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MEXICO-POLITICAL Feb-22-2012 (1,080 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Feb. 16. xxxi

Mexico's political landscape more open to church but still has bumps

People walk outside the Cathedral of Our Most Holy Mother of Light in Leon, Mexico. Pope Benedict XVI will meet with bishops from Mexico and Latin America at the cathedral when he visits Mexico and Cuba March 23-28. (CNS/David Maung)

By David Agren
Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- When Pope John Paul II touched down in Mexico for the first time in 1979, he arrived in a deeply Catholic country estranged from the Vatican, with rules prohibiting priests from wearing their robes in public and forbidding the church to own property.

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Mexico March 23, he'll find a country casting aside the old anti-clerical provisions, where the Vatican is now recognized and politicians and political parties openly court church favor.

"Mexico has changed over the past 30 years," said Auxiliary Bishop Victor Rodriguez Gomez of Texcoco, secretary-general of the Mexican bishops' conference.

"We now have freedom of worship, an official recognition of the church," he said. "This has changed the landscape."

The changes in Mexico have been profound and controversial, and the church has been at the center of much of it: an imperfect democratic transition, the emergence of civil society and nongovernmental organizations, more freedom of expression and the press, and, in recent years, a deterioration in the public security situation. Mexicans are faced with the violence of a drug war, continued corruption, debates over controversial social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriages and increased income inequality -- all in a nation that has the world's wealthiest man, Carlos Slim Helu, and half the population is considered poor.

Bishop Rodriguez recognizes the church is still adapting to the changes.

"Little by little, we're learning the new rules -- the government as much as the church," Bishop Rodriguez told Catholic News Service.

The rules continue to evolve.

During every political campaign, politicians from all parties call on Father Jesus Gallegos Lara, the gun-toting, mariachi-singing priest better known as Padre Pistolas, who is popular with the poor in the most impoverished areas of Michoacan and of Guanajuato, where the pope will visit March 23-26.

For instance, just before the November election, then-Michoacan gubernatorial candidate Luisa Maria Calderon, the president's sister, visited the priest and donated 30,000 pesos ($2,300) for fixing up his 16th-century parish.

In the past, politicians publicly avoided prelates, preferring to instead show their anti-clerical credentials. Now they make donations, attend clergy birthday parties, meet with senior church leaders and seek their support.

However, the Mexico City government has been at odds with the church leadership over social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The Archdiocese of Mexico City has taken on the city's policies on such issues but has largely failed to mobilize Catholics and the country at large to its causes.

At least 18 state legislatures have approved bans on abortion since 2008. Federico Estevez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, says the prohibitions -- for which the church lobbied behind the scenes -- were approved without much debate or public passion, for or against.

"They were issues handled at the top; probably polite society involved itself on the conservative side," he said.

The church's inability to mobilize the masses over social issues is something Father Oscar Enriquez, a Ciudad Juarez priest and human rights center director, attributes to people caring more about economic and security issues than moral debates.

The drug war has claimed more than 47,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, and some priests, including Father Enriquez, describe the church response as timid and deferential to authority, especially in the face of alleged excesses committed by police and soldiers and the impact on ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire.

"The church has been distant from the people," Father Enriquez said of the Catholic response. "People also resent the lack of an illuminating, hopeful voice in confronting such problems."

In February 2010, the church published a pastoral letter on violence, which Bishop Rodriguez acknowledges made little media impact. But he says dioceses are acting on recommendations to bolster social ministries and have parishes train lay members to promote peace on the local level.

Other Catholics, including poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered last year, have taken a more confrontational approach.

Sicilia's actions have included protest marches, caravans to Mexico's northern and southern borders, highlighting the plight of drug-war victims and participating in public meetings with the president and senior politicians. He has received little public support from the church hierarchy, however, exposing long-standing divisions among Mexican Catholics on the subject of human rights and how to go about criticizing state actions.

Father Jose Rosario Marroquin, director of the Jesuit-run Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, has said the work of human rights groups -- especially during the 1990s Zapatista uprising in Chiapas -- has caused discomfort for some senior church leaders, who have preferred not to antagonize the federal government and local political leaders in the years since Mexico and the Vatican restored relations.

One group in the church that has appeared willing to challenge the authorities is the human mobility ministry, which coordinates a network of shelters the length of the country to serve undocumented migrants transiting Mexico.

Some of the priests have become media sensations for their work. In the case of Father Alejandro Solalinde in Oaxaca, the favorable coverage stems from his continued defiance of the authorities -- who have tried to close his migrant shelter -- and the criminal groups that have threatened him with death.

Media attention has often focused on church scandals, however, especially the downfall of the Legionaries of Christ founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, whose double life in violation of Catholic teachings was kept out of the press for a time by powerful advertisers threatening publications with advertising boycotts.

"There's a group (in the press) that views the church as a threat to the secular state," said Aldo Munoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State, noting the press was more deferential to the church and politicians in past years.

The church's political agenda includes greater religious freedom, the teaching of religious topics in public schools and permission for religious organization to own media outlets.

Munoz says many politicians would be willing to deal with the church on those issues, but "society itself ... doesn't allow it."

The church has made some progress on its political agenda, however.

Mexico's lower house of Congress -- heavily influenced by leading presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party -- approved constitutional changes in December, guaranteeing religious freedom and permitting the church to celebrate services outside of authorized places of worship. The Senate is now debating the amendment to Article 24 of the Mexican Constitution.


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