MEXICO, the last nation in Latin America without diplomatic ties to the Vatican, has decided to re-tie the knot after a 125-year break.
Although some 90 percent of Mexico's 85 million people profess to be Roman Catholics, the church existed for generations as a virtual outlaw. Recently that changed, and the Sept. 20 move to establish full diplomatic ties is a largely symbolic capstone in a church-state reconciliation process begun when Carlos Salinas de Gortari became president in 1988.
Most Mexicans, according to various polls, do not see this as a significant issue. It has not provoked the kind of debate that, for example, US President Reagan got when he restored ties to the Vatican in 1984 after more than a century lapse.
"This is something symbolic which draws the attention of the international community, more than Mexicans, to the constitutional changes made by Salinas which are in fact far more important," says Roderic Camp, a Mexico expert at Tulane University in New Orleans.
But it is a reversal of historic trends and indicative of Mr. Salinas's effort to leave no stone unturned in his campaign to "modernize" Mexico - be it in terms of agriculture, trade with the United States, or religion.
Since the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, Mexico has been predominately Catholic. The church became a powerful partner with Spain in the colonization of Mexico. The church owned more than half the territory of Mexico by the 1800s. When Mexico's revolutionary leaders came to power, they struck back at the Vatican for supporting the rich elite.
In 1857, Benito Juarez, one of Mexico's most revered founding fathers, expropriated all church property. In 1867, relations with the Vatican were severed. The Constitution of 1917 outlawed the church as a legal entity, forbade foreign-born priests to preach here, prohibited clerical garb to be worn in public, and made voting and political activity illegal for church leaders.
Over the decades, the anti-church laws were enforced with less and less vigor. Priests did vote and speak out on political issues. In 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Mexico. He celebrated mass and attended public ceremonies in papal robes - violating several restrictions.
In 1988, Salinas took office promising to end the pretense. He appointed a "personal envoy," not a full ambassador, to the Vatican. Earlier this year, constitutional reforms and enabling legislation were passed, legally recognizing Mexican churches and outlining their rights.
Professor Camp says the reforms took some political courage. "All Mexicans have been raised in a strong liberal environment ... establishing clearly the ascendancy of the state over the church. The average Mexican believes Benito Juarez was right and doesn't want to see the reascendance of the church's worldly powers."
THE opposition to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, however, has not raised a protest. In fact, the conservative National Action Party lent its full support to recognition. Members of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party did little more than call it a tactic to distract attention from "political, economic, and financial failures." Only the small Popular Socialist Party expressed concern about a growing political alliance between big business and the church.
Mexico joins more than 60 nations with diplomatic ties to the Vatican. In Mexico, diplomatic recognition may produce a more confrontational stance from the church against increasingly popular non-Catholic faiths, religious analysts say.
"The Vatican will find it easier to exert political leverage in Mexico, to influence the course of the church," says Rodolfo Casillas of the Mexico City-based Mexico Center of Religious Studies.
But Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz summed up the most common reaction in an interview with the daily newspaper La Jornada: "It is the end of an archaic debate. We Mexicans have real problems too immense to be wasting time with problems that don't have validity anymore and are legacies from the last century."