Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 198 | Enero 1998



Church-State: Reviewing the History

The indigenous insurrection in Chiapas has been an event with national impact, and it has involved continuous tensions between the Mexican state and the Catholic Church which, for lack of vision, lost a golden opportunity in 1992 and which today runs the risk of missing the boat of history completely.

Jesús Vergara Aceves

It is no coincidence that the most authoritarian Vatican representative in Mexico's history, Girolamo Prigione, collaborated so closely with one of Mexico's most authoritarian Presidents, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, to get churches legally recognized and to establish diplomatic relationships between Mexico and the Vatican.

It is far from coincidence. Salinas wanted to radically transform the country in order to insert it in the world economy. Prigione, by negotiating with neoliberalism, wanted at all cost to maintain an authoritarian ecclesiastical and cultural system that would give the Catholic church security and power in the new neoliberal country. But he didn't realize either that the political system was expiring or that it was impossible to reinforce the ecclesiastical institution. Now, in the avalanche of criticism that is affecting everything linked to Salinas, the Catholic church is not coming off very well.

Colony, Republic, Revolution

To understand the Mexican state's new relationship with the churches and the exact position of those relations right now, it is critical to remember back, to analyze some historical antecedents and review the changes made in Mexico's Constitution during the government of Salinas de Gortari.

Despite the genial action of distinguished missionaries like Vasco de Quiroga or Bartólome de las Casas, and despite the humanist opening of the Catholic kings in recognizing indigenous rights, the colonial church was monolithic and dominating. It did not bend to acculturation in either the confession or practice of the faith, although there were concessions in the sacraments, the popular devotions and religious theater. The religious configurations created by the indigenous have endured almost intact to the present.

The Tridentine church maintained the concordats of Christianity, of which the Patronato Regio is the clearest example. A universal, normative and unique concept of culture and religion underlay all of it. However, a reaction began developing with those colonial beginnings; religious syncretism prevented total cultural receptivity to the Gospel. To a certain degree, the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe is a far-reaching exception.

Liberalism had a definitive influence, not only through the Bourbon monarchy, but also through the secular Mexican Liberals. One of the latter, Mexico's President Benito Juárez, promoted the constitutional reform in 1857 permitting the confiscation of all Catholic church properties, arguing that they were unproductive. This aggravated the fight between clerical Conservatives—who dreamed of reestablishing the situation of the colonial church—and anti-clerical Liberals, who fought for the rights of citizens against the abuses of power by both the state and the church.

This conflict continued to fester in the gestation of the 1910 social revolution. The confrontation between the state and the tenaciously conservative church was finally reflected in the 1917 Constitution, which did not recognize the legal status of the Catholic church and other churches, revoking any legal guarantee.

The church became clandestine. In spite of everything, it remained active and in the midst of penury and persecution had an indisputable moral personality, sustained by the deep religiosity of the Mexican people. The persecution of the church sponsored by Presidents Alvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elias Calles triggered the Cristíada war in 1927. The arbitrary execution of the now- beatified Jesuit Miguel A. Pro, without even a summary trial, became known throughout the world.

Respected "Arrangements"

In the 1950s, after almost a century of struggle, the Catholic church acted with significant freedom even though it still had no rights. By then the government had separated from the people, despite having won them over with important social programs.

State and church sought negotiation, but without touching the laws. There was thus talk of "arrangements"—agreements that were not published or even written, but were respected. Negotiating outside of the law is an age-old custom in Mexico, dating from colonial times. These "arrangements" brought an end to the hostilities and led to a unique modus vivendi.

The arrangements strengthened the church. Masses multiplied, pastoral work was reestablished, seminaries consolidated and the priestly vocations and consecrated life flourished. Although officially still clandestine, the church continued to move with great freedom.

Chihuahua 1986

Vatican II sparked greater unity among the Latin American churches. The central focus of the meeting of all of them in Medellín, Colombia (1968) was the fight for peace with justice against the structural sin of violence and injustice.

The Mexican church was timid, and delayed entering the public sphere of condemnation and announcing of needed transformations in social structures. It advanced very slowly until it got to 1986. In the state of Chihuahua, Archbishop Adalberto Almeida, faced with the flagrant violation of the political will expressed through votes, decided to suspend Sunday mass and organize instead a penitential celebration to expiate the sin of political injustice committed by the corrupt party-state apparatus.

Secretary of Governance Manuel Bartelett, alarmed, asked the then Apostolic Delegate Girolamo Prigione to appeal to the Holy See to get the Archbishop of Chihuahua to rectify his decision. Rome agreed and prohibited the penitential celebration. The Mexican government thus averted a legitimate opposition and a prophetic condemnation with high symbolic content which, had it been produced, would have put the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in serious trouble, since it already was presenting undeniable symptoms of decay due to the massive corruption into which it had fallen. Rome's decision was noteworthy; not long before the Chihuahua case, the Vatican was complacently silent about a solemn mass celebrated in the dockyards of Gdansk, Poland, to support the workers of the anti-communist union Solidarity.

The Chihuahua incident took place at a time when the government was weakening and the church consolidating day by day. The crisis sparked a search for better relations between the two powers. Three years after the Chihuahua case, talk began about establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican, but the Holy See first demanded that the Constitution be reformed and the churches legally recognized.

In 1982 Mexico found itself trapped in one of the greatest economic crises of its history: its economy was paralyzed by the weight of its foreign debt. The country was practically bankrupt and saw no way out other than totally opening up to international trade and finances. Later, Salinas placed all his bets on the card of foreign investment and the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada. The country's shift to the new globalized economy also demanded a radical shift in the cultural sphere.

Changes in the Constitution

On December 10, 1991, the PRI proposed to Congress concrete changes in five constitutional articles related to churches. The changes were approved by the House of Representatives with slight touch-ups eight days later. Since the PRI controlled two-thirds of both Houses, it could make any constitutional change without having to deal with any significant opposition.

There is broad consensus about the general sense of those constitutional reforms, which fully recognized freedom of belief. There is, however, notable difference of opinion about the political, cultural and pastoral significance of the reforms, given the plurality of interpretations of the historic context.

The major change was the legal recognition of religious association. Article 130 of the unreformed Constitution said: "The law does not legally recognize religious groupings called churches." Modifying this article was indispensable to any sort of relationship between the state and the Mexican church or the Vatican. The new text says: "The historic principle of separation of church and state orients the norms contained in the present article. Churches and other religious groupings will be subject to the law... a) Churches and religious groups will be legally recognized as religious associations, once they obtain the corresponding registration. The law will regulate said associations and will determine the conditions and prerequisites for constitutional registration; b) The authorities will not intervene in the internal life of religious associations; c) Mexicans may exercise the ministry of any religious service. Foreigners, to do so, must satisfy the requirements of the law; d) According to the terms of the regulatory law, ministers may not hold public office. As citizens they will have the right to vote but not to be voted for. Those who have ceased being ministers, in the lead time and the way established by law, may run for office; and e) Ministers may not hold meetings for political reasons or proselytize in favor of or against any candidate, party or political association. They also may not oppose the country's laws or its institutions, or criticize its symbols in public meetings, religious meetings or in religious propaganda or publications.

"The forming of any type of political grouping whose title contains any word or indication relating it with any religious preference whatever is strictly prohibited. Meetings of a political character may not be held in churches.

"Ministers, their ascendants, descendants, siblings and spouses, as well as the religious associations to which they belong, will not be able to inherit by will from people whom the ministers themselves have spiritually led or supported, unless they are related within the fourth degree.

"Civil actions of the people are the exclusive responsibility of the administrative authorities in the terms established by law, and have the force and validity attributed to them.

"Federal authorities of the states and municipalities will have the faculties and responsibilities determined by law.

"The churches and other goods that, complying with Fraction II of Article 27 of the political Constitution of the United States of Mexico, which complies with this Decree, are property of the nation will retain their current legal status."
The church-state separation established with these reforms subjects the churches to the dispositions set by law. The separation does not make comparable or equalize, but sets the bounds of public church activities with respect to the sphere of state action.

Church Property

Article 27 of the unreformed Constitution said that churches could not possess goods: "They may not, in any case, have the capacity to acquire, possess or administer real estate, or capital imposed on it." It was established that "the evidence of presumption will be enough to declare the charge well-founded." This put the churches outside the rule of law and invalidated any legal processes in the courts.

The reformed version of this article says the following: "Religious associations formed under the terms of Article 130 and its regulations will be able to acquire, possess or exclusively administer the goods indispensable for their objective, with the prerequisites and limitations established by the regulatory law." It adds that "Public or private charity institutions, which have as their objective material aid, scientific research, teaching, reciprocal aid among associates, or any legal objective, may not acquire more real estate than is indispensable for their objective, immediately or directly destined to it, subject to the regulations."
Article 5 of the Constitution also separated the church from the rule of law by removing the guarantees of freedom and security from those who take religious and monastery vows. This article ended up saying: "The law does not permit the establishment of monastic orders of any denomination or objective on which they attempt to build themselves." The reformed article now says: "The state cannot permit any contract, pact or agreement to be carried out whose objective is the reduction, loss or irrevocable sacrifice of a person's freedom for any cause."

Religious Freedom: What's Lacking

To completely restore the rule of law in religious affairs, Article 24 would have to be modified even more, since it still reflects the Liberal principle that religion may only be practiced in temples or in private homes. Christianity does not allow itself to be reduced to ceremonies, devotions or private or public services.

This article was mitigated a bit with the reforms and now says: "Every man [sic] is free to profess the religious beliefs that most please him and to practice the respective ceremonies, devotions or services, when these are not crimes punishable by law. Congress may not dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion. Public religious services are ordinarily celebrated in temples. Those which are extraordinarily celebrated outside of them will be subject to a regulatory law." With the reforms, religious freedom is distinguished from freedom of religious services, which may be restricted by the state, but is still understood in an exclusively individual way, without yet fully accepting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Secular Education

The article on education was the most debated. "Education will be maintained totally separate from any religious doctrine," stated the Constitution. The exclusion of ministers from education is eliminated under the reform, as is any possibility of refusing to recognize studies in private institutions.

The reformed article maintains that state education must be secular and therefore completely separate from any religious doctrine. "The criteria to orient that education will be based on the results of scientific progress, and the fight against ignorance and its effects: servitude, fanaticism and prejudice." Nothing is expressly said about whether or not private schools may give religious instruction, but it has been understood this way by those in power and by the churches, who also understand that obligatory secularism refers only to state education.

Mexico Opens Up

Mexico's opening to the new international economy demanded urgent changes in the Constitution, not only in religious terms. It required a new state that would facilitate private business investment. Salinas expressed it this way: "A state that governs more and produces less." His administration turned to privatizing the banking system, opened more doors to private, national and foreign investment and prioritized capital over labor.

What was needed was a new modern society, with technologies very different from the traditional ones. Since a good part of the country was dominated by untouchable common land and state property, this land tenure structure had to be ended. It was.

Democratic progress was necessary so the traditional patterns of electoral fraud had to be eliminated, making electoral results more transparent. Representative democracy had to grow in order to guarantee greater stability in the country for foreign investors. There was not much progress in participatory democracy and people still had no opportunity to offer opinions about fundamental issues like the economic model or religious freedom itself.

The re-privatization movement had to affect all of society and culture. The teachers' union was weakened and extreme facilities were offered to private education, while spending on public education was cut.

In this context it was also imperative to re-privatize the religious associations, recognize them legally, let them hold services a little more freely, register them...and control them. This would keep them from "getting involved in politics." If they did not support the regime, in clear decay since 1988, at least they would not be a serious obstacle to its achieving its objectives.

The Church Lacked Vision

At the moment of the constitutional reform, few ecclesiastical authorities accepted that the recognition of churches and religious freedom was one more piece in the series of re-privatization changes demanded by the new economic model. They didn't have a broad enough vision, and failed to understand that the new economic model would affect all institutions and culture.

They did not know that the neoliberal philosophy wanted religious associations. In many countries it was already clear that the neoliberal objective was to negotiate with churches, conceding certain material prerogatives that would make them more dependent on the system and in exchange asking of them at least an obsequious silence. The Mexican religious leaders also appeared not to see the accelerated growth of Protestant sects coming from their powerful Northern neighbor, or that those sects had already adapted, deforming themselves, to the new economic system.

In this world context, if the churches were not very alert and lacked a clear vision, they had a good possibility of seeing their freedom diminished and of becoming more and more distant from their social bases and from the cultures in which they live.

Any cultural insertion, such as Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, has attempted with the indigenous church project, had to be severely criticized and constantly persecuted. That happened, and is continuing to happen today.

Very Little Changed

Almost five years after legal recognition of the churches, it can be said that nothing substantial has changed for the Mexican people or the Catholic communities. There has been no area where the churches have felt more freedom.

Once in a while some Catholic leaders are seen in the legislative hall for a few hours when the President reads his annual report. The clergy followed the rule and legitimized possession of their properties, although only the stragglers, because by that time many had already been fully legalized through indirect routes, under the title of civil associations. More news appeared in the media about church services. But there was also more acrimonious criticism of any declaration by any Catholic leader against the current economic model.

In 1995 public life in Mexico began to experience radical changes. The increased number of voters and the results of the July 6, 1997 elections may be the turning point to a new political and cultural system. The occasion could have been a golden opportunity for the Catholic church, but it could not take advantage of it because it had made legal recognition a good in itself in 1992 and had fought for it at such an inopportune time.

A Spark that Went Out

Jean Meyer, a prestigious historian living in Mexico, wrote in December 1989, three years before the legal recognition, "I think that religion is the only spark capable of animating democracy." In August 1997 that same historian wrote: "The Catholic church, a silent and vocal supporter of the Mexican state in its different historic stages, is now expressing itself fully on national issues without this signifying a 'real influence on society.' Thus, contrary to the power it exercised for years over its followers, the Catholic church is incapable of influencing to incite rebellion or political preference, although it does instill fear in the authorities, unable to accept the plurality they talk about in their speeches. The political weight of the Catholic church is minimal. It no longer has the force to influence. Now Catholics do not accept concrete indications and that is why the church, by itself, is incapable of transforming society. It increased its relations with the state just as the state began to weaken."

An Unpopular Church?

The cultural system characteristic of the Mexican church was strengthened in all the processes of change we have summarized: the authoritarianism of the bishops, the entrenched and very authoritarian clericalism, few openings for the laity to take on responsibility, and greater distance between the bishops and popular religiosity, even though the Mexican episcopate has always been closer to the people than other episcopates on the continent.

One major critical question remains unanswered: to what degree did the changes help the church's essential mission—an acculturated evangelization from the poorest—and to what degree did they foment a proximity to power?
If Mexican culture grows, it is imperative that ecclesiastical culture change. If Mexican culture does not change, it is even more imperative that ecclesiastical culture change to promote changes in the national culture.

A profound change is needed along all paths to give every Christian the confidence and the freedom to speak and listen, to announce and denounce, to transform society freely and democratically from the deepest roots of a living faith rooted in their own culture.

If this deep change does not take place, the Catholic Church runs the risk of continuing to lose the majority, who see it ever more united with the rich and powerful classes, and becoming an ever more unpopular institution.

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