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Column 041607 Corcoran

Monday, April 16, 2007


A Decline in Catholic Church Influence in Mexico


By Patrick Corcoran


A recurring episode in Mexican history has been a periodic reappraisal of the Roman Catholic Church’s role in society, which has usually resulted in a lessening of its power. Such a moment has again arrived, with the catalyst being the proposed decriminalization of abortion in Mexico City, the nation’s capital.

Although laws vary from state to state, abortion is almost universally illegal except in special circumstances, such as rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. A proposal before the Mexico City legislature would allow births to be terminated virtually for any reason at all in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. With the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) firmly in control of the legislature, the law seems certain to pass.

The subsequent developments have been utterly predictable for anyone who follows American politics. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers launch the same tired rhetorical volleys, each accusing the other of intolerance and hate, all the while becoming steadily more fixed in their views.

The Catholic Church, not surprisingly, jumped headfirst into the fray, denouncing the proposed law with all due vehemence. Mexico City Archbishop Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the most prominent cleric in the country, told his audience during a recent sermon, “Laws, whatever they are, are intended to respect life. A law that does not is ungodly.”

The Church’s efforts have failed to convince a majority of the Mexico City populace to oppose the law. Polls show that more than half the capital’s inhabitants, and an overwhelming majority of its women, are in favor of the bill. Mexico City is more liberal than most of the rest of the country, and a similar bill circulating in the lower house of the national congress will likely fail, but it hardly bears mentioning abortion decriminalization is a major setback for the Church.

Nor is abortion the only issue that illustrates the Church’s waning influence on social issues. Mexico City and Coahuila, in conservative northern Mexico, have both approved gay marriage in the past several months, in spite of the Church’s opposition. The Mexican Senate has a bill circulating that would legalize euthanasia, again in the face of Catholic criticism. The bill includes a provision for a National Bioethics Commission, a body that would presumably fill the role of moral adjudicator once held firmly by the Church.

In the past, such reassessments of the Church’s role in society have usually been linked to violent episodes (the War of the Reform [1857-1861]; and the Cristiada insurgency, also known as the Cristero War [1926-1929], are just two examples).  Thankfully the abortion debate, though it will certainly lead to name calling, will not spark pitched battles.


The recent series of events are simply an affirmation of what has long been true: the Church now, more than ever, is not Mexico’s preeminent moral guide. It is simply a guide, followed by some, ignored by others.

Just as in the United States, the Church in Mexico has been damaged by a series of sex scandals. Cardinal Rivera has faced charges that he protected child-molesting priest Nicolas Aguilar and encouraged his victims to forget about what had happened to them. As awful as that sordid affair is, probably more significant for the Church’s declining authority is that it has simply been overtaken by a society that grows more intellectually independent and secular with each day.

That’s not to say that the Church will fade from the map, for a variety of reasons. The Roman Catholic Church, directly or indirectly, will continue to contribute to the moral foundation of Mexico’s citizens. The notoriously hierarchical Church will provide Rivera and his successors with a prominent pulpit for generations to come, and the relative absence of Protestantism will ensure that Mexican religious thought doesn’t devour itself amid an ocean of competing denominations. Mexico’s overwhelming Catholic populace (about 90 percent) will continue to provide church leaders with an audience, and therefore grant them relevance.

As the thousands who gathered in Mexico City on Good Friday to watch the reenactment of Christ’s final hours demonstrate, Catholic ritual and tradition are central to Mexican culture. The Virgin of Guadalupe remains one of the nation’s cherished symbols. But there is a gulf between the Church’s sentimental appeal and its actual influence, a gulf that will only grow larger.



Patrick Corcoran, a MexiData.info columnist, is a writer who resides in Torreón, Coahuila.  He can be reached at corcoran25@hotmail.com.