Spain’s President José María Aznar greeted the Mexican press corps shortly after 9 a.m. on July 2. He began by extending "triple congratulations" to his host Vicente Fox-on the first anniversary of Fox’s electoral victory over the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), on his fifty-ninth birthday, and on his marriage earlier in the morning to Marta Sahagún, his press spokesperson and companion.

News of those nuptials jolted Mexico’s Roman Catholic hierarchy because neither Fox nor Sahagún had had previous marriages annulled. Mexico City’s Cardinal Archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera denied that the couple would be excommunicated, but said they could not take the sacraments. Guadalajara’s Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iñiguez, the Mexican cleric closest to John Paul II, was more critical. He voiced sadness for the president’s "irregular, sinful situation," which set a "bad example" for Mexico’s 101 million inhabitants, 85 to 90 percent of whom are Catholic.

A cloud still hangs over Fox-church relations as the reform-minded president prepares to visit the pope in early October, and the controversy affords an opportunity to ask several questions: What is the recent church-state record in Mexico? Who are powerful players in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and what role did they play in Fox’s election? How have Fox’s ties with the church evolved?

Victors in the 1910-16 Mexican revolution savaged the church for its close association with ousted dictator Porfirio Díaz. In debates leading to the 1917 Constitution, General Francisco Mújica denounced priests as "vampires" and "vultures." He and fellow Jacobins outlawed church involvement in elementary schools, declared marriages to be civil contracts, barred religious publications from commenting on politics, and severely restricted the church’s property and legal rights.

Though these prohibitions remained on the books until 1992, a modus vivendi with the church followed the bloody 1927-29 Cristero rebellion that pitted the army against Catholic militants in central Mexico. In return for the church’s recognition of the revolutionary regime, PRI presidents winked at proscribed religious practices, allowing the church gradually to move back into education, reopen sanctuaries and seminaries, and acquire property through wealthy laymen.

Although the church has failed to obtain its own radio and TV stations, lay organizations have opened at least five television channels to the broadcast of Masses, Bible readings, and other religous programs. The church-state rapprochement also included the unpublicized administration of sacraments to prominent ruling-party politicians and their families. In some ways, the church had the best of both worlds: it staved off legal sanctions while enjoying a much better public image than "corrupt" politicians and the PRI.

Archbishop Jerónimo Prigione, who arrived in Mexico as papal nuncio in 1978, was determined to codify the church’s informal advances. The veteran diplomat courted PRI notables, forging such a strong bond with then-President Carlos Salinas that the latter authorized a direct phone line between Los Pinos, the Mexican president’s residence, and Prigione’s office. The nuncio’s cultivation of influential politicians paved the way for the modification of the Constitution’s anticlerical provisions and the renewal of diplomatic links between Mexico and the Vatican in 1992.

Even as the adroit Prigione wined and dined top officials, he helped promote a conservative group of bishops. Members of the so-called "Club of Rome" took their cues from the Holy See, ran their dioceses in a top-down fashion, cozied up to Mexico’s business elite, and used their contacts to combat the legalization of abortion, gain access to the media, slow Protestant advances, and kibitz on social and economic policy. Prominent in this informal fraternity were Rivera, Sandoval, Bishop Onésimo Cepeda Silva of Ecatepec, and Yucatán’s Bishop Emilio Berlié Belaunzarán.

On questions of social activism, the Club of Rome was contemptuous of Mexico’s ever-shrinking number of liberation theologians. The Club’s nemesis was Samuel Ruiz García, bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. Don Samuel had stridently defended indigenous peoples, demanded that they be granted municipal autonomy and broader political rights, deplored the self-serving politicians and affluent landowners who exploited them, and provided an environment congenial to the Zapatista rebels who sparked a short-lived uprising in early 1994.

Before Ruiz retired in 2000, the Vatican placed a bishop coadjutor in his diocese. But much to Rome’s dismay, newcomer Raúl Vera López cast his lot with the outspoken Ruiz García. Even though Vera López was transferred to Saltillo, he and Ruiz García continue to champion indigenous rights.

The official Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) occupies the middle of the Catholic spectrum. Headed by Bishops Luis Morales Reyes (San Luis Potosí), José Martín Rabago (León), and Abelardo Alvarado (Mexico City), these moderates constitute the biggest bloc among Mexico’s ninety-five bishops. As such, they resist being manipulated by the Vatican and demonstrate a keen sense of nationalism. For example, even though Ruiz García was too radical for the tastes of most of the country’s bishops, they rallied to his defense when Prigione and his allies attempted to oust him.

Whatever the differences among the bishops, the candidacy of Fox seemed like a godsend. As standard-bearer of the pro-Catholic National Action Party, Fox was a practicing Catholic, who had attended Jesuit schools before entering the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. Equally important, Fox publicly attended Mass, lofted the standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a campaign banner, and adopted the Cristeros’ battle cry: "If I advance, follow me. If I hesitate, push me. If I flee, kill me!"

Still, despite Fox’s Catholic bona fides, the Club of Rome favored the PRI’s presidential candidate Francisco Labastida. It apparently believed that he would win, and Rivera Carrera et al. had become increasingly skilled in navigating the labyrinthine corridors of the seventy-one-year-old political system. Bishop Cepeda Silva, a lawyer and the golf-playing scion of a well-to-do family, became the club’s interlocutor with the Labastida camp. According to Guillermo H. Cantú, who wrote a book about the 2000 campaign, Labastida privately promised that, if elected, he would officially recognize seminaries and other religious institutions, bestow a tax deduction on religious organizations, and allow parents to give religious instruction in public schools.

But while the Club of Rome may have preferred the PRI, the CEM was eager for change. It argued that the Mexican church should open itself to greater democracy even as it impelled the country’s democratization. After all, the PRI regime and its authoritarian culture had given rise to corruption and widespread poverty.

On May 2, 2000, the CEM crystallized these ideas in "La democracia no se puede dar sin ti: Elecciones 2000" ("The 2000 Elections Cannot Yield Democracy without You"). This document urged the faithful to vote for pro-life candidates, who encourage value-oriented, high-quality education and bring a moral perspective to economic policy-with a "special emphasis" on generating employment for everyone. This job description seemed tailor-made for Fox, as did the admonition that a Catholic cannot vote for a politician whose platform offends "moral and ethical principles." Five days later, the hierarchy issued an episcopal letter that reiterated the imperative for Catholics to embrace democracy and reject electoral fraud.

Later in the month, Pope John Paul II canonized twenty-seven Mexicans, all but two of whom died in the Cristero rebellion. This action underlined the animus of the PRI’s founders toward the church, which stimulated voter turnout in the hard-fought contest.

The Fox administration hit the ground running, at least as far as the church was concerned. First, Fox took Communion at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe the morning of his inauguration; and, while he was delivering his first presidential address before ten thousand people and a national television audience, his daughter rushed onto the stage to hand him a crucifix. Second, the new chief executive named conservative Catholics to head both the Department for Women and Children and the Ministry of Labor. The labor secretary wasted no time in declaring the Virgin of Guadalupe "patron" of Mexico’s workers, much to the chagrin of anticlerical union leaders. Third, the government significantly boosted allocations to religious groups to undertake social projects.

Such benefits aside, however, elements of the church have taken aim at several Fox programs. Hostile to neoliberal economics, the CEM has questioned the impact on the poor of the plan for ambitious tax reform. Among other things, this bill would extend the unpopular value-added tax (IVA) to food, medicine, books, and school tuition. Even Pope John Paul II has obliquely criticized the IVA measure. Such carping, however, overlooks the fact that the richest one-fifth of the population enjoys 42 percent of the benefits of exempting food and medicine from the IVA.

Vera López, García Ruiz, and other bishops have excoriated the watering-down of Indian Culture and Rights legislation. In its original form, the proposal would have granted autonomy to indigenous communities. Wary of political Balkanization, Congress attenuated the measure so it simply reiterated the equality of all Mexicans, while permitting states to pass laws appropriate to their Indian populations. Fox initially extolled the legislation, then disparaged it, and finally signed it into law in early August.

But his marriage has sparked the biggest rift between the chief executive and the church hierarchy. Many bishops feel betrayed. When seeking votes, Fox portrayed himself as a fervent Catholic, but once in office, he and Sahagún married without obtaining annulments. "Won’t average Mexicans conclude that if an ostensibly good Catholic like the president can act in this manner, they can too?" the clerics ask.

In concentrating on Fox, the bishops reveal their fixation on the president-as-prime-mover in Mexican politics. However, reforms in the 1990s have greatly enlarged the power of Congress, which-dominated by the PRI and anticlerical leftists-shows little sympathy for the church’s agenda. While chiding the chief executive, the bishops have also overlooked the machinations of his first wife, Lilian de la Concha, who now resides in Rome. There, she has become a devotee of Father Marcial Maciel-the Mexican-born founder and head of the powerful Legionaries of Christ-who introduced her to the pontiff. She took advantage of her ties to Maciel to slow efforts by Sahagún and Fox to obtain annulments, according to church expert Fred Alvarez Palafox.

Church leaders also find themselves at odds with the people over the marriage. Forty-seven percent of respondents interviewed applauded the union, while only 10 percent disapproved (and 39 percent expressed indifference), according to a July poll conducted by the newspaper Reforma. Alvarez believes that most priests also approved of the wedding.

Whether the issue is the presidential nuptials, abortion, religious education, Chiapas, or revenue policy, the church elite-with few exceptions-have lost touch with the majority of Mexicans. This is evident on Sunday mornings, when priests deliver homilies to empty pews, while worshipers flock to Protestant churches, especially in the poverty-ridden South. Should John Paul II use the upcoming presidential visit to chastise Fox, the pope will only widen the cleavage between the hierarchy and the Mexican masses.

Published in the 2001-09-28 issue: View Contents

George Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary, has written Mexico: The Changing of the Guard, published by the Foreign Policy Association in New York.

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