By John Ward Anderson and Garance Burke
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday , May 14, 2000 ; A22
MEXICO CITY, May 13 –– The Roman Catholic Church, one of the most influential
institutions in Mexico, has moved to
assert a role in national politics after more than half a century of being muzzled by the government.
During a five-day congress of 120 bishops that ended May 7, the church
called on its members--almost 90 percent of
Mexico's 96 million inhabitants--to embrace democracy and reject electoral fraud. It said failing to vote in the July 2
presidential elections would be a "moral sin."
While the bishops did not criticize any party by name and denied that
the church favors specific candidates, much of their work
explicitly censured long-standing electoral practices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled Mexico
since 1929 and has frequently been accused of voting fraud.
The church and the PRI have been adversaries for generations. In the
1920s, the church was crushed--its cathedrals sacked, its
priests killed, its schools closed--and banished from Mexican politics. The government began relaxing some of its most stringent
anticlerical laws eight years ago; for example, it permitted priests and nuns to vote.
The broadsides by the church this year are giving considerable ammunition
to Mexico's political opposition, which has one of its
best chances ever of winning the presidency and ending the PRI's 71 years of unbroken rule. The leading challenger, Vicente
Fox of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, seized the opportunity to incorporate a March pastoral letter into his
most recent campaign mailings.
The bishop's letter he cited called for "a reformulation of the whole
political system," adding, "If power does not change hands,
there is no democratic transition."
Fox, whose party has been an ally of the church, has pulled about even
with the PRI's candidate, Francisco Labastida Ochoa,
in recent opinion polls. Last week, he alarmed some Mexicans by saying the church should be given tax breaks and allowed to
form political organizations.
The bishops opened their five-day congress with a pastoral letter that
blasted one of the pillars of the PRI--the organization and
mobilization of people into what are known here as "corporate" voting blocks.
"It is time to move beyond the vicious practices of . . . corporative
voting," said the May 2 letter, which went on to cite a litany
of irregularities often blamed on the PRI. "Votes are free and cannot be bought in exchange for handouts or offers of
subsequent benefits. . . . Votes cannot be obtained through pressure, through intimidation or coercion, nor through threats or
retaliations." The letter said any dishonest voting scheme "constitutes a grave moral sin."
Javier Trevino, a senior adviser to Labastida, denied that the pastoral
letter was aimed at the PRI or would help Fox's
"Labastida has made proposals to improve the lives of all Mexicans,
which is what people want to hear," he said. "Fox is trying
to use the religious issue for political gain, which is wrong, as the bishops have said."
The bishops' meeting--the first of its kind here since 1924--climaxed
May 6 with an outdoor Mass attended by 50,000 people
in Mexico City's main square, which fronts the oldest cathedral in the Americas. It was a watershed event for many Mexicans.
Until eight years ago, public prayer ceremonies were outlawed in Mexico, and priests were banned from wearing clerical garb
"I think this Mass is positive because it is a public demonstration
of our faith," said law student Antonio Perez Lopez, 24. "We
came to hear the homily, and as the cardinal said, the government should not fear the church. Christ did not come here to take
the president's place or to get a seat in the Chamber of Deputies."
Catholicism was brought to Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s
and is deeply rooted in Mexican history and
culture. In the 300 years of Spanish rule, 12,000 Catholic churches were built across Mexico and most indigenous peoples
After independence in 1810, serious political conflict erupted over
the church's backing of conservative opponents of reform.
Left-leaning reformists--blaming the church for stymieing change and supporting dictators--put numerous anticlerical restrictions
in the constitutions of 1857 and 1917, stripping the church of its right to own property, outlawing public religious ceremonies,
closing Catholic schools and banning religious education.
After the revolution of 1910 and a brutal religious war in the 1920s
during which tens of thousands of people were killed--and
which gave rise to the PRI--a new relationship gradually evolved in which the church argued for better social and economic
conditions but stayed out of partisan politics and avoided criticizing the government.
Over the decades, the church's hierarchy came to accept the status quo.
But in the 1980s, as the ruling party showed signs of
weakening, some priests began to speak out more forcefully against human rights abuses, government repression, electoral
fraud and socioeconomic injustice.
Seeing the relationship as archaic, in 1992 then-President Carlos Salinas
de Gortari pushed through a series of reforms that
normalized diplomatic relations with the Vatican after a 125-year break, permitted religious education and once again allowed
priests to wear cassocks and say Mass in public.
Last week's bishops' congress strained to go even further, straying close to a frontal attack on the ruling party.
"The attempt to corner the church, to keep the church inside the vestry,
[the attitude] that the church should not speak, should
not live, should not express itself, is an obsolete liberal attitude of the 18th century that still persists in some groups who think
they own this country and block all those who do not think as they do," said Cardinal Juan Sandoval, the archbishop of
Guadalajara. "We are all Mexican, and we all have the right to participate."
But despite their deep faith, recent opinion polls show that 70 percent
of Mexicans want the church to stay out of national
"The church talks about politics when they want to manipulate us for
their own objectives," said Teresa Flores, 40, who
attended the May 6 Mass with her two children and like many Mexicans was schooled on official textbooks critical of the
church's role in Mexican history. "They want to have the power to manipulate us again. It's all a big business; it's about money."
And the church itself is deeply divided about what its mission should
be, reflecting regional and ideological differences and the
gap between the hierarchy--which is considered rich and conservative--and parish priests in contact with Mexico's poor.
Church officials who have advocated a more active role in social and
economic issues have been purged from leadership
positions. But at the same time, there are misgivings about taking a more public role in the country's political life.
"This kind of Catholicism for the masses gives voice to an old triumphant
attitude of a church that wants to demonstrate its
power in the face of a decadent state," said the Rev. Gonzalo Balderas, a theologian who teaches at Mexico City's
Ibero-American University, which is run by the Jesuit order.
"Some members of the church hierarchy identify with the circles of economic
and political power here, but those kinds of
attitudes do not help spread the Gospel," he said. "If the church wants to be loyal to Jesus, it needs to walk with the poor, and
in Mexico, there are millions of poor people."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company