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Column 112805 Emmond

Monday, November 28, 2005

 

Church influence seeps into Mexican politics

 

By Kenneth Emmond

 

Time was when you could get shot for being a priest in Mexico. How things have changed!

 

At a meeting of the Mexican Episcopal Conference this month the Catholic Church, having recovered a precarious but real place in Mexican society in the 80-odd years since the violent anti-clericalism of the 1920s and 30s, set out what can only be called a strategy for the 2006 elections.

 

It is being circumspect. Mexico’s constitution expressly forbids political activity by ecclesiastical groups, so it’s focusing on issues that concern it rather than offering support to any politician.

 

It will say, in effect, “A conscientious Roman Catholic will vote for the candidate who best espouses the following values.”

 

That still cuts it close. The sticky point is that it could tailor those values and policies to the ones it knows are best reflected in one party. Some politicians are squeamish about its approach but the saving grace − if one may call it that − is that no party provides a perfect fit.

 

Still, it’s arguable that there is an outline of such a “favorite” in its ideal presidential profile.

 

A paper released following the conference says the candidate of its choice “should not have a previous record of shady business or dealings with organized criminals; that he or she should have an honest lifestyle; should not have been involved in scandals or the mismanagement of money; should have ample capacity for dialog with social and political groups; should generate consensus and have a history of commitment to citizen participation and the common good; should promote human rights, especially for the most vulnerable groups; and should espouse human values that promote respect for the right to life.”

 

That’s a tall order, and the authors probably realize that none of the presidential hopefuls can completely fill it.

 

However if one looks at the candidates of the three main parties one might recall that Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), gained the candidacy in a swirl of controversy and murky manipulations that make even some of his party members uncomfortable.

 

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), says there should be a public discourse about euthanasia, a definite no-no.

 

That leaves Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN), who has not yet been tarred with any scandalous brushes, and who so far has steered clear of clarifying his views about the sanctity of life.

 

To reassure skeptics, the president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, Bishop José Guadalupe Martín Rábado, stated last week, “The church will not intervene in favor of candidates or parties, or against candidates or parties.”

 

However, he said, it will hold workshops to educate citizens about democracy, to show the political responsibility of the faithful.

 

That moves the question of “political activity” into the field of semantics.

 

Mexico’s experience with Church-State separation is part of a worldwide trend. There are fears in some quarters that the separation is eroding. In the United States some believe the Protestant-based Religious Right has undue influence on decisions made by born-again President George W. Bush.

 

At the Vatican last September church officials mulled the possibility of denying the sacrament of Communion to politicians who support laws that violate church doctrine. That would include issues like abortion, gay marriage, and certain types of stem cell research.

 

The implication is that Catholic politicians might have hanging over their heads a threat that goes back to the days of Charlemagne: that of the church denying the souls of kings and other secular officials entry to Heaven should they fail to put into practice policies supported by church doctrine.

 

Following Mexico’s Episcopal conference, Patricia Mercado, a potential presidential candidate for the Alternative Social Democratic Party, said the Attorney General’s office should rein in what she termed the church’s political aggression in its efforts to influence the elections.

 

The Senate has asked the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to make sure the churches don’t try to influence public opinion during the campaign.

 

The church’s creation of a “perfect candidate” profile is a helpful exercise for any voter group, whether it consist of businessmen, doctors, teachers, or women.

 

But when it follows up with workshops the question emerges: is the church insinuating itself into political life in a way that will become more strident in years to come?

 

Whatever the answer, it has indeed come a long way from the days when clerical collars were a death sentence.

 

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Kenneth Emmond, an economist, market consultant and journalist who has lived in Mexico since 1995, is also a columnist with MexiData.info.  He can be reached via e-mail at Kemmond00@yahoo.com.