After Years of Antagonism, Mexico Smoothes Ties Between Church and State

AS Pope John Paul II steps off the plane Aug. 11 in Mexico, he will receive an honor absent from the papal pomp and ceremony of his last two visits here: the playing of the Mexican and Vatican national anthems.

This is a tribute bestowed upon visiting heads of state. A small detail. But it is also an important symbol marking the closure of a 125-year rift between the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic Church. And it hints at the dramatic changes in Mexican church-state relations since Pope John Paul II was here in 1990.

Last year, the Mexican government established formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican. But more significantly, analysts say, a sweeping 1992 reform of the Mexican Constitution bestows legal status on all religions here. (Pope visits Denver, Page 7.)

"The changes are fundamental. We've entered a new chapter in Mexican history," says the Rev. Manuel Olimon Nolasco, a historian at the Pontifical University of Mexico.

Mexican governments have long refused to officially recognize the existence of the Catholic Church, or any other. Prior to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the country's land was concentrated in the hands of the wealthy; the Catholic Church was the largest landowner. The clergy actively participated in politics. The 1917 Constitution changed the old hacienda system, turned church land over to the government and forbade clergy from voting. Clerical garb could not be worn in public. All churches have since operated in a legal vacuum as penance for those past sins of political meddling and "excessive" property ownership.

In the past year, all that has changed. Churches and their members are claiming their legal rights under the new laws. Priests can vote. And, conversely, politicians who once feared the stigma of attending even their own daughter's wedding in a church, now openly meet with church leaders. In recent weeks, the Catholic hierarchy has met and lobbied the candidates of the ruling party likely to run for the presidency next year. "That's nothing new, except it was done in secret before," Fr. Olimon says.

But the Catholic Church - with an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the population as adherents - is not the only beneficiary of changes.

To date, the Mexican government has certified 413 "religious associations." Another 1,323 are in process. Of the total certified to date, 74 percent are non-Catholic Christian denominations.

Some Mexican officials privately admit their surprise not only at the number of faiths active in Mexico but at the degree of organization and professionalism expressed by the various religions in the registration process.

"Until a few months ago, there was general perception that Catholicism was the religion of Mexico. The pope is visiting a country where there are now more than 400 recognized churches with equal legal status," says Roberto Blancarte, president of the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico, a nonsectarian academic research group.

"There's a new awareness of plurality in the country. That means the Catholic Church no longer has an exclusive relationship with the government. It's a good relationship but one that's more clearly relative. And the relationship between the government and other churches is more open and direct now," Mr. Blancarte notes.

The pope is expected to praise the religious reforms enacted by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. But he may question the privatization and other market-oriented economic policies so widespread in Latin America now and raise the issue of illegal drug-trafficking.

The May 24 murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in an airport shootout has been a source of tension between the Mexican Catholic Church and the government. Church officials have questioned official findings that Cardinal Posadas was mistaken for a drug baron and shot.

Last month, the church issued a statement claiming "an important number of public and military officials" have been corrupted by the "drug mafia." On Aug. 5, Chihuahua Bishop Juan Sandoval Iniguez criticized "corruption in all levels of society" and government lack of effort in eradicating it. Officials have responded that if the church has proof, they would like to see it.

It is expected that 1 million Mexicans will descend on the city of Merida, where the pope arrives Aug. 11 for a two-day stopover on his way to a Catholic youth meeting in Denver. One reason for the Merida visit is to fulfill a commitment to meet with indigenous groups and mark the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Conquest. The meeting was postponed last year because of the pope's poor health. Another reason to visit Merida, church officials say, is to bolster the faithful in the Yucatan Peninsula. Althou gh this area was the first in Mexico colonized by the Spanish and evangelized by the Catholic Church, in recent years Mexicans have been flocking to non-Catholic churches in the region.

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