MEXICO CITY -- When Father Cesar Corres Cadavieco invited the local city council candidates to speak in his Roman Catholic parish, he was merely responding to an edict from his bishops to encourage churchgoers to vote in Mexico's nationwide election Sunday.
"I said, 'How are people going to vote if they don't even know their candidates?' " said Corres, who heads the Santo Cristo de Pedregal parish here.
He had no idea his action would stir national outrage.
In addition to triggering anti-clerical editorials, a lawsuit from one political party and several anonymous threats, the priest fed a larger conflict over church-state separation that has grown into an election issue.
The Mexican Constitution expressly forbids religious groups from favoring specific political parties or candidates and from conducting political activities on church premises. That reflects the fierce anti-clerical sentiments that have been in the forefront since Mexico's pre-independence days, when the Catholic Church was seen as a land-hoarding tool of the rich.
But the church has been pushing the limits of legal political activity this year more than any time in recent memory, spurred to action by a new party called Mexico Posible that advocates the right to abortion, same-sex marriage and the abolition of drug laws.
In recent weeks, the bishops of the Queretaro, Zacatecas and Guerrero states have publicly warned their flocks not to vote for Mexico Posible candidates. Those bishops have been sued by Mexico's interior ministry, which is seeking fines of up to $80,000.
In a separate action last month, the federal interior ministry began legal proceedings against several bishops for promoting the formation of so-called "democracy workshops" whose purpose was, the government alleged, to "orient" Catholics on how to vote in the coming election.
In early June, Interior Minister Santiago Creel said he was questioning about 12 clergy members on whether they broke the law prohibiting church officials from publicly supporting a particular candidate or party.
While church officials say they only want to increase voter participation in coming elections, critics say the church, whose members compose roughly 90% of the country's population, is advancing an ideological agenda.
"It has always been active below the surface, but the church has rarely taken public positions since the Mexican Revolution. Maybe they now feel it's time to come out of the closet," said Robert A. Pastor, professor and director of North American studies at American University in Washington.
In an interview prior to midday Mass at his church in the Tlalpan district here, Corres said the May 25 forum was not meant to favor any specific party or candidate. During the event, held in a garage on the church's grounds, Corres was careful to act only as moderator, he said.
The church also maintains it is trying to combat voter apathy that threatens to make Sunday's turnout among the lowest in recent elections.
But the event for which candidates from three parties showed up has only seemed to focus smoldering anti-clerical sentiment on Corres, who parishioners describe as intellectual and charismatic.
At the urging of the Mexico Posible party, Mexico's federal election commission sent Corres questions about the forum, but it has brought no legal action against him.
The Democratic Revolutionary Party, whose city council candidate Carlos Imaz declined to participate in the forum, later sued the three candidates who did show up.
The priest maintained he thought the meeting was legal because it was not held inside the church, although he acknowledges that, given the choice again, he would have held it off church grounds.
Cardinal Norberto Rivera, head of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the nation's oldest and largest, criticized the government of President Vicente Fox for declaring "freedom of expression and worship for some [while imposing] a gag order on others. Either we're all free or we are all not."
Jesus Robles, legal coordinator for the Mexico Posible party, said Monday that the party simply asks that Corres and other clergy exercise "prudence."
"The priest had good intentions, but he must respect the laws," Robles said. "The context was that they were on [church property] and convened by a priest and that the debate had an eminently religious character."
Enrique Diaz Aranda, a constitutional expert at the National Autonomous University here, said Corres does not appear to have broken any law. To do that he would have had to try to "induce" voters to back a certain party or candidate, and the curate said he only moderated the discussion.
But Aranda said the priest's hosting of the event -- coupled with the bishops' outspoken declarations against the Mexico Posible party -- represent a "new polemic" opposing the spirit and letter of the Mexican Constitution.