The new president of Spain’s bishops’ conference has pledged to promote reconciliation and coexistence in his traditionally Catholic country, while also seeking dialogue with its Socialist-led government.
“We cannot serve society, our communities or the Church unless we love them – without seeking privileges, we also need to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Cardinal Juan José Omella of Barcelona. “We are here to collaborate with all state institutions in service to the common good, and I think we can collaborate through a sound dialogue since we all need each other.”
The 73-year-old Church leader was speaking at a press conference after being elected at the bishops’ March plenary to succeed Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez, defeating his nearest conservative challenger, Archbishop Jesús Sanz Montes of Oviedo, by 55 votes to 29.
The Catholic Alfa y Omega weekly described Cardinal Omella as “one of Pope Francis’s strongmen”, adding that his “special social sensitivity” and openness to dialogue would match the Pontiff’s calls for “an outgoing Church, using a new language and new methods”.
Meanwhile, the El Diario daily said the election had been marred by “political intrigues”, including the circulation of an anonymous dossier purporting to link Omella with personnel scandals. It praised the outcome as a victory for the conference’s “moderate section”, which would assist negotiations with the government and help the Church achieve a necessary “generational and ideological change”.
Omella was appointed Archbishop of Barcelona in November 2015 and became a cardinal in June 2017.
Cardinal Omella helped to mediate when violence erupted after Catalonia’s 2017 referendum produced a strong majority for independence on a 42.3 per cent turnout but was ruled illegal by the Spanish government. As a member of the regional Tarraconense Episcopal Conference, he also urged mercy for former Catalan government members, whose heavy jail terms last October prompted fresh rioting in Catalonia, the wealthiest and least religious of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.
The cardinal’s election as bishops’ conference president comes at a time of Church-state tension in Spain, where the new Socialist-Unidas Podemos coalition under premier Pedro Sánchez, which holds a two-seat majority in the 350-strong Cortes, has tabled laws to allow euthanasia and downgrade school religion as part of a controversial package of secularising reforms.
Speaking to the La Vanguardia daily, Cardinal Omella defended the Church’s position, and urged the government to be “attentive to all citizens” and avoid “disrespectful, undemocratic unilateral decisions”. However, he added that Church and state should also “hear and listen to each other”, and establish “tables of dialogue”.
As its vice-president, the 87-member bishops’ conference chose Cardinal Carlos Osoro of Madrid, another strong backer of Pope Francis, who was elected overwhelmingly for the four-year term over his nearest challengers, who included Cardinal Antonio Cañizares of Valencia.