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Change ahead: What Spain's new episcopal leaders face

The Spanish bishops’ conference elected as president Archbishop Luis Argüello of Valladolid, and Cardinal José Cobo of Madrid as vice-president. As the bishops get underway, they face a raft of challenges, at a critical time of change for the Church in Spain.

Archbishop Luis Argüello. Courtesy photo.

For his part, Argüello was until 2022 secretary general of the bishops’ conference, when he resigned because of his appointment in the Archdiocese of Valladolid.

Cobo, who until last year was auxiliary bishop of the Madrid archdiocese, has had a meteoric rise in the last year since his appointment as archbishop of Madrid. He was named cardinal in the last consistory, is member of the Dicastery of Bishops and was regarded in Spain as the Vatican's preference candidate for presidency of the bishops’ conference.

But Cobo is relatively unknown to many Spanish bishops, some of whom have expressed concern that the cardinal aims to advance a theological and pastoral out of step with the leanings of the conference’s majority. 

At the same, those same leanings put many bishops at odds with the social mores of an increasingly secularized and progressive Spain, and, on some issues, increasingly at odds with the trajectory of some Vatican dicasteries. 

More acutely, a significant number of Spain's dioceses will see their bishops reach retirement age in the next 2 years — so the composition of the Spanish episcopate could be on the verge of major changes.

José Cobo Cano in 2014
Cardinal Jose Cobo. Courtesy photo.

How will Argüello and Cobo navigate that shifting landscape? That remains to be seen.

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The abuse crisis

In recent years, the Spanish bishops have been split over how to confront the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, and of clerical misconduct in broader terms.

To critics, Spain’s bishops have seemed to continue in recent years with attitudes towards sexual abuse typical of 20 or 30 years ago — downplaying the seriousness of the situation, not collaborating with civil authorities, refusing to provide financial compensation to victims, and offering little transparency in investigations.

Certainly, the national ombudsman's report on abuse  — and studies by various media outlets — indicated somewhat fewer abuse cases in Spain as compared to some other countries: just over 2,000 in a space of 70 years. But reports have also revealed that many bishops in Spain decided not to cooperate with investigating authorities, and failed to canonically investigate complaints that reached them through the media or the authorities.

Until a few months ago, the bishops had not been willing to create a fund for the compensation of victims, which the bishops had faced pressure to do.

And after the Spanish bishops asked a law firm to prepare its own independent report on cases of abuse within the Catholic Church in Spain, many bishops spoke against it.

People close to the case told The Pillar that the disagreement was over several issues: 

First, that the report was delivered very late, almost 9 months after the scheduled time for delivery. 

Second, that the report urged compensation to the victims. 

And, third, that the report indicated a greater number of victims than the bishops’ conference would have admitted.

But the bishops are not united on their approach to addressing the growing scandal over clerical abuse in Spain.

A minority of dioceses have opted for an approach which emphasizes transparency, while other diocese remain opaque about what protocols they have in place or whether these protocols are being faithfully applied.

Amid that controversy, Spain has recently faced misconduct scandals. 

A few months ago, a canon of the Valencia cathedral was murdered, and it emerged that the priest had been accused of welcoming migrants and street youth in exchange for sexual favors. 

Additionally, a priest from the diocese of Plasencia was arrested along with his boyfriend for illegally selling sexual enhancement pharmaceuticals. Its bishop, Ernesto Brotons, asked “not to act as judges, but as doctors” in the face of the situation.

Although the number of likely abuse cases is said to be fewer than in other countries, many analysts think that the bishops have shot themselves in the foot, creating an even bigger problem, by taking so long to confront the problem in Spain, and by taking an attitude that seems to minimize its severity—including from Argüello himself, who in 2021 said there were only “a few” abuse cases in Spain.

Before Argüello and Cobo's press conference after the election, they met with victims of clerical sexual abuse, promising to listen to victims. 

In Spain, the gesture has been taken by some as a first step toward reform. But there are many more steps ahead, if the Spanish bishops hope to regain credibility on the integrity of their institutions.


Secularization and vocations

As the situation of ecclesiastical abuse continues, the bishops also face the hastening pace of Spain’s secularization. 

While historically a Catholic country, there has long existed in Spain a deeply anticlerical minority. And since the end of Francisco Franco's dictatorship in 1975, the image of the Church has suffered by the perception of its closeness to the country’s dictator.

In recent decades, Spain has made a profound political shift towards progressivism, along with a declining number of people attending Mass, or discerning clerical or religious vocations.

The vocational situation is not as critical as in some countries, and varies considerably between dioceses. But on the whole, there are fewer and fewer vocations. 

On the whole, Spain has fewer than than 1,000 seminarians, and had fewer than 100 ordinations last year — the lowest number, in both categories, since records started being kept in Spain.  

Some dioceses, like Madrid, have relatively healthy situations, because of the presence of ecclesial movements and apostolates. The archdiocese currently has 84 seminarians, and another 15 young men in a pre-seminary program.

But other dioceses — and especially smaller ones —  are suffering more acutely from vocational shortages.

At the end of February, the nine diocesan bishops of the Castilla-León region gathered, in part to discuss that among those nine dioceses, there are only 39 seminarians, and the average age of the priests is 69.

For fewer than 1,000 seminarians, there are 85 seminaries in Spain, including 15 Redemptoris Mater seminaries, sponsored by the Neocatechumenal Way, along with a Jesuit seminary and the Bidasoa International Seminary, sponsored by Opus Dei. 

Last year, Pope Francis ordered an apostolic visitation to study the current status of Spanish seminaries, and in November, the Spanish bishops visited the pope in Rome to discuss the situation.

To almost all Spanish Church leaders, it seems clear that the number of seminaries will need to decrease, and that most dioceses can’t justify maintaining their historic seminaries. But the work of consolidation will not be easy. 

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A changing episcopate

By most accounts, the vast majority of Spanish bishops are of a theological tendency that can be described as — for  lack of a better term — “conservative.”

Across Spain, for example, the reception of Fiducia supplicans was relatively cool, with a few bishops speaking openly against the document. 

Some Spanish bishops, among them Argüello himself and the media savvy Bishop José Ignacio Munilla of Orihuela-Alicante, known for a YouTube channel with thousands of followers, are known for their opposition to abortion and gender ideology.

But most Spanish bishops have also been careful to avoid the appearance of confronting Pope Francis or opposing his agenda. 

Munilla, who has been a harsh critic of Fiducia supplicans, recently suspended a priest from his diocese, who had repeatedly branded Pope Francis a “heretic” and had said that his election was invalid. As usual, the labels “conservative” and “progressive” often fall short in ecclesiastical analyses.

And while the Spanish conference skews conservative, one source close to the conference said that framing has limits.  

“There is no Spanish Strickland,” he explained.

The source also explained a curious element of the bishops’ conference election. While the majority of the conference is largely seen as out of step with the priorities of Cobo, his election as vice president is seen internally as a nod to Rome, since Cobo is now considered the pope's man in Spain.

But that move might not be enough to win Rome's favor. The vice president of the conference has little actual power, and the executive council, a nine-member body that serves as a check and balance of the presidency, is now mostly filled with conservative bishops. 

Further, controversy over Francis has become more common in Spain.

Last week, a group of young Spanish priests — who have a YouTube show called “La Sacristía de la Vendée” — recorded a program with several guest priests in which one, seemingly as a joke, said he “prayed that the Holy Father would go quickly to Heaven.” Others continued making jokes in the same vein.

A sector of the Spanish Catholic press called for sanctions against those priests, arguing that an absence of sanctions would indicate that Spain’s bishops are unconcerned with defending the pope.

Some of those media figures are rumored in Spain to “have the ear” of the pope, amplifying the issue in Spain. And on Thursday, the YouTube channel announced that it would suspend its programming amid the controversy.

But the makeup of the Spanish episcopate is likely to change in the years to come, with observers predicting more moderate or progressive episcopal appointments in the coming years, including in the Archdiocese of Barcelona, ​​the second largest diocese in Spain.

According to sources close to the bishops’ conference, shortlists proposed by Spain’s apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, have been increasingly ignored in Rome, and the Vatican took an unusual step recently, by appointing a commission of bishops charged with helping the nuncio to develop episcopal shortlists.

Auza is considered theologically conservative and is believed to have influenced some major appointments in Spain, including the 2022 appointment of Argüello as archbishop of Valladolid.

But Rome’s commission of Spanish bishops, most of them close to Francis, reportedly came after several Auza shortlists and nominations for the Archdiocese of Madrid  were rejected in Rome. According to local media, this commission is composed of Cardinal Omella of Barcelona, Cardinal Osoro, Cardinal Blásquez, Archbishop Vicente Jiménez Zamora and Bishop Luis Ángel de las Heras.

As it happens, Auza is close to completing five years as nuncio in Spain, and the appointment of a more progressive or moderate nuncio, could lead to an even more rapid change in the composition of the Spanish episcopate and greater internal tensions.

All this suggests that ecclesiastical politics in Spain could be full of tensions in the short and medium term, as the tandem formed by Archbishop Argüello and Cardinal Cobo has the delicate task of trying to keep together an increasingly theologically and pastorally divided Church, amid an increasingly hostile secular culture. 

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