Mexico (Modern), The Catholic Church in
MEXICO (MODERN), THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Divided into 31 separate states, the federation formally known as the United Mexican States is bordered on the north by the United States, on the west by the North Pacific Ocean, on the east by the Gulf of Mexico, and on the south by Guatemala and Belize. Vast areas in the arid north and the tropical south are thinly populated, while the rest of the terrain ranges from high, rugged volcanic mountains in the central region dropping to low plains at the coastlines. Tsunamis are frequent in the Pacific region, while hurricanes present a regular threat near the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern coastline. Natural resources include petroleum, silver, copper, gold, lead, zinc, and natural gas. Agricultural products consist of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, beans, cotton, coffee, fruit, and livestock and dairy, and the illegal cultivation of the opium poppy and cannabis are common. The majority of the Mexican people are of mixed Spanish and Amerindian descent, but a large percentage of the population in the south is pure Amerindian. The following essays discuss the history of the Catholic Church in Mexico from the establishment of independence (1821) to the present. For discussion of the church in Mexico prior to 1821, see the entry on colonial Mexico above.
The Independent Church. For three centuries the Catholic Church in New Spain had been in close union with the Spanish crown. The invasion of Napoleon and the upheaval in all the Spanish colonies from 1808 to 1814 would sever this relationship. In the aftermath of the
sometimes brutal fight for independence that began in 1810, the Church struggled to adapt itself to the independent life of Mexico, trying to preserve its autonomy without breaking its ties with the government. While Catholicism became the state religion when independence was proclaimed in 1821, the financial support formerly gained through the patronato real was now lost. During the first 40 years after independence, the Church was forced to weather a succession of similar crises. After the War of Reform and the Empire (1857–67) the Church strove to survive in an atmosphere of hostile separation from the state, mitigated somewhat by the conciliatory policies of Porfirio dÍaz. Social problems and political unrest brought the social revolution (1911–20) and a new constitution (1917). Both were openly hostile to the Church, which resisted the efforts of President calles to exterminate it. After years of persecuting the Church, the government finally began to practice tolerance toward it.
Problems of Independence. On Sept. 28, 1821, the Act of Independence of the Mexican Empire was signed. Despite the poverty and the destruction left following over a decade of war, the Three Guarantees proclaimed by the newly established Mexican regime—religion, union, and independence—restored hopes of peace and stability. The Catholic religion was preserved; the barriers of caste were declared abolished; and the ties that bound the region to Spain were broken. The territory of the new empire was most extensive; the illusion was created of vast territories, of political and social unity, and religious peace. However, in the decades that followed the country endured five constitutions, two emperors, 51 presidents, and wars with Texas, France, and the United States. By 1867 Mexicans were more profoundly divided among themselves than in 1821.
Scarcity of Priests. At independence Mexico was homogeneously Catholic and the Church was credited with fashioning the Mexican character. The population in 1810 was estimated at 6,121,426, of which more than half were Amerindians. Over 4,200 clerics, 3,000 religious, and 2,000 nuns tended to these faithful. The War of Independence caused the number of priests and religious to decrease; seminaries were closed; missionary reinforcements from Europe were discontinued; and the war
claimed many of the faithful. Three dioceses, Michoacán, Linares, and Chiapas, were without bishops. Only the young archbishop of Mexico City and six other prelates remained active.
In spite of the Three Guarantees, serious problems immediately presented themselves: the exercise of the patronato real ; the disposition of property used by the Church under grant from the crown; the collection and use of tithes; and the support of hospitals, charitable organizations, and educational institutions, which had already begun to deteriorate. The bishops and their advisers took the position that the patronato had ceased with the declaration of independence, that the Church was also completely independent, and that the new nation, rooted in Catholicism, should sustain the juridic and economic position of the Church. Opposed to this interpretation were many politicians who supported radical regalism: the new state had the rights and the obligations of the patronato. Under Iturbide these issues remained unsettled. While in 1822 canon Pablo vÁzquez was appointed to go to Rome to reach an agreement with the Holy See, he was given no clear instructions.
As time passed matters grew worse. The archbishop of Mexico and the bishop of Oaxaca, alarmed at the grave problems in conscience that the independence of the king created, returned to Spain. Other bishops died: the bishop of Guadalajara in 1824; the bishops of Sonora and Durango in 1825; the bishop of Yucatán in 1827; and lastly, the bishop of Puebla in 1829. Moreover, by 1831, 93 of the 181 prebends of the cathedral chapters were vacant; the number of clergy had decreased from 4,229 to 2,282; of 208 convents only 155 remained, with some 1,700 religious instead of 3,112, Replacements were not numerous enough for those who died and those who returned to Spain. The Jesuits, reestablished by the pope in 1814 and by the king of Spain in 1815, had not as yet reached a stable condition, and the few members it had in Mexico were scattered and unorganized.
Role of Masonry. One threat to the Church came from the Masonic lodges, which multiplied during the War of Independence and became political clubs following independence. U.S. ambassador Poinsett introduced the York rite to counteract the Spanish influence of the Scottish rite. Rare was the active politician who was not a Mason, and many priests were members. While the condemnation
of the Church was not stressed, since all Mexicans were said to be Catholics, Masonic organizations did foster anticlericalism.
Reestablishment of Hierarchy. In 1830 Vázquez received instructions to negotiate with the Holy See in regard to the nomination of bishops. pius viii, fearing to offend the king of Spain, appointed only apostolic vicars with episcopal character; providentially for Mexico Pius VIII died in 1830 and his successor, gregory xvi (1831–46) named six bishops for Mexico, among them was the canon Vázquez. Thus the ecclesiastical hierarchy was renewed in Mexico. Only Mexico City and Oaxaca remained without prelates, out of regard to their bishops, who were residing in Spain. In 1838 the Holy See succeeded in obtaining their resignations and appointed new prelates for both dioceses.
Temporary president Valentín Gómez Farías began a juridical persecution of the Church under the pretext of reforming it. In addition to attempting to use the patronato to intervene directly in the government of the dioceses, he tried to suppress religious vows so that monasteries would be deserted; he tried also to do away with the civil exaction of the tithes, to appropriate the funds of the missions of the Philippine Islands and of California, to secularize these last missions, and to take education out of the hands of the clergy by closing the university and the Colegio de Santos. However, Gómez was quickly over-thrown by Santa Anna, and the new bishops, in spite of the political upheavals, local persecutions, and the impossibility of trying to reform the religious orders, began to restore their dioceses and seminaries, to increase the number of clergy. From 2,282 in 1831, the number of priests rose to 3,232 in 1851. From 1834 to 1856 the government allowed the Jesuits to reestablish themselves; Basilio arrillaga was an outstanding apologist for the Society of Jesus during those difficult years.
Recognition by the Papacy. The problem of Church-State relations approached resolution when the patronato was replaced by a concordat. In 1836 gregory xvi recognized the independence of Mexico and received as extraordinary minister and plenipotentiary Manuel Diez de Bonilla. pius ix named the first apostolic delegate, Luigi Clementi, who arrived in Mexico City in November of
1851. The archbishop of Mexico, De la Garza, influenced by the opinion of canonists who tended toward regalism, did not want to acknowledge him unless the government did. President Arista did not dare because of opposition in the chamber of deputies. His successor, Lombardini, submitted the matter to the senate, which, with certain reservations, agreed to allow the delegate to exercise his pontifical mission in Mexico. The subsequent War of Reform hindered effective action, and the delegate was expelled by Benito Juárez in 1861.
The 1847 war with the United States made Mexico unable to put down the war of the castes in Yucatán, the invasions of the Apaches in the north, and other insurrections in the interior, as well as deal with the nation's economic problems. In 1853 the exiled and discredited Santa Anna was asked to return to head a centralist republic. Under a Catholic president, the Church enjoyed its share of the Guarantees, reestablished the Jesuits, and had complete freedom in Catholic worship. However, opposition to the Church would resurface by 1854.
Liberal Reforms. The revolution started by the Plan of Ayutla proclaimed that "liberal institutions alone suit the country to the exclusion of all others." Santa Anna was forced into exile and the liberals took over the government. They convoked a constitutional congress that passed various laws, known by the names of the ministers who introduced them: the Ley Juárez, which suppressed ecclesiastical privileges; the Ley Iglesias, which prohibited payment for parochial services; and the Ley Lerdo, which expropriated the lands of corporations and gave them to tenants or put them up for public sale.
War of Reform. The constitution of 1857 incorporated the essentials of these laws and separated Church from state. The bishops refused to respect the constitution, and many Catholics were convinced that the intention of the legislators was wicked. A brutal civil war broke out from 1855 to 1867, during which more than 11 priests were killed, many more were tortured, and all the bishops and many others were banished. Some 40 churches were plundered and many more demolished, monasteries were torn down or broken through for streets, or used for profane purposes. Of the 11 conciliar seminaries, nine were confiscated, and the one in Puebla was sold. General González Ortega confiscated silver and artistic treasures from the Źacatecas parish and the cathedral of Durango, while Michel Blanco stole 100,000 pesos from the sanctuary of San Juan de los Lagos, and took all the wrought silver from the cathedral of Morelia.
Such profanations and scandalous conduct stirred the ire of the people, and armed leaders arose throughout the country. Two irreconcilable groups were formed: the liberals, or chinacos, and the conservatives, or mochos. Liberal leaders attempted to introduce into Mexico a brand of politics that they copied from French radical liberals, and conservatives opposed this doctrine as a disruption of Mexican culture and a campaign against the Church.
French Intervention. The War of Reform (1857–62) was prolonged by victorious liberals who challenged the expeditionary forces of Napoleon III of France. Some Mexicans put aside the confusion of interests and, notwithstanding their profound Catholic faith, fought against the invaders. The situation was very complicated. From the beginning of the war the liberals applied to the United States for moral, economic, and even military help. Some of the conservatives thought the only hope of salvation was a monarchy and they supported Napoleon III. Empress Eugenie, profoundly Catholic, favored them, and thought that France should oppose the conquest of a Protestant nation such as the United States and save the independence of Catholic Spanish America. Maximilian of Hapsburg, on condition that the Mexican people offer him the crown, joined this fantastic and grandiose project. Some Mexicans accepted him under the illusion that a strong Catholic, and therefore popular, monarch could save Mexico from national disintegration and from being absorbed by the Colossus of the North.
The government of Benito Juárez had expelled the first apostolic delegate, Bishop Clementi, and various bishops; it had discharged many government employees, who in conscience protested against the laws of persecution; it had deprived the Church of its goods without process of law and in a wasteful manner; it had proposed the MacLane-Ocampo treaty with the United States, which the Senate later rejected because it divided Mexico. So it was not surprising that, even though he came under the protection of French bayonets, many bishops welcomed the European prince.
The delusion did not last long. The policy of Maximilian was a mixture of French liberalism and Austrian Josephinism and was in certain aspects a continuation of liberal persecution. Nevertheless, during these few years of comparative peace the Church was able to recover its strength and erect two new ecclesiastical provinces, Guadalajara and Michoacán, as well as establish several new dioceses.
Establishment of Liberal Government. The liberals, aided by the United States, forced the withdrawal of French troops, took control of the country, and in 1867 captured Maximilian in Querétaro, executing him along with two of his generals. With liberal general Porfirio
Díaz's conquest of Puebla and Mexico City, the last conservative strongholds were gone. President Juárez reestablished the republic and, under the pretext of defending liberty, closed the monasteries, churches, educational institutions, and charitable organizations, opening the country to Protestants.
Other anti-Catholic measures were drawn from the constitution, including the suppression of religious instruction in state schools and the prohibition of religious corporations from possessing property other than buildings of worship. Juárez's successor, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, increased his predecessor's influences: complete freedom of worship was established; marriage was declared a mere civil contract; religious institutions were forbidden to acquire property or money coming from it; the religious oath in civil acts was abolished; and it was decreed that the State "will not allow any contract, pact or agreement which has as its object any diminution or loss, by irrevocable sacrifice, of human liberty, be it because of labor, education, or religious vow, and in consequence
the Law cannot recognize monastic orders nor permit their establishment." These laws prohibited religious instruction and the practice of any worship in government buildings. Ministers were not allowed to wear anything distinctive in public.
Enforcement of Religious Reform. In a Catholic country such measures were either not complied with or were a source of constant infractions. During the presidencies of Juárez and Lerdo de Tejada attempts at enforcement were made and many were imprisoned. Lerdo banished from the country the Sisters of Charity, Jesuits, Passionists, and Paulists. During those years the Church lost almost all her imposing buildings, which had served as seminaries, colleges, religious houses, or charitable institutions. Almost all the libraries were taken by the government or destroyed. The Church passed through a time of anguish, as did the entire nation, impoverished by wars and discredited before the civilized world. The public treasury was bankrupt, backwardness and poverty were general, and divisions and grudges among the liberal leaders were implacable.
Age of Porfirio Díaz. It is not surprising that the country acclaimed Porfirio Díaz when he turned the nation onto a course of order and peace. Many of his political enemies submitted, and the law was repealed that prohibited a reelection of a president, thus making possible the "era of Porfirio," the personal reign of Díaz through six successive reelections as president, until the revolution in 1911 overthrew him. Peace was imposed, indeed by an iron hand, but gratefully accepted by an impoverished nation. Mexico became more prosperous and wealthy than all Spanish America, and the new national unity put an end to the centrifugal tendencies of many states. While Díaz was sincerely dedicated to the welfare of Mexico, he showed some lack of culture, of vision, and even of loyalty. He tended toward Machiavellism in governing, and lacked strength to change laws he considered utopian. His tolerance of many illegal manifestations of Catholic life was termed "conciliatory."
This "Porfirian peace" was beneficial to the Church: Catholic worship and practices were held not only in churches and homes, but often also on ranches, in camps, and in towns. Catholic schools and institutions multiplied. Bishops returned from exile to govern their dioceses and were respected by all. The dictator himself intervened when it was necessary to calm radical governors. Seminaries were reopened and ecclesiastical provinces were increased: Oaxaca, Durango, Linares-Monterrey,
Yucatán, and Puebla. New dioceses were established: Tabasco, Colima, Sinaloa, Cuernavaca, Chihuahua, Saltillo, Tehuantepec, Tepic, Campeche, Aguascalientes, and Huajuapan de León, or Mistecas. There were many religious institutes, such as those of the reorganized Jesuits, who increased from 39 scattered members in 1878 to 338 in 1910, and those of religious who came for the first time: the Marist fathers and brothers, the Salesians, the Cordian-Marians, the Redemptorists, and the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
Religious congregations were also founded in Mexico: the Josephites, the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, the Guadalupans, the Servants of the Sacred Heart, the Servants of the Divine Shepherd, and others whose efforts in education raised the level of culture and of Christian living. Prominent figures among the Mexican clergy during those years were the archbishop of Mexico City la bastida y dÁvalos, who prudently directed the entire renewal, and his two successors, Alarcón and mora y del rÍo; the first archbishop of Puebla, Ibarra; and Silva of Morelia. Catholics notable for their writings were García Icazbalceta, the untiring publicist Victoriano Agüeros, and the aggressive journalist Sánchez Santos.
The War of Reform and its consequences left deep wounds. Secularism not only dominated civil life but influenced all social life. While the government did not tolerate the mention of God in any official act, it did allow many pseudo-cultural expressions that were openly hostile to the Church. Official instruction disregarded the constitutional neutrality of education but openly defended antireligious Positivism, which little by little won over many professors and intellectuals and also hundreds of students and professional men.
The Mexican Revolution. When General Díaz fell from power in 1911, the political freedom that followed allowed the Church to reorganize and negotiate for the recovery of some of their lost rights. The National Catholic party, with a membership of hundreds of thousands, would have had a majority in the legislature had there been a free election. The National Federation of Workers, the Knights of Columbus, the A.C.J.M., and the Asociación Nacional de Padres de Familia were founded. When liberal president Francisco Madero was assassinated in 1913 a revolution broke out again. The old animosity against the Church appeared with greater vehemence than ever before, partly because of the persistent and slanderous rumor that it had supported the usurpation of Victoriano
Huerta in February 1913. In reprisal, churches and religious buildings were seized, sacrileges were committed, and priests and nuns were molested.
Constitution of 1917. The constitution of Querétaro, promulgated on Feb. 5, 1917 by the revolutionary minority, gave concrete expression to the attack on the Church: laicism was obligatory in primary education, and priests were prohibited from conducting schools; seminary studies were not recognized by the state; any religious act was forbidden outside the church; all religious organizations were forbidden to own property; all buildings that housed institutions dependent on the Church were declared the property of the state; priests lost political rights and the exercise of citizenship; the states were given the right to limit the number of priests; and the Catholic press and all confessional political parties associated with churches were suppressed. In the persecution that followed most bishops were forced to leave the country, many priests went into hiding or into exile, and hundreds of Catholic schools were closed. President Carranza (1917–20) understood that the radical constitution was fanatical and even tried to change it, but his successor, Álvaro Obregón (1920–24), again unleashed hostile forces against the Church and expelled apostolic delegate Bishop Filippi.
Persecution under Calles. The anticlerical actions of president Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–28) were spurred on by Protestant and liberal forces and even by foreign capitalists. In addition to enforcing the constitution, he supported two fallen priests in establishing a schismatic Mexican Church. As Protestants gained ground, the Catholics organized the Liga de Defensa de la Libertad Religiosa, which made use of bold propaganda, legal protests, and boycotts.
Calles, furious at the opposition, started the most bloody persecution Mexican Catholics had ever suffered. By the Ley Calles of July 1926, foreign priests and many bishops were banished. Priests and religious were imprisoned, and all Catholic schools and other organizations were suppressed.
In response, the bishops ordered priests to suspend religious services in churches. Discontent rose like an irresistible tide. Calles tried to crush all resistance; repeated outrages were never punished by the bailiffs. Catholics, who saw no other remedy for defending their rights, also took up arms as los Cristeros and caused the government serious trouble. The government unjustly accused Catholics of taking part in the revolt and ordered many killed, among them Father Miguel pro.
Truce between Church and State. The intolerable situation, complicated by political issues, was made worse by the assassination of president-elect Obregón. Interim president Portes Gil negotiated with Morelian archbishop ruiz y flores, who was also the apostolic delegate. On June 22, 1929, the president published a declaration that the government would not interfere in the internal affairs of the Church, and while the registration of priests would continue, it did not mean that the government would make ecclesiastical appointments. Encouraged by this apparent good will and fearful lest the people lose their faith if divine services were not resumed, the bishops ordered Mexico's churches to be reopened. While most welcomed the religious peace, Catholics whose lives and fortunes had been in jeopardy believed the government was deceiving the bishops, especially after a subsequent massacre of the Cristeros.
Revival of Persecution. The forces hostile to the Church did not withdraw. Renewed anticlerical fury broke loose during the celebration of the fourth centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on Dec. 12, 1931, and sanctions were levied against all public employees who took part in the celebrations. Absurd restrictions were placed on numbers of priests: i.e., for the Federal District, with more than a million inhabitants, only 25 priests were permitted; for Tabasco, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, only one priest. Actually, the law was not complied with, and many priests continued to function without being authorized; others sought legal subterfuges.
Much more dangerous was the cunning persecution begun by President Lázaro Cárdenas, who came to power in December 1934. Following his orders that all schools teach socialism, Marxism, atheism, and sexual education, public indignation rose throughout Mexico. While at first the bloody regime of Calles seemed about to be repeated, it was soon apparent that these unpopular decrees could not be enforced, and the government changed the ministry. Although the persecution slackened, no seminary was left unmolested. When almost all seminaries had been closed, U.S. bishops offered their help, and in September 1937 the Seminario Nacional Pontificio, for candidates who could not be educated in Mexico, was opened in Montezuma, New Mexico.
In April 1937 pius xi addressed an apostolic letter to Mexico in which he asked Mexican Catholics to organize peacefully, promote Catholic Action, and keep the faith intact. The pope acknowledged the legitimacy of armed revolt in certain cases but added that the Church must never engage in it.
In this sad struggle the archbishops of Mexico City, Díaz and Martínez, and Orozco of Guadalajara stood out prominently. Amid such continuous turmoil the Church was unable to effectively educate the youth and to preach the social doctrine of the Church. Little could be done for Mexico's indigenous peoples and for laboring classes because circumstances forced the clergy to attend primarily to urgent pastoral duties: conducting divine services and catechizing.
Bibliography: j. bravo ugarte, Historia de México, 4 v. (Mexico City 1941–59). w. h. callcott, Church and State in Mexico: 1822–1857 (Durham, NC 1926). d. cosÍo villegas, ed., Historia moderna de México (1867–1911), 8 v. (Mexico City 1955–65). m. cuevas, Historia de la Iglesia en México, 5 v. (5th ed. Mexico City 1946–47). p. de leturia, Relaciones entre la Santa Sede e Hispanoamérica, 1493–1835, 3 v. (Analecta Gregoriana 101–103; 1959–60). f. c. kelley, Blood-Drenched Altars (2d ed. Milwaukee 1935). l. medina ascensio, La Santa Sede y la emancipación mexicana (Guadalajara 1946).
Postwar Development. After the Second World War, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Mexican presidency became less strained, and though anti-clerical legislation remained in effect, it was not generally enforced. Beginning with the presidency Manuel Avila Camacho (1940–46), a modus vivendi gradually emerged that brought Catholics into the mainstream of Mexican political life and gained for the Church greater freedom. Although new disputes arose during the presidency of López Mateos (1958–64), they never generated the animosity, repression, and violence that characterized Church-state relations before 1940.
In 1953 the Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) was founded in response to Pope pius xii's request for a structure that would enable the hierarchy to coordinate their efforts in the spiritual and political spheres. After the second vatican council, the conference was reorganized and strengthened. Including all bishops, even retired bishops who had a voice but no vote, the CEM meets twice a year, its main executive body the 21-member Permanent Council. Members of the Permanent Council include representatives of the 15 pastoral regions into which the country is divided. The work of the conference and the Permanent Council was to include issues relating to doctrines of faith, Church personnel and hierarchy, and pastoral ministries to youth, family, indigenous peoples, migrants, and refugees. Initially, the Mexican episcopal conference did not attempt to strongly intervene in pastoral, social, or political affairs. However, in 1971, the Synod of Bishops in Rome published a report called "Justice in Mexico" faulting Church leaders for not doing more to address social and economic injustice. The CEM subsequently gave social issues a higher priority.
The low profile of the CEM and the Church hierarchy in socio-economic affairs notwithstanding, many of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that took the lead in Mexican development were motivated by the papal social teachings and the Medellín-inspired emphasis on a preferential option for the poor. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Secretariado Social Mexicano guided the Church toward ethical and moral requirements of social justice and focused attention on programs and organizations capable of supporting development. The secretariat inspired a range of programs throughout the country under Church auspices, including cooperatives, credit unions, food distribution centers, and health clinics. Although Christian base communities never achieved the large numbers they had in Central and South American countries, NGOs backing them proliferated in Jalisco, in Ciudad Netzahualcoyotl on the outskirts of Mexico City, in Morelos, and in Vera Cruz.
Under the leadership of Austrian-born Ivan Illich, the Centro Intercutural de Documentación (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca became a think-tank for social, developmental, and educational issues. Illich, who had earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Salzburg, served as a parish priest in New York City before becoming vice president of the University of Santa Maria in Ponce, Puerto Rico from 1956 to 1960. In 1961 he joined CIDOC as a researcher, became president of the board in 1963, and continued as a member until 1978. Under Illich's direction, CIDOC made an impact on social thinking not only in Mexico, but throughout the hemisphere. As the U.S. Church looked south and began to send missionaries to Latin America in increasing numbers, the Center offered language courses and at the same time forced missionaries to examine the assumptions they were bringing to their ministry.
Meanwhile, popular education programs, inspired by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire spawned a variety of Church-related NGOs. The NGOs embarked on programs of conscientización that through a broad range of activities, such as literacy and adult education, health clinics, self-help housing, and micro-enterprise production, sought to raise the social consciousness of the people. To some extent these early NGOs were limited by their dependence on external sources of support. At the same time, more independent organizations, closely aligned with poor people united through social movement and producers associations, took a more militant stance. The national coordinating bodies of producers' associations played an important role in the 1970s and early 1980s. Gradually, Church-promoted social organizations allied with them.
Liberation Theology. Also in response to the plight of the poor in Mexico, a few dioceses encouraged the creation of communidades eclesiales de base (basic christian communities, or cebs) and a few centers in Mexico studied liberation theology. The CEBs, small discussion and worship groups common throughout Latin America led usually by laity, catechists, or sisters, provided an occasion especially for the very poor to discuss the New Testament in light of their own experience. The CEBs were generally influenced by the themes and methods of liberation theology. By reading the Bible in light of contemporary reality, members of base communities had their consciousness raised about the structures of injustice and oppression at the root of poverty.
One of the few members of the hierarchy who openly promoted liberation theology was Sergio Méndez Arceo (d. 1992), bishop of Cuernavaca until his retirement in 1982 at the age of 75. Called the "red bishop," because of his Marxist sympathies, Méndez Arceo was reprimanded by the episcopal conference and the Vatican for his outspoken positions. He defended Fidel Castro, supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, demanded that the inequities in Mexico's socio-economic order be addressed, and denounced U.S. imperialism.
Several research centers in Mexico City also studied liberationist themes, among them the Centro de Relección Teológica and the Centro de Derechos Humanos M.A, the last co-sponsored by the Jesuits and the Centro de Estudios Dominicanos, Another center, under lay control, was the Centro Antonio de Montecinos. These centers utilized the approach of liberation theology to analyze the socio-economic and moral causes of poverty and injustice.
While liberation theology and base communities were often the focus in discussions of the contemporary Latin American Church during the 1970s and 1980s, the well-organized conservative side of Catholicism remained a power to contend with. opus dei, with its highly centralized structure, exercised considerable influence on and through the laity, especially those of means and advanced education. The Legionarios de Cristo, founded in Mexico in 1941, remained a conservative and influential congregation that attracted many vocations and sent missionaries abroad, staffing parishes in the United States and Europe. By the 1990s liberation theology had been replaced by "Indian theology," which was also held to have Marxist roots. Indian theology, which attempted to address the wrongs done to native peoples during the colonial era, by admitting the role of the Church in oppressing, robbing, and exterminating indigenous tribes in the Americas and elsewhere, was of concern to both the pope and others; among its major proponents in Mexico was Father Eleazar Lopez Martinez, of Mexico's Center for Support to Indian Missions.
Modernization of the Mexican State. Carlos Gortari Salinas was elected president of Mexico in 1988. Salinas moved rapidly to consolidate his position as president and embark on what he called the "modernization of the Mexican state." Salinas' strategy of modernization meant initiating an overall economic policy that broke with tenets of the Mexican revolution, most notably issues of land ownership. Putting Mexico more in synchronization with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the package of neo-liberal economic adjustment policies meant the privatization of many state enterprises and a dramatic shift in Mexican agrarian policy on ejidal or communal land ownership and resale. The border industrialization program was a preface to wholehearted embracing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with many poor Mexicans asked to make a huge leap of faith that the benefits of these economic adjustment strategies would somehow trickle down to improve the lot of the poor.
Salinas' modernization strategy included a shift in Church-state relations. Early in his electoral campaign, Salinas often met with bishops, and after his election delegates of the CEM regularly discussed issues of mutual concern with the president, as did the papal nuncio. President Salinas broke with Mexican precedent by inviting the archbishop of Mexico City, the papal nuncio, and the CEM president to his first presidential address. In February 1990, Salinas named a personal envoy to the Vatican and cooperated in preparations for Pope John Paul II's second visit to Mexico, welcoming him upon his arrival at the airport. The bishops, mindful that Salinas had spoken in his inaugural address about improving relations with the Church as part of his plan for modernizing the Mexican state, began, through the CEM, to search out ways to recover religious freedom. Anticlerical articles of the Mexican Constitution were revised by presidential decree on Jan. 28, 1992. Through these changes, churches were recognized as legal entities and permitted to own property. Foreign clergy and ministers were allowed in the country, and Mexican clerics were granted the right to vote, to criticize the government, and were exempted from taxes.
Papal Visits. In mid-1991, Salinas visited the Vatican, and on Nov. 1, 1991 he announced his plan to normalize relations with the Church. Pope John Paul's three visits to Mexico and Salinas' visit to the Vatican added up to a resumption of ties, with formal representation of Mexico to the Vatican State, and constitutional changes affecting the Church within Mexico.
The change in the reception given the pope on his four visits to Mexico reflected the transformation of Church-state relations. During his first visit in January 1979, President López Portillo claimed to have met him by chance and offered only a hasty handshake and a few perfunctory words of welcome at the airport. The pope's second visit was in 1990, to attend the Conference of Latin American Bishops at puebla, near Mexico City. President Salinas, though acting in a "strictly personal" capacity, welcomed the pope at the airport and warmly praised him. Governors of the ten states where John Paul visited, taking their cue from the president, openly welcomed the pope.
John Paul II paid a third visit to Mexico in 1992 en route to the Conference of the Latin American Bishops at santo domingo that commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus. The pope offered some solace for Mexicans involved in ministry to indigenous peoples. He asked pardon of the native population and the enslaved populations of the Americas for centuries of mistreatment and for attempts to force religious belief that in no way respected human dignity and freedom. In January 1999 the pope returned again, this time to promulgate the apostolic exhortation Ecclecia in America, which outlined the challenges facing the Church in the Americas. All four visits of the pope drew enormous crowds and demonstrated his enormous appeal to Mexican Catholics. The massive turn-outs convinced many, including government leaders, that the revolutionary legacy of hostility toward the Church had turned counterproductive.
Even before Salinas came to power, efforts on behalf of both the hierarchy and the government to improve relations gradually produced results. Although the constitution prohibited the Church from owning real estate, wealthy Catholics, associations, and corporations, acting as intermediaries, could purchase any property they wanted. The government provided assistance in the 1970s when ecclesiastical authorities constructed a new Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On May 6, 1990 during his second visit to Mexico, Pope John Paul II solemnized the beatification of juan diego in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the same occasion John Paul marked the beatification of the child martyrs of tlaxcala and of Jose Maria yermo y parres.
The final year of the Salinas presidency witnessed a series of troubling events in Mexico. The signing of the NAFTA agreement redefined the relationships among the three countries of North America; the presidential electoral campaign was one of the most hotly contested in history; a peasant rebellion broke out in the southern state of Chiapas; and Cardinal Posadas, archbishop of Guadalajara, and two other public figures were assassinated. One of the most troubling, the revolt in impoverished Chiapas that began in January 1994 brought the Church center stage during a major national crisis. Samuel Ruiz, bishop of the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas for more than 25 years, mediated the dispute between the government and the mostly Amerindian Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Both the government and the hierarchy rallied behind Ruiz, one of the few persons acceptable to the rebel forces, and his efforts were acknowledged by the 1996 Raoul Follereau Prize for contributing to the cause of peace. Despite Ruiz's efforts, the violence continued into 2000, forcing thousands of Amerindians in the region to abandon their homes as Zapatista gunmen and paramilitary groups fought for support in the area. Ruiz stepped down as bishop in April, 2000, amid repeated threats against his safety and continuous acts of violence by those opposed to the Catholic Church in the region.
In 1996, during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo, the nation found itself in an economic downturn, as inflation climbed and a recession began. Zedillo's economic remedies sparked vocal criticism in the form of a pastoral letter from Mexican bishops to which the government responded by attempting to limit the freedom of speech of the Church. A new law forbade Church leaders from making any statement about Mexico's "political or economic issues, or any other linked to the country's situation." Not surprisingly, there were strenuous objections to such a law as a violation of the constitutional separation of Church and state. According to Amendment 130 of the Mexican constitution, made in 1992, Church leaders were prohibited from holding public office, supporting political candidates, or taking any other action that would "invade the public sphere." In the unsettled region of Chiapas in particular, the government enforced its prohibition against clerical involvement in politics, expelling several foreign priests from the region in 2000.
Into the 21st Century. Despite the success of Protestant missionaries during the late 20th century, by 2000 four out of every five Mexicans identified themselves as Roman Catholic. There were 5,318 parishes, tended by 9,684 diocesan and 3,145 religious priests. Other religious included approximately 6,500 brothers and 26,600 sisters, many of whom taught at Mexico's 1,828 primary and 1,060 secondary Catholic schools. Many Amerindians, despite their Catholicism, continued to maintain some traditional beliefs and practices that predated the conquest; syncretistic religious, such as Catholic Mayans who practiced in Chiapas, were also common. Both mainstream Protestant churches and evangelical sects multiplied among the tribes in the highlands, as well as among the burgeoning urban populations of Mexico City and Guadalajara, and throughout the northern border area. Over half the people of Mexico attended church regularly.
As Mexico began to establish itself as a stable, economically viable country free from war, it began to confront issues common to many other modern nations through new legislation. The bishops were vigilant in their review of these new laws, recognizing themselves as a force for Christian traditions in a secular age. In 2000 a government bill promoting organ donation was greeted with approval by bishops, as long as the donor's free will was respected. However, laws passed by several of the Mexican states contravening the federal law banning abortion were viewed with concern as a sign of things to come. However, with the election of President Vincente Fox in 2000 Church leaders hoped for a closer relationship between the government and the Catholic Church. In May of that year Mexico City was the site of the largest outdoor Mass to be held in the country since 1924. Over 50,000 people were estimated to be in attendance.
Bibliography: b. barranco villafan and r. p. escobar, Jerarquía católica y modernización política en México (Mexico 1989). p. berryman, Liberation Theology (New York 1987). "Cumplir promesas, demanda la iglesia a Ernesto Zedillo," La Jornada (Sept. 1994). m. de la rosa and c. a. reilly, Religión y política en México (Mexico City 1986). m. e. garcia ugarte, La nueva relación iglesia-estado en México (Mexico 1993). g. grayson, The Church in Contemporary Mexico (Washington 1992). g. guttiÉrez, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Maryknoll, NJ 1993). a. t. hennelly, John Paul II's Message to Indigenous Peoples (Maryknoll, NJ 1994). l. hernandez and j. fox, "La Dificil Democracia en México," Nuevas Politicas Urbanas (Arlington VA). a. p. moctezuma, El conflicto religioso de 1926 (Mexico City 1929). s. loeaza, "Chiapas: desaffío al vaticano," Cuaderno de Nexos (February 1994; June 1994). e. v. niemeyer, "Anticlericalism in the Mexican Constitutional Convention of 1916–17," Americas 11 (1954–55) 31–49. Proceso (Jan. 30, 1989; Sept. 26, 1994). second general conference of bishops, Puebla and Beyond: Documentation and Commentary (Maryknoll, NJ 1979).
[c. a. reilly/eds.]