The Washington Post
Sunday , August 6, 2000 ; A01

Church Reemerges in Mexico

By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
 

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 5 Shortly after winning the Mexican presidency last month, Vicente Fox returned to his ranch in hilly central Mexico, and together with
family, bodyguards and reporters, attended Sunday Mass at a local church.

With news cameras flashing, Fox stepped forward and accepted Holy Communion from a Roman Catholic priest. The effect was stunning. The next morning, photos
of a president-elect publicly receiving the sacrament under headlines such as "Broken Tradition" were splashed in newspapers across the country.

Like so much here in this season of political revolution in Mexico, the role of the Catholic church is fundamentally changing with the election of the country's most
openly religious president in nearly a century.

Although 90 percent of Mexicans consider themselves Catholic, the church was officially invisible for most of the 20th century. Relegated to the sidelines of political
discourse by some of the world's toughest laws separating church and state, the church is now poised to take a more prominent role in public life and have an impact
on policy.

"It is a very big deal," said church historian and author Marta Elena Negrete. "I think Mexicans are very grateful that you can talk publicly about religion now."

Many Mexicans agree. They say this is a further step in Fox's attempt to make Mexico more like other modern democracies in which the church is separate from the
state, but leaders are permitted to display personal religious beliefs. But, especially as controversies erupted this week over abortion and Fox's divorce, there is
concern that Fox will inflict his strong religious convictions on others through official actions.

"Many people who voted for Fox are concerned and a bit afraid of what he will do" on such issues as religious education in public schools and distribution of
condoms in an effort to halt the spread of AIDS, said Roberto Blancarte, a scholar at the prestigious Colegio de Mexico who specializes in the Mexican church.

Fox has tried to calm those fears, saying he will not allow his personal religious views to influence public policy improperly. He has also pointedly distanced himself
from his pro-Catholic political party, the National Action Party (PAN). In some local jurisdictions where the PAN dominates the legislature, officials have outlawed
nudity in theaters, closed strip clubs, tried to enforce curfews and criticized homosexuals.

"The party will continue being a party; the government will be a government," Fox, who takes office Dec. 1, said last week.

Mexico has had a tumultuous relationship with the Catholic church since the Spanish conquistadors introduced it nearly 500 years ago. Reformers in the mid-19th
century imposed severe constitutional restrictions on the clergy, hoping to erase the immense power and privilege they enjoyed under Spanish rule. Those restrictions
were tightened after the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution by leaders who believed that a key element of modernizing Mexico was to create strict separation of church
and state. Especially in its early days, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed Mexico since 1929, actively tried to silence, if not squash, the
church, and the nation's political leaders kept their religious practices largely hidden.

It has only been since 1992, and landmark constitutional amendments, that Catholic priests and nuns have been allowed to vote. Until then, they also could not wear
clerical garb in public, hold religious services outdoors or own property. In the 1920s, Catholics were so angered by government persecution that they helped stage
the Cristero War, a bloody, and unsuccessful, uprising in which thousands of people died. Afterward, the church resigned itself to decades of official invisibility.

But slowly, since the constitutional changes, the church has become more vocal and visible. This May a symbolic outdoor Mass, the kind that had been banned for
generations, was held in Mexico City's historic main square, the Zocalo. On that day, 50,000 people gathered to hear Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the highest
ranking Roman Catholic official in Mexico and reportedly a leading contender to succeed Pope John Paul II, proclaim: "Our church cannot be the church of silence."

But as the church has broken its long silence, it has attracted critics.

Recently, a leading church journal, Nuevo Criterio, publicly advised Fox, who has been divorced for nine years, to either reconcile with his ex-wife or vow never to
remarry, as a moral example for Mexican Catholics.

"He cannot receive communion if he remarries," said Jose de Jesus Castellanos, editor of Nuevo Criterio, which is published by the archdiocese of Mexico. "We all
know that the church does not agree with divorce. Marriage is a commitment for life."

The journal article caused a stir in a country that has seen its divorce rate double in recent years and is unaccustomed to the church making such personal comments
about Mexico's political leaders. Even the church seemed a little surprised by its newfound pluckiness--Rivera and other church leaders quickly backed off the
article.

"In things personal and intimate, no one has the right to intervene," said Rivera after celebrating Mass a few days later. "These are issues exclusively for the person."

Then on Thursday, just as that controversy was settling, the state legislature in Guanajuato, where Fox was governor until his run for the presidency, dropped a
bombshell that became the talk of the airwaves. The legislature, controlled by PAN, extended the state's ban on abortions to include cases of rape.

"As legislators we have to consider not only the damage and pain of a woman who has been raped, but the greater evil that would occur with the death of an innocent
child," the lawmakers said in a statement.

"This confirms all our fears," said Marta Lamas, director of the Information Group on Reproductive Choice. "We have been saying, 'Beware of the PAN . . . they are
trying to get the agenda of the Vatican in Mexican politics.' " She said it is incredible that in the president-elect's hometown it is no longer legal for a woman or girl
who has been raped to have an abortion.

Abortion is generally outlawed in Mexico, but laws vary from state to state with--until this week--just about every jurisdiction permitting abortion in the case of rape,
and several permitting it if the woman's life is threatened.

The front page of today's La Jornada, a Mexico City daily, featured a large cartoon of the Grim Reaper reading about the new law in Guanajuato and saying, "This
sure is a useful law!" Critics quoted in today's newspapers, from women's rights groups to Fox's political opponents, agreed with the headline, "As the PAN
Advances, Modernity Recedes."

Fox was quoted saying that the measure was "strictly local," adding that his government is "not planning anything of this nature" at the national level.

For many, the new Guanajuato law has unsettling similarities to a case last year in the state of Baja California, where PAN government officials brought enormous
pressure to dissuade a 14-year-old rape victim named Paulina from having an abortion. When the girl and her mother complained to the state attorney general, he
responded by taking them to a Catholic priest. The case outraged human rights groups in Mexico and the United States.

As Fox prepares to take office, he is walking a fine line. In the face of criticism, he has toned down his behavior somewhat since a campaign rally at which he waved
a banner featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Federal election officials fined him about $1,800 for violating statutes prohibiting the mix of
religion and politics.

His approval ratings remain high. Fox also enjoys what Nicolas Checa, a strategist and pollster for the Fox campaign, calls a "democratic premium," a boost from
being elected in the most democratic elections in modern Mexican history. "That allows him to take political risks that another president could not. Another president
going to church could be seen as a right-wing nut. Not Fox. This guy was elected by a landslide."