20 March 2010

Tensions mount between Catholic Church, liberal Mexico City government

Why the Mexico City gov't and local archdiocese don't get along (originally published by Catholic New Service in March 2010 ...)


By David Agren Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Mayor Marcelo Ebrard was witness to five same-sex marriages March 11 in Mexico City's old government building, the first such unions in the country and the first ones under new laws approved in the Mexican capital.

The Mexico City Archdiocese, meanwhile, expressed disappointment. Father Hugo Valdemar Romero, archdiocesan spokesman, said in a statement March 11, "It's clear that Mr. Marcelo Ebrard is responsible for the approval and execution of these laws that are destructive to the family and he doesn't conceal his aversion to the churches and the majority of people he governs, who profess the Christian faith and reject the perversion of their most cherished values."

The disagreement escalated tensions between the archdiocese and the local government. During the last three years Mexico City also decriminalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy -- and paid for abortions performed in public hospitals -- and liberalized euthanasia laws.

It also marked a further departure from the good relations the archdiocese and local government shared prior to Ebrard taking office in 2006.

Previously, "Relations between the archdiocese and the Mexico City government had always been cordial," Father Jose de Jesus Aguilar Valdes, director of the radio and TV for the archdiocese, told Catholic News Service.

He emphasized that current relations with the national leadership of the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party -- which dominates politics in much of Mexico City -- are cordial. But with the Ebrard administration and local assembly, "there's been a distancing" and little direct contact, he said.

The distancing runs counter to the current thawing of relations between church and state in Mexico, where the institutions officially had been kept separate for 150 years.Relations between the two often have been strained.

Political observers say current church-state relations are marked by political parties and candidates courting church support even though Catholic leaders have said they don't take sides.

"Church support is not usually the deciding factor (in elections) ... but it helps," said Aldo Munoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico.

Munoz traced the origins of the discord to electoral politics. Specifically, he cited the tight 2006 presidential contest, which former Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador narrowly lost and considers to have been rigged.

During his 2000-2005 administration Lopez Obrador developed a cordial relationship with the archdiocese. His government even provided money for renovations to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Enoe Uranga Munoz, a Democratic Revolution Party member of Mexico's lower house of Congress, told CNS that Lopez Obrador thwarted attempts by the Mexico City Assembly to decriminalize abortion.

"He did it out of conviction, but also because he saw himself as a presidential candidate and had the need for an alliance with the church hierarchy," Uranga said.

For its part, the archdiocese disapproved of a 2005 attempt to impeach Lopez Obrador -- a move that would have disqualified the early frontrunner from the 2006 election. But false assumptions by Lopez Obrador that the church would back his presidential campaign caused relations to deteriorate, Father Aguilar said.

Lopez Obrador and his backers view the 2006 election as a "betrayal," said political historian Ilan Semo Groman of the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.

Semo added that the church traditionally seeks good relations with whichever party wins power and recognized President Felipe Calderon's narrow victory.

Lopez Obrador organized mass protests after the election and declared himself, "legitimate president" of Mexico. He refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Calderon administration and, like Ebrard, maintains that posture to this day.

Ebrard won office at the same time as Calderon and, almost immediately, began pursuing a socially liberal agenda. Political observers say he pursed that agenda out of a need to separate himself from Lopez Obrador and lay the groundwork for a possible presidential bid in 2012.

The pursuit of that bid could lead to a worsening of relations between the archdiocese and local government.

"They're using confrontation with the church as their primary weapon," said Uranga, who is openly gay and supports much of the Ebrard agenda -- if not his political tactics.

Some observers see political profit in antagonizing the church, however, mainly because Mexico City is more secular than other parts of the country, due to having an intellectual and political class with anti-clerical attitudes.

"The conflict between Marcelo (Ebrard) and the church is electoral," Munoz said.

"Your enemy is electorally important, and you'll use it as it suits you. Being anti-clerical, for Marcelo (Ebrard), for where he is, is something very convenient."

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