26 April 2009

At church conference, parties find religion

Church in Atotonilco/Iglesia en Atotonilco

At church conference, parties find religion

The News

CUAUTITLÁN IZCALLI, State of Mexico - National Action Party president Germán Martínez reminisced about a religious upbringing in Quiroga, Michoacán, while addressing an auditorium of Catholic prelates on Wednesday in this municipality on the northwestern fringes of the Mexico City metropolitan area.

Beatriz Paredes of the Institutional Revolutionary Party followed, speaking similarly about her childhood in the state of Tlaxcala, and of fond memories of the annual patron saint festival in the municipality of Huamantla that fetes La Virgen de la Caridad with predawn pilgrimages and streets carpeted with flowers. Democratic Revolution Party president Jesús Ortega, however, skipped the religious pleasantries and nostalgia and cut straight to politics.

The appearance by the trio of senior political leaders at the annual planning session of the Mexican Bishops' Conference - during which they outlined their platforms and fielded questions on the thorny issues of abortion and religious freedom - was not with without precedent; party officials from the PAN, PRI and PRD had met with senior Catholic prelates prior to the 2006 elections.

But the latest encounter - which also included the presidents of three smaller parties - came as the church has been criticized for wading into the public policy debate with pronouncements, running sharp editorials in church-run publications and lobbying political officials.

Some of the church's hierarchy have even urged Catholics to vote against parties that back policies such as liberalized abortion laws and civil union benefits to same-sex partners.

The encounter - and the recent criticism of the church's so-called meddling - come in spite of strict laws in Mexico that forbid preaching politics from the pulpit, a measure that some church officials want scrapped and say violates their freedom of religion.

"There's a church leadership that is convinced that the church should openly intervene in politics," said Ilán Semo, a political historian at the Universidad Iberoamericana. "[They] have a mentality from the 19th century."

In the mid-19th century, the Reform Laws of Benito Juárez removed the church from the political arena. The Constitution of 1917 reinforced the separation of church and state, along with measures such as prohibitions on the church owning property and priests not being able to wear clerical robes in public.

But reforms approved in 1992 softened many of the anti-clerical restrictions. The softening of the restrictions and the advent of the Catholic-friendly PAN, said Semo, emboldened church officials to opine on public policy and advance a political agenda.

That agenda includes discarding a ban on religious organizations owning radio and television stations and the implementation of religious education in public schools - which are constitutionally mandated to provide schooling that is both secular and free of cost.

The church also wants "freedom of religion" enshrined in the Constitution, which currently only guarantees "Freedom of worship."

Church officials deny allegations that they are attempting to steer parishioners toward preferred candidates or have prelates run for political office, the latter being a violation of cannon law.

They also deny any attempt at blurring the separation of church and state.

"The Catholic Church does not want a confessional state," Archbishop Carlos Aguiar of Tlalnepantla, president of the bishops' conference, said after the meeting with the party presidents on Wednesday.

"The church," he said, "will not be for or against any political party . [and] will promote the importance of the electoral process."

The PAN's Martínez on Wednesday enthusiastically backed church participation in promoting democratic values and "fighting absenteeism"

"We're a party that for 70 years has said that there should be freedom, not only of worship, not only of the profession of faith, but rather . a broad and full religious liberty," he told reporters.

Martínez's party has long been accused of being too cozy with the church hierarchy. But church observers say that other parties and political leaders also pursue close church relations.

In Jalisco, for example, the PRI threw its support behind a constitutional ban on abortion after a meeting earlier this year between Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara and state party president Javier Guízar.

"Cardinal Sandoval himself often says that PRIístas are the ones that visit him the most," said Víctor Ramos Cortés, a religious studies professor at the University of Guadalajara.

Unsurprisingly, the abortion issue surfaced at the bishops' conference meeting this week.

Only the PAN's Martínez declared his party, "Pro-life;" his PRI and PRD counterparts said that they personally favored the decriminalization of abortion - especially in certain circumstances - but added that blanket positions on the issue would fail to work in their parties due to diverse views on the subject and differing regional sensibilities.

Social Democratic Party, or PSD, president Jorge Díaz Cuervo, whose party is running on a platform that includes the decriminalizing abortion in the states, was less diplomatic.

Díaz Cuervo demanded that the church stay on the sidelines and butt out of people's personal lives. (The PSD platform also calls for legalizing drugs and providing expanded rights for gays and other minority groups.) He cited scripture to make his point.

"As a Catholic, It suits me to pay unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's," he said. "As a Mexican, I back the Constitution of 1917 that separates church and state."

His comments were received with a polite, tepid response from the audience. Cardinal Sandoval, for one, did not applaud.

It remains to been seen what the consequences of the church's interventions into politics will be.

The Interior Secretariat has dismissed several recent complaints over church actions, including one from the PSD regarding a list of "electoral sins" issued by the bishop of Cuernavaca that urged the faithful to vote against any party promoting abortion and gay marriage.

But while government enthusiasm for enforcing laws against church interventions into politics has been minimal, the public has been more enthusiastic in denouncing the blurring of church and state lines.

In Jalisco, a state government donation last year for the construction of a Catholic temple generated such public outrage that the money was returned.

Religious observers say that even though most of the Mexican population is Catholic - and the church ranks as one of the country's most trustworthy institutions - the public draws a line at a certain point when it comes to power.

"People are Catholic ... [but] they don't want priests running the country," Ramos Cortés said.

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