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Why the pope wants stronger ties with Mexico and Cuba

While the Catholic church is bolstering the faithful in Mexico and Cuba, it is also seeking closer ties with national governments during Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to these countries.

By Staff writer / March 23, 2012

Moises Silva speaks with a visitor about the pope’s visit to Guanajuato starting March 23.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Guanajuato, Mexico

On Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Lent in the Roman Catholic calendar, the basilica was full in this central Mexican town where 94 percent of residents are Catholic. The priest placed ashes on the foreheads of a continuous stream of congregants: elderly women, schoolgirls in uniform, construction workers, and men in suits – including one struggling to juggle his benediction and his dry cleaning.

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To Catholics like these in Mexico, as well as in Cuba, the late-March visit of Pope Benedict XVI – his first to both – is a highly anticipated blessing. But while the church is bolstering the faithful, it is also seeking greater political footing in two places where relations between church and state have been historically strained. 

Observers say this reflects a new strategy in these countries to further the church's agenda after decades of waning regional influence, as Protestantism grows and urbanites push back on issues like abortion and gay marriage. "The Vatican believes it can influence the internal politics of Cuba and Mexico," says Elio Masferrer, a religious expert at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. That could help the church pursue interests such as religious education, antiabortion measures, and human rights.

In Mexico, both the church and the political elite see practical value in cooperating today, says Víctor Ramos Cortés, a religious studies professor at the University of Guadalajara. It's an outlook that reverses decades of separation between the two in Mexico. Though Latin American populations are largely associated with Catholicism (Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world, after Brazil, and the region is home to almost 40 percent of the world's Catholics), there is a history of tension between government and church leadership in both Cuba and Mexico, dating back to anticlerical initiatives taken amid their revolutions.

But in 2000, the conservative National Action Party (PAN), founded in large part by Catholics, won the Mexican presidency after 71 years of one-party rule. As a result, and along with modernized views of the Catholic clergy, the state began to align more closely with the Catholic Church.

Today in Mexico, the church can count on conservative politicians to support it on social issues and help fight for policies such as religious education in public schools. Politicians who once saw affiliation with the church as politically incorrect need the support of the religious hierarchy to bolster their legitimacy, Mr. Ramos Cortés says.

"We have a weak state, in which politicians are diminished, and they need legitimacy from the church they aren't getting at the polls," he says.

After Mexico, the pope heads to Cuba, where relations have long been tense with the Castros.

The church has found a more prominent voice under Raúl Castro, however. Led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, it helped broker the release of 115 political prisoners last year, and it may have an even bigger impact on the economic front: The clergy recently began offering an MBA with a branch of a Spanish university for a new class of entrepreneurs created by Mr. Castro.

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