asking his bishops to smell of sheep; he is asking them for austerity and poverty; and that they stop obsessing about sex, divorce, abortion and homosexuality.
In sharp contrast, the all-powerful Rouco and Martínez Camino have participated in street protests aimed at bending the government's will; they have encouraged the beatification of Civil War martyrs that previous popes had put on hold to avoid reminding Catholics of bishops' involvement in the military coup that caused the war. Rouco and Martínez Camino publicly execrated the Socialist Party's Historical Memory Law, arguing that pursuing moral redress for the victims of Francoism only reopened old wounds. They claimed that the Iberian lynx enjoys more protection in Spain than a human child, and even proclaimed that in 1931 the Second Republic came up with a plan to exterminate the Roman Catholic Church. Some of those statements seemed so outrageous to other men of the cloth that the Madrid Forum of Priests once stated that this kind of talk is "schoolboy nonsense, unseemly in people who have the obligation to know and preach the truth."
Now, this same forum of priests and theologians is asking Pope Francis to appoint "an archbishop of whom it might be said that he is a Christian."
They said the Iberian lynx enjoys more protection in Spain than a human child
Aware that the Spanish Church is mired in a profound crisis, Francis is taking longer than expected to deal with the new appointments that are up to him, and to suggest the changes he feels necessary. He has called for all bishops to come to Rome from February 24 to March 8, 2014, when he will meet with them in groups of seven or eight. Besides a replacement for Rouco, Pope Francis must also find a substitute for the archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach, who was born in 1937 and is also resigning because of the age limit. Because this particular replacement has clear social and even political overtones, some experts believe Francis will be placing a trusted aide there.
There are many more issues up ahead for the Spanish Catholic Church, such as incorporating the changes trickling down from the Vatican into the 69 dioceses in which the territory is divided. Another test is coming up on Wednesday, when the Episcopal Conference elects a new secretary general to replace Martínez Caminos.
And so the man who seemed destined to be a great prelate, following in the footsteps of cardinals Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros and Ciriaco María Sancha, is instead ending his career with the Church in a divided and discredited state. Rouco is even getting the cold shoulder from the conservative Popular Party government, whose leader Mariano Rajoy has not met with him once in his nearly two years in office, and which refuses to strike down the laws that the cardinal so execrated when they were passed by the previous Socialist administration.