ROME – Sometimes at Vatican gatherings, what isn’t discussed, at least in public, is just as revealing as what is.
That seemed to be the case Friday, when some 350 European spiritual and political leaders, including cardinals and members of the European parliament, came together on the very day that Catalonia declared its independence and Madrid decided to impose direct rule over the breakaway region, and yet the Spanish crisis was more the elephant in the room than an item on the agenda.
Almost no one seemed to want to touch the Catalan push for independence in any public way, perhaps reflecting both the political sensitivity of the issue and also the fact that the Catholic Church itself isn’t of one mind.
Friday’s list of panelists for the Oct. 27-29 conference included Cardinal Juan José Omella, of Barcelona, the region’s capital, and he declined to speak with journalists. Media members weren’t allowed into the event, called the “Dialogue (Re) Thinking Europe.”
However, behind closed doors Omella told the gathering that he “shared the pain and suffering” of the people after the unilateral declaration of independence. He said that his “heart cries” with them, and asked for “God to help” Catalonia “to avoid confrontation and to build a future of peace.
“After my two years leading the Archdiocese of Barcelona, I can say that I profoundly love Barcelona and Catalonia,” he said, speaking in French. “They are wonderful people.” Yet, he said, “I also love Spain and Europe, to which we belong, and where I have received my formation when I was young, both in France and in Belgium.”
Speaking with Crux on the side of the conference, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said that the event was “underlining the importance of the European Union.”
Asked specifically about what can the union do to remain strong after situations such as the Catalonia independence and the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, Marx said that the region is now in a “new situation.”
“My hope is that in these crises, most Europeans see that Europe is an advantage for us,” the cardinal said.
Several participants told Crux that the issue of Catalonia was brought up during one of the sessions, with one participant attempting to criticize the way the national government had dealt with the issue and its inability to foster dialogue. Francisco Vázquez y Vázquez, Spanish ambassador to the Holy See from 2006 to 2011, cut him short, saying that this wasn’t the place nor the time for the discussion.
At a press conference on Friday morning, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, briefly referred to the issue, speaking about the return of populism in Europe, fueling pro-independence movements and further fragmenting the continent.
Referring to the multiplicity of perspectives within the Church, Gallagher said it’s “perfectly normal.” The Holy See, he added, recommends the Church remain on the sidelines of party politics, adding that politics as a science is “entirely relative,” and not a dogma of faith.
Gallagher, who was openly against Brexit ahead of the British referendum, didn’t take a stand on the Catalonia secessionist movement on Friday.
Ahead of the public referendum held in Catalonia in late September, the Spanish bishops’ conference released a statement calling for politicians, civil institutions and the people to avoid “irreversible decisions” of “grave consequences.”
There have been no official statements from the Vatican regarding the referendum in recent months, and after the refusal from some of its top diplomats to speak about it on Friday, none is expected.
The bishops of Catalonia have yet to speak about the most recent happenings. In a joint statement released on Sept. 20, they chose to remain impartial and urged Catholics to pray for Catalonia in this “delicate moment.” Yet Bishop Xavier Novell of Solsona, has openly supported Catalonian independence, proudly posting a picture on social media of himself casting a vote in the referendum.
On the day of the referendum, a priest even created the appearance of a Mass to allow the pro-independence movement to count the ballots in his church. In September, 300 Catholic priests and deacons in Catalonia signed an open letter defending its right to hold a referendum on independence.
One of the few Church leaders to have spoken out in recent days is retired Cardinal Fernando Sebastián Pamplona and Tudela, who called the crisis in Catalonia a “true institutional insurrection, directed from political power, accompanied and empowered from below by a widespread strong popular sentiment.”
His words came in an article he penned for the latest issue of Vida Nueva, a Catholic Spanish weekly.
Friday afternoon, Father José M. Gil Tamayo, Secretary General of the Spanish bishops’ conference sent out a tweet, saying: “Our prayer and sorrow [for] events today. Respect for the rule of law and for the Constitution ensure our peaceful coexistence.”
Francis has spoken about the issue a handful of times, mostly in passing.
He was asked specifically about the Catalonia situation in 2014, during an interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.
“Every division worries me,” the pontiff said.
He went on to distinguish between independence for emancipation, as was the case of the American continent that emancipated itself from European states, and independence by secession, which he called “a dismemberment.”
In June 2016, during an in-flight press conference coming back from his apostolic visit to Armenia, the pontiff was asked about Brexit. The pope said he regretted the fact that “there’s an air of division, not only in Europe but also in other countries: Catalonia, last year Scotland … These divisions, I’m not saying are dangerous, but it’s necessary to study things thoroughly, find viable solutions, before a division.”
Earlier this month, also in Vida Nueva, a report after an Oct. 2 meeting between Ambassador Gerardo Bugallo and Francis claimed that the pontiff had expressed opposition to Catalan independence, describing it as part of the “Holy See’s position against every self-determination process that is not justified by a process of decolonization.”
While the Vatican hasn’t officially confirmed that claim, it hasn’t denied it either.
On Friday, during a coffee break on the side of the conference, Mairead McGuinness, Vice-President of the European Parliament, spoke with a small group of journalists, including Crux. She was asked about the situation in Catalonia, and the possibility of the EU mediating in the conflict.
She avoided referring to the issue directly, saying that growing up in Ireland, because of the conflict with Northern Ireland, she “saw and heard terrible things,” and that the EU was part of the peace process.
“Religious leaders, political leaders, took great risks for peace,” she said. “I value the idea of peace and people working together. Whatever the crisis is, wherever it is, if there is a willingness for people to work together, I think we can find solutions. But it needs to be done in a calm way.”