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He One Holy Roller

Ratzinger in Mexico

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City

When John Paul II used to swing by Mexico – the first Pope to do so in 1979 – he went straight to Mexico City, the country’s throbbing spiritual heart; as well as the site of its most important Catholic shrine, the Basilica of Guadalupe. Not Joseph Ratzinger (alias Pope Benedict XVI). His weekend visit – the first stop on a brief tour that also takes in Cuba – saw him touch down three hundred miles away in the city of Leon, Guanajuato, in north-central Mexico.

In January, it was announced that 84-year old Ratzinger would bypass the Mexican capital on account of the effects of smog and high altitude on his ailing health. The more likely reason was the city’s leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) government, which famously legalized abortion in 2007 and same-sex marriage in 2009; the only federal entity in Mexico to do so.

In contrast, the state of Guanajuato, where Ratzinger was warmly embraced by an ultra-conservative populace and all manner of sinful politicos, is a stronghold of President Felipe Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN), the most pro-church party in Mexico. Guanajuato is one of Mexico’s wealthier states; the Archdiocese of Leon nevertheless requested that the municipal government “rearrange the beggars, prostitutes and street-vendors” ahead of the pontiff’s arrival.

Mexico has the second largest Roman Catholic population in the world, but as elsewhere in Latin America, the influence of the church is in seemingly irreversible decline. In 1980, 96 per cent of Mexicans said they were Catholic; dropping to 88 per cent in 2000 and 80 per cent in 2010. Many are just giving up on religion altogether, but there is also a notable growth of other groups such as Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons, particularly among the indigenous population in southeast Mexico.

The timing of the visit was all kinds of interesting. Mexico is still suffering a wave of gang violence as organized crime groups battle over the drug trade, to which the Mexican church has long been accused of ties. Meanwhile, President Calderon’s deeply Catholic PAN, which has tried to strengthen ties between church and state, is trailing in the polls ahead of a crucial presidential election on July 1st.

He one holy roller

It was Ratzinger’s first visit to Mexico (John Paul II made five) and only his second to Latin America; home to nearly half of the world’s Catholics. Mexico’s faithful generally adored John Paul but have felt somewhat neglected by the Euro-centric Benedict, which was perhaps why the pontiff donned a sombrero as he rode from Leon airport in the Pope-mobile. The highlight of the trip was an open-air Mass in front of some 650,000 devotees in the neighboring city of Silao.

The next day in the media, many attendees voiced disappointment about Ratzinger’s “lack of charisma” and just plain stoicism in the face of the country’s myriad social problems. The pontiff bemoaned Mexico’s “violence, corruption and lack of morals” – although did not refer to the twin causes of the conflict: vast social inequality and a voracious appetite for drugs north of the border. As for corruption and lack of morals; he did meet with Calderon, who became the first Mexican president to receive communion from a visiting Pope.

What Mexico’s devout wanted most from Ratzinger’s visit was some sign of hope, particularly concerning the violence that has taken more than 50,000 lives in just five years, and which soared after Catholic boy Calderon militarized the war on crime in 2006. Yet the Mexican church has, for the most part, been a cheerleader for the president’s “war”, despite the condemnation of human rights groups and a civil resistance movement that marched 200,000-strong on Mexico City last May.

Evidence has long linked the Mexican church itself to organized crime. The ties between Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo– famously murdered during a shoot-out between rival narco groups in 1993 – and the Arellano Felix family from Tijuana are well-documented. Most recently, a plaque outside a newly-built chapel in Pachuca, Hidalgo, let the world know that Zetas kingpin Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano had funded its construction. The local rumor is that the drug lord intends to be buried in the mausoleum there.

Those millions of Mexicans who could care less for the Catholic Church – and there are more than would likely admit it – might also have asked Ratzinger to comment on the slew of sex-abuse complaints made against members of the country’s clergy. In fact, the papal visit coincided with the launch of a book by a group of priests who in 1998 brought charges against Legion of Christ founder Marciel Maciel for having abused them when they were seminarians. “La voluntad de no saber” (“The Will not to Know”) includes powerful evidence that the Vatican knew of the notorious Maciel’s altar-ego – drug addict, paedophile – decades before it acted. Maciel was “disciplined” by Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 and died three years later.

Not all of Mexico’s clergymen are pederast, pro-militarization fanatics, however. Since the earliest days of the Spanish conquest, the Mexican church has been littered with rightly-celebrated dissident voices; from Bartolome de Las Casas, who stood up for indigenous rights in the 16th century, to Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, a liberation theologian who risked his life by sympathizing with the Zapatista rebels in the 1990s.

The most prominent dissident in the Mexican church today is Bishop Jose Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, Coahuila, a city hit heavily by the wave of drug-related violence.  Throughout his career, Vera Lopez has passionately defended marginalized groups from prostitutes to migrants, and decried corrupt officials who profit from the drug trade. He has said of the Mexican government’s “war on drugs”: “We are talking about a war of revenge… This is not a war of ideals or for an objective but a fight between different factions, not only of [drug] cartels but also between political and financial groups that are tied to each cartel.”

Vera Lopez has repeatedly said that organized crime has merged with the Mexican State and that he sees no difference between state security forces and the criminal underworld. “Calderon’s war is waged to protect  political and economic power,” he has argued. “In Chiapas the government protected the business establishment and never procured justice for the Indians. That is what is happening today, but now on a larger scale and in a similar scheme that extends to the entire country.”

For the crime of speaking honestly, Vera Lopez has been recipient of a string of death threats from both drug gangs and state authorities. Most recently, he was threatened by the military after publicly defending the rights of thirteen prostitutes raped by soldiers in Castanos, Coahuila.

Viva Cristo Rey

The clash between church and government has been a recurring theme of Mexican history, with the clerics usually on the losing side. The War of Reform (1857-61) fought by President Benito Juarez was the culmination of a bitter struggle between liberals and conservatives over the role of the church in the young Mexican Republic. Later, the Constitution of 1917, drawn up after the Mexican Revolution, sought to further limit the power of the clergy, prompting a Roman Catholic uprising and the Cristero War of the 1920s.

Ironically, Felipe Calderon’s PAN, in power since 2000, was founded in the aftermath of that conflict after Mexico’s bishops struck a deal with the anti-clerical PRI and prompted a breakaway group of committed fundamentalists. As the PRI clung onto power by hook or (usually) by crook for the rest of the century, it was sixty years before the PAN actually won the presidency; Cristo Rey appearing in the form of ex-Coca-Cola Mexico CEO Vicente Fox . The back-to-back PAN administrations thus far have been weighed down by stagnant economic growth, rising unemployment, civil protest, and most symbolically, Calderon’s disastrous crackdown on the drug trade.

The PAN would call itself a “Christian democratic” party but in reality is a hugely pro-business outfit committed to the free trade doctrine and US militarization of Mexico. The debate rumbles on as to whether the PAN rigged the 2006 election to keep out the left-wing PRD, and it has consistently fought to prevent the decriminalization of abortion and gay marriage, among other “evils”. The party is known to receive donations from “El Yunque”, a Catholic “secret society” that includes some of the country’s most viciously right-wing clerics and politicos.

An editorial in the left-wing daily La Jornada put it succinctly: the timing of Ratzinger’s visit was no accident. The Vatican is seeking to strengthen its agenda in Mexico, the country with the second largest Catholic population in the world, and knows that the best way to do so is by supporting the electoral cause of the PAN – currently second in the polls – over its rivals, the PRI and the PRD.

Of course, just weeks ahead of a presidential election, all three major candidates – Josefina Vazquez Mota (PAN), Enrique Pena Nieto (PRI) and the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – attended Ratzinger’s Mass in Silao. Yet in the eyes of many voters, proximity to the church no longer implies the moral authority of yesteryear, particularly in a country blighted by social ills far worse than abortion and gay marriage.

Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com