MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The Mexican government and the Roman Catholic
Church long had a relationship based on two pretenses: The church
pretended Mexico's anticlerical laws did not exist, and the government
pretended the church didn't violate them.
But Pope John Paul II will arrive this week in a country where the church
openly becoming more involved and aggressive in social and political issues.
The transformation began in 1992 when former President Carlos Salinas
granted the church official recognition, removing the cloud from such things
as church-run schools and public religious processions that had been
technically illegal for generations.
Building on that, church leaders now publicly and frequently criticize
government policies and speak out against political corruption and economic
policies they argue make the poor poorer.
And Pope John Paul II, who will arrive Friday in Mexico for a four-day
plans to announce a strategy for the church in the Americas that will include
involvement in political and social issues.
On the other side, President Ernesto Zedillo resents the church's failure
criticize the open support given by southeastern bishops to rebellious Indian
groups. He accuses them of being "theologians of violence."
"Perhaps it was easier in the old days, when we were all members of the
government party and we met in private," said the Rev. Manuel Olimon, a
professor of religious history at the Pontifical University in Mexico City.
Mexico has always been flush with political and religious contradictions.
It was born Catholic under Spain. Its patron saint is the Virgin of Guadalupe,
an Indian Mary whose image was carried as a battle standard by Mexican
Yet the church has had strong enemies. In the 1800s, intellectuals and
politicians, most of whom had been educated by the church, took away its
privileges and properties. Early this century, the anticlerical laws that were
supposed to confine religious activities within church buildings were
confirmed by revolutionary generals and leftists.
In the late 1920s, thousands died in the Cristero War, which pitted peasant
armies against what the church considered a godless government.
But in a country where 87 percent of the people identify themselves as
Catholic, government officials looked the other way as the church ran
schools and held public religious processions.
Priests educated many of the country's leaders, and bishops met secretly
with presidents who could not be seen attending a religious ceremony or
admit to any religious beliefs.
Olimon says many of the conflicts between church and state in Mexico arise
from differing interpretations of the concept of separation of church and
People "often do not understand that there is an area between religion
politics called ethics, and that there are values that are inspired by religion,"
he said. "I think both the government and the church are going through a
'getting used to' period, learning to live with each other in public."
Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera has urged citizens to protest tax
increases and demanded the government use tax revenues honestly. Cardinal
Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara recently urged people to protest price
increases and accused congressmen of being out of touch with the people.
The biggest clash has been over the church's support for the demands by
Indian rebels for social justice in southern Chiapas state.
The government has expelled six foreign-born priests it accused of
supporting the rebels. It also wants the church to remove Bishop Samuel
Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, whom it views as the spiritual leader of
the Chiapas rebellion.
The move may have backfired, precisely because of the tortured relationship
between church and state.
"Even the conservative bishops would not publicly attack Ruiz or ask for
removal, because they do not want to convey the slightest impression that
they are yielding to government pressure," Olimon said.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.