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Marriage Delivers Mixed Blessing for Fox

Mexico: Union is seen as symbolic of his party's failure to set a national agenda. Catholic Church calls it 'irregular.'


MEXICO CITY — The newlyweds strode hand in hand into the San Cristobal Catholic Church for their first Sunday Mass as husband and wife.

They knelt in prayer. They sang the hymns. But for the first time in their adult lives, Mexico's first couple couldn't take communion.

It was a personal moment a week ago for Mexico's devout Roman Catholic president, Vicente Fox, and his bride, former presidential spokeswoman Martha Sahagun. Yet the couple's religious status--both were divorced and have yet to win formal annulments, and thus cannot receive the sacraments--is feeding a far broader public debate.

At its heart are the role of the Catholic Church in this country that officially separates church and state and the agenda of Mexico's ascendant conservative political forces.

The new center-right administration had been expected to champion the causes of both. But analysts say Fox's surprise marriage two weeks ago outside the purview of the church is symbolic of the right's failure to set the national agenda on a range of issues from abortion and contraception to same-sex marriages and religious education in public schools.

Public Reaction Defines Undercurrents

In the days since the announcement that the president had wed, public reaction has sharply defined the country's secular and religious undercurrents.

Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera has declared the marriage "invalid" in the eyes of the church. "They are living in an irregular situation," he said.

Other religious leaders and right-wing activists have been less diplomatic. Some charge that the president and first lady are "living in sin" after an act that appeared to betray socially conservative promises Fox had made during his campaign.

"We voted for Fox and we supported him in his campaign, but we don't see him responding to us," said Jorge Serrano Limon, who heads the anti-abortion group Provida and has branded the marriage "adulterous."

But the nation's progressive forces, among them an array of civic groups that include feminists, pro-choice advocates and gay-rights activists, have claimed a major victory, seizing on "the secular message" that Fox's civil ceremony sent to the nation.

"The wedding was possible because there is a secular state [in Mexico]," said Eduardo del Castillo of Mexico's Front for the Strengthening of Secular Culture. "Fox is vindicating the plural, diverse family. . . . We salute Fox's wedding, although perhaps he is not so comfortable with [what] the wedding has unleashed."

Roberto Blancarte, an author and Vatican scholar at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico, cautioned that the wedding's message--and its potential aftermath--is not so clear-cut.

"On the one hand, we could have a separation between the Fox administration and the Catholic Church, which was supposed to be a closer relationship than we have seen before," Blancarte said. "But at the same time, this message could mean the opposite.

"When a Catholic does something which is against the church, he has a sense of guilt because he has sinned in a way. We could have the possibility that the president feels he must repent in a way for what they did in their private life by compensating with public policy."

He added that Fox, who plans an official trip to the Vatican later this year, may have to "bargain" for the couple's official annulments, promising the church hierarchy more conservative policies in return.

Most analysts agree, however, that the church and its conservative political partners have suffered far more setbacks than gains since Fox's National Action Party unseated the long-ruling--and distinctly secular--Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Most notable was an attempt in Fox's home state of Guanajuato to toughen its abortion laws. Legislators sought to eliminate exemptions for cases of rape, incest and risks to the mother's health and increase the penalties to include jail time. The bill was vetoed by the state's governor, a Fox supporter, but only after a sustained, national public outcry.

Majority Rejects Church's Social Stands

Blancarte and many other Mexican political analysts have pointed in recent days to several polls that show that although 89% of Mexicans are Catholic, an overwhelming majority rejects the church's ultraconservative social stands.

More than 70% of Mexican women use some form of artificial birth control, according to one recent Colegio de Mexico study. Three-fourths of all Mexicans also favor exemptions for abortions in specific cases. The same percentage opposes religious education in public schools.

"How dare the bishops talk of the president and his wife being 'irregular' when it is they themselves who are the irregular ones in our society?" Blancarte said.

Some observers of the president and his party believe that Fox never meant to send a secular message with his civil wedding.

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