Visit comes amid efforts to reform religious freedom

At Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, amid the crowds of mostly poor, devout pilgrims, there are some strange sights. Close to the sanctuary, facing the tilma, or cloak, that bears the miraculous imprint of Our Lady, two heavily tattooed young men paw each other with a candle, as if applying soap. The coordinator of the local chapter of Catholic Voices, a team of laypeople training to put the Church’s case in the media during the papal visit, explains they are likely from a local gang, carrying out a limpieza — a semi-pagan ritual. 

A couple of blocks away, the Mexican bishops’ conference general secretary describes a country in need of mission, in which religious practice is deeply embedded in the culture, but lacking depth and formation.  

Missionary impulse

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato is seen in back as people walk down a street in Guanajua- to, Mexico, Feb. 14. Pope Benedict XVI will visit Guanajuato state this month. CNS photo by David Maung

While 85 percent of Mexicans are baptized, only 10 percent attend Mass, less than 1 percent take on pastoral commitments within the Church, “and a large number of the baptized in practice think very differently from Church teachings,” said Msgr. Víctor René Rodríguez Gómez.  

He hopes that Pope Benedict XVI’s March 23-26 visit to the state of Guanajuato, northwest of Mexico City, will help to strengthen the Church’s “missionary impulse,” which he describes as “strengthening the parish as a place of encounter, a place of evangelization, a place of Christian initiation and commitment on the part of the faithful.” 

At the same time, the Church is looking for a greater presence in Mexican public life. Pope Benedict’s regular insistence on the need for the worlds of reason and faith, of religion and public affairs, to be in closer contact, strikes a particular chord in Mexico, where an obsessively secularist state has long sought to confine the Church to the private sphere. 

Mexico’s 1917 Constitution, written by the radical secularists who emerged victorious from Mexico’s 1910 Revolution, declared the state officially atheist and banned the Church from public activities. For more than 70 years, ever since Plutarco Elías Calles, the Church’s chief persecutor, created the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1929, the party in power never changed and the Church stayed out of sight.  

Not until the early 1990s did the ice begin to thaw: Many of the restrictions were lifted, and the Church at last acquired legal status. Pope Benedict’s visit later this month comes on the 20th anniversary of the 1992 re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the Holy See. Among the reforms that year was the lifting of an 1873 ban on outdoor religious ceremonies, leading, in 2000, to the first Mass being celebrated in the Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo. 

Religious freedom reforms

Another milestone was reached in 2000, when the PRI’s monopoly was overturned by the more Church-friendly PAN party, which has been in power ever since. But that could end with the presidential elections in July: if the historically secularist PRI returns to power, the Church’s calls for constitutional reforms to secure basic religious freedoms could be thwarted. 

Currently before the Mexican Senate is a bill to reform Article 24 of the Constitution, changing “freedom of beliefs” to a more robust “freedom of ethical convictions, conscience and religion.” Catholic experts point out that this change falls far short of the “freedom to manifest religion” in most international treaties. 

Msgr. Rodríguez Gómez agrees that the reform is inadequate, but sees it as a vital first step. It will not lead to religious education in schools if their parents wish it, or an end to bishops being threatened with lawsuits every time they make a declaration that the government regards as “political.” But it sets up a tension within the Constitution that will require testing in the courts. These cases, the bishops hope, will lead to core freedoms being granted. 

In the meantime, the issue allows the arguments to be aired and learning to take place. “In Mexico, religious freedom has been understood as freedom of worship and conscience, which belongs basically to the internal forum,” Msgr. Rodríguez Gómez told Our Sunday Visitor. “So, many politicians and intellectuals find it strange when we talk about religious freedom as a constitutional right which would benefit believers and non-believers alike, and see it as the Church trying to claim special privileges.” 

The debates over the changes have allowed bishops to reassure Mexico’s secularist intellectuals and politicians that since the Second Vatican Council the Church no longer seeks a confessional state, while at the same time putting forward a more sophisticated conception of state religious neutrality. “It’s said that there cannot be religious freedom without a secular state,” Msgr. Rodríguez Gómez said. “But the state cannot be authentically secular without religious freedom. This is where the argument is taking place.” 

Opening doors

There is little chance that the pope will refer directly to the proposed constitutional reform, and the pre-election atmosphere has made both church and state warier than usual of trespassing the strict boundaries between them.  

Yet it would be surprising if the pope did not articulate, in general terms, the benefits to Mexican society as a whole of the Church having a public voice. And if he does so, it could be in the context of that most pressing of issues in Mexico — the violence unleashed by powerful drug barons. 

The violent battles between federal government forces and the narcos are part of the background to the invitation that President Felipe Calderón extended to Pope Benedict. Calderón’s decision to confront the powerful cartels has led to the deaths of close to 50,000 since he took office in 2006. 

It might seem odd to think of the pope preaching to gunmen. Yet the Church and the cartels do not exist in separate worlds: most narcos think of themselves as Catholic, and in many parts of rural Mexico, they offer money (not always refused) for the building of churches. There has been talk of truces between the cartels while the pope is present. It may just be a small opening but, like the reform to Article 24 of the Constitution, it opens a door through which faith and hope, in the form of Pope Benedict, can step. 

Austen Ivereigh, coordinator of Catholic Voices in the United Kingdom, was in Mexico City training a local chapter of the project,