A new conflict between the Catholic Church and Mexico’s political left should surprise no one with knowledge of the historic animosity between the entities. 

Since Mexico’s independence, tensions between the Church and secular powers have reached lows, like the “Cristero” civil war of the 1920s, and highs, like Pope John Paul II’s five visits to the country. 

The latest round involves a proposed constitutional revision that would enshrine Mexico as a lay state. 

“A low-intensity fight, with open confrontations like the one we are watching now, has always marked the relationship between a hyper-secular state founded on an anti-Catholic constitution, and a highly influential Catholic Church,” said Manuel Diaz Cid, one of Mexico’s top religion historians. The current confrontation over the revision of the Mexican Constitution “cannot be understood outside the almost 200-year-long conflict between the Catholic Church and the Mexican dinosaurs [the term used for anti-Catholic political forces].” 

Contentious election 

The first episode of the current fight can be traced to 2006, when the Partido de la Revolución Democrática’s (PRD) Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador ran for president. Two months before the elections, he led by more than 17 points over his closest competitor, conservative candidate Felipe Calderón. 

Many Catholic leaders, especially Cardinals Norberto Rivera of Mexico City and Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara, warned of the risks of having the dinosaurs running the country. 

A month before the elections, Lopez Obrador’s advantage was down to 10 percent, and on election day, he lost to Calderón by 90,000 votes. 

PRD militants demonstrated in the streets for weeks, but the party finally conceded, vowing revenge against the ruling Partido de Alianza Nacional (PAN) and the Church. 

Culture wars

Taking advantage of their total control over Mexico City, or the Federal District (DF), the PRD embarked on a series of legislative initiatives aimed at punishing the Catholic Church. 

Thus, in 2007, the PRD majority proposed the legalization of abortion in almost all circumstances until the 12th week of pregnancy. The measure passed that April. 

In 2008, Mexico’s Supreme Court declared that the Constitution gives “no ground” to either forbid or legalize abortion. The decision allowed the legislation to stand, but it opened the door to the opposite, too: Pro-life forces started a rush to criminalize abortion in most of Mexico’s 31 other states. By late 2009, 18 states passed such laws. 

Next, the PRD in the DF passed one of the most liberal pro-homosexual legislations in the world. In December, the DF legislature approved a law that legalizes same-sex marriages and provides homosexual couples the right to adopt. 

The Mexican bishops’ conference asked the Mexican government to challenge its constitutionality before the Supreme Court. The Attorney General’s Office presented a case of unconstitutionality before the Supreme Court, which was accepted. 

Unnecessary change 

The fact that the case was accepted was described by the dinosaurs as “evidence” that the Church was violating the separation of church and state. So, in January, a number of federal PRD legislators proposed the modification of the Constitution to define, officially, Mexico as a “lay” (secular) state. 

“The idea is politically smart, because no politician will be opposed to describing Mexico as a lay state, but it is legally preposterous,” constitutional expert Enrique Basaguren told Our Sunday Visitor. “First, we still have anachronistic laws that forbid religious entities from owning schools or media. Second, Article 24 of our Constitution already recognizes that Mexico does not adhere to any particular religion but protects religious freedom. Why, then, the need to proclaim explicitly that Mexico is a ‘lay’ state?” 

The Church agrees that Mexico should be a lay state, said Father Hugo Valdemar, Archdiocese of Mexico spokesman. “What we oppose and lament is the use of the word ‘lay’ or ‘secular’ as a club to hit the head of Christians bringing their beliefs into the public square,” he said. “That is obviously what is at stake here. This is just a group of old anti-clericals trying to limit the rights of believers.” 

The motion was passed by absolute majority in Congress, but may be stalled in the Senate. 

“At the end, we will have to see what all this fuss really means,” Cardinal Rivera told the press after a Sunday Mass. “Because the law, in Mexico, is like the English language: You write it one way, and then read it in a completely different one.” 

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Peru.

Long-Standing Dispute (sidebar)

“Dinosaurs” is the name used in Mexico to describe the political anti-Catholic movement that has historically opposed the public role of the Church in the country almost since Mexico’s independence became effective in 1821. 

In 1917, anti-clerical dictator Venustiano Carranza convoked the drafting of a Mexican Constitution, which imposed limits on the Catholic Church never seen in Latin America. 

In 1929, anti-clerical forces assembled by Plutarco Elías Calles, the president who provoked the “Cristero” civil war, created the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, which eventually became the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). From 1929 to 1997, the PRI ruled the country without interruption. 

In 1979, after the extraordinary success of Pope John Paul II’s visit, a debate started inside the PRI over whether the party should keep its strong anti-clerical stand. The side that opposed any reform received the nickname of the “dinosaurs.” Since then the name is associated with old-school, anti-clerical and corrupt politics. 

In 1989, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, head of the “dinosaurs,” frustrated with not being elected PRI’s candidate for the presidency, pushed for a major political split, and founded the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD.) Most of the dinosaurs followed Cárdenas into the PRD. 

In 1997, Cárdenas was elected chief of government of the Federal District (Mexico City, with some 22 million inhabitants). Using the same old tactics of intimidation and corruption, the PRD maintains total control over the Federal District’s politics. 

In 2006, PRD’s presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador lost by less than a 1 percent margin to Conservative President Felipe Calderón, after comfortably leading in the polls. The dinosaurs blamed the Catholic Church for Calderón’s victory and vowed revenge.