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Column 070907 Wall

Monday, July 9, 2007

Mexicans Debate Social Issues and Moral Values

By Allan Wall

Disagreement over gay marriage?  Arguing over sex education?  Fighting over abortion in the court and Congress?

Are we talking about the United States?  We could be, but nowadays we could also be talking about Mexico.

The past year has seen debates over moral values, over issues that formerly were not political issues.

The Mexican values debates have attracted the attention of journalists in the United States who seem amazed by them.  They often preface their articles by saying something like “conservative Mexico” or “Catholic Mexico.”

Actually, these changes have been underfoot for quite some time, it’s just that many people’s ideas about Mexico are 50 years out of date.

It surprises people to know that Mexico, like other Western countries, has been undergoing vast social changes and modifications of social attitudes.  The percentage of single parent families is growing, premarital sex is more accepted, homosexuality is out in the open, and abortion is more common than ever.

Not that everybody is in agreement on these issues, by no means whatsoever.  But the old social compact has been broken.  In the old days, these things existed but they weren’t out in the open.  Now they are.

At the same time, the once universal influence of the Catholic Church has rapidly declined. Although the Catholic percentage of the population is pegged at somewhere between 80 to 90 percent, estimates indicate that only about 25 percent of Mexicans are serious Catholics.  Many Mexicans don’t really have a personal religious faith, and though christened as infants and married in the church, they will seldom darken the church door. The Mexican Catholic Church also faces a severe priest shortage, and it has to import priests.

Nevertheless, there is a still a dedicated Catholic remnant, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is determined to continue engaging society, to speak up for the Catholic view of things. Mexico ’s Archbishop has spoken out repeatedly against abortion and same-sex marriage.

Throughout much of Mexico’s history, the Catholic Church and the Mexican government have clashed many times. During the 1800s there were conflicts.  In politics, the “Conservative” faction was pro-clerical, and the “Liberal” faction anti-clerical.  And in the 1920s there was the violent conflict known as the “Cristeros” Rebellion.

Those clashes were fundamentally different than today’s however.

Previous conflicts were fought over power, the role of Catholicism in society, and property (the Catholic Church once owned about 50 percent of the country’s property).  Today’s conflicts are over moral values, and that’s another thing entirely. 

For most of the 20th century there was an unspoken social compact in Mexican society. The church was excluded from political power, and the political world was almost completely secular. But the church was free to maintain its internal affairs.

Meanwhile Mexican moral and legal values were firmly based upon traditional western Christian principles.  (Not that everybody followed those principles, but almost everybody acknowledged them.)

Those days have come to an end. Now there are open disputes over the moral and legal values that will govern society.

There are, of course, unavoidable political ramifications. The PAN (National Action Party) is traditionally more aligned with the Catholic Church, while the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) are more secular.    

The Mexican Constitution is very secular, and Mexican law forbids churches getting involved in politics. That means the Archbishop is running a fine line when he speaks out on moral issues with political implications.  The PRD-run Mexico City government sends agents to attend each mass in Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, in order to monitor what the Archbishop says in his sermons, in case it’s political!  (And how can the Archbishop forbid anyone from attending mass?)

Since the Roman Catholic Pope is technically the head of state of the Vatican, when he makes comments related to these issues, that’s resented as meddling by those who aren’t in agreement.

And what about the Protestants?

Protestantism is growing in Mexico, with seven percent of the Mexican population now Protestant.  In the United States, evangelical Protestants have allied themselves with conservative Catholics to fight abortion and deal with other social issues.  Will that happen in Mexico?  It hasn't yet.  U.S. Protestants and Catholics tend to be more ecumenical than their counterparts in Mexico.

It’s not impossible, though, that in the future that gap could narrow. There's nothing like a common cause to bring people together, even if they disagree in other areas.

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Allan Wall, a MexiData.info columnist, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.  He currently resides in Mexico, where he has lived since 1991. He can be reached via e-mail at allan39@prodigy.net.mx.