The end of Antonio María Rouco’s tenure at the helm of the Spanish Episcopal Conference marks the end of an old, intransigent leadership. His replacement, Ricardo Blázquez, has a track record that suggests greater moderation in his attitude, which does not necessarily augur any changes of import. During his own earlier presidency of the episcopal body (2005-2008), Blázquez did not join the other bishops in the street protests against the social policies of the Socialist government, and he did not get re-elected because he lacked support from Pope Benedict XVI, who preferred Rouco over him. Yet Blázquez, who has since been serving as vice-president, is a leading member of an organization that stands out for being more backward than its European equivalents, for its penchant for meddling in political affairs and for its reluctance to embrace reform.
One of the main problems for the Spanish Catholic Church is the progressive decline in the number of faithful and religious callings. Faced with an increasingly secular society, the bishops have struggled to preserve their influence by pressuring the various governments to let them keep their privileges. They did this while losing track of the goals set out in the 1979 state-Church accords regarding progressive self-financing. The bishops are also ignoring their notable loss of moral authority in a country where 70 percent of citizens consider themselves Catholic, yet most fail to observe ecclesiastical mandates and criteria. Fewer than 20 percent regularly go to Mass.
The Spanish Episcopal Conference, whose glory days stretch back to the Franco era, is still in need of a transition of its own. It bears noting that the accords they invoke to do things such as teach Catholic religion at school using state funds (700 million euros a year) were negotiated before the Constitution was passed. It is also noteworthy that it was Blázquez himself who in 2007 managed to raise the state’s contribution to the bishops (via income tax receipts) by as much as 37 percent in order to guarantee their financial sustainability. This sustainability has grown enormously over the last few years through a system of property registration that enabled the Catholic Church to do things like put the famous Mezquita de Córdoba to its name.
During his inaugural address on Wednesday, and now that Rome is apparently sending out signals of change, Blázquez promised to head “a Church with open doors.” Yet the vague nature of his statements suggests that the new head of the bishops is betting on continuity on issues of doctrine and on the organization’s status quo. Yet his bonhomie and temperance — and the fact that he should be on the same wavelength as Rome — raises hopes about a refreshing change from Rouco, who, true to his nature, said farewell the day before when Spain was observing the 10th anniversary of the March 11 train bombings, with a message that seemed to fuel the conspiracy theories that have worn political relations thin for so many years.