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World Perspective | LATIN AMERICA

Mexico's Catholic Church Finds Voice in Civic, Political Life

May 13, 2000|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The Roman Catholic Church, long in the political shadows in Mexico, is boldly stepping up its activity in the country's presidential campaign, adding another critical voice in a tight race that could end the ruling party's 71-year grip on power.

Last week, the Mexican Bishops Conference issued a direct call to the people warning the parties not to coerce voters or buy votes--infamous tactics in past Mexican ballots--and reminding voters that electoral fraud is a "grave moral error."

And in a March 25 pastoral letter, the bishops applauded the nation's "growing culture of political participation" and noted that "a fuller democratic culture supposes the real possibility of alternating parties in power."

It was not lost on Mexicans that a change of the party in power would mean the defeat of the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in the July 2 presidential ballot and the end of the reign of the world's longest-ruling party.

The bishops' statements have raised hackles among some who fear that the church could take on an exaggerated role in the campaign. But other politicians, in particular center-right opposition candidate Vicente Fox, have welcomed the church's civic involvement and have promised more reforms in support of the church if elected.

With the race a virtual dead heat between Fox and PRI candidate Francisco Labastida, the parties are battling fiercely for every sector's support. In this climate, issues such as the church's role in politics have taken on heightened sensitivity.

Most Mexicans describe themselves as Catholics, but the church's role in public life has been sharply curtailed since constitutional reforms in 1857. Religious militants opposed to the restrictions fought the bloody Cristero War in the 1920s against anti-church forces, who went so far as to kill priests to keep the state free of church influence. Only in 1992 were the most severe restrictions on the church lifted.

To demonstrate its renewed presence in Mexican civic life, the church last Saturday celebrated a huge outdoor Mass in Mexico City's central square--the symbol of the lay state--with more than 70 bishops and tens of thousands of the faithful attending.

Cardinal Norberto Rivera declared in his sermon, "Our church cannot be the church of silence, but one that shouts that Christ lives, that Christ has risen."

Fox was quick to respond to the church's democracy message, sending the bishops a 10-point letter outlining his views on church-related issues. His first point was: "I will promote respect for the right to life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death."

Although most of the candidates publicly oppose abortion--the procedure is illegal in Mexico except when the woman's life is at risk--Fox's statement was the most unequivocal so far.

Some commentators suggested that it could jeopardize Fox's efforts to draw support from Mexico's left and build an informal beat-the-PRI alliance to end the ruling party's lock on the presidency.

Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra, director of the Center for Economic Teaching and Research, told one round-table discussion that, despite its repeated pledges of neutrality, the church appears to have embraced Fox.

"For the first time, the Catholic hierarchy feels it has a candidate who has the chance to win," Elizondo said.

Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on Mexican church-state relations at Claremont McKenna College, said the church's presence has grown steadily, yet the lack of a major outcry over recent church activities "suggests how the context of church-state relations has matured substantially in the last five to six years."

While the church has been extremely careful to avoid taking sides, "obviously [any] criticism of economic policy would be critical of the incumbent government," he said. "In general, any opposition candidate would be a beneficiary."

Camp added: The church "has achieved more visibility because more moderate bishops and even conservative bishops are saying that to participate in the electoral process is part of your Christian civic responsibility. The frequency of this emphasis is really fascinating."

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