The crowds pushing in around the newspaper kiosks a few Monday mornings ago oohed and ahhed at what has come to be known in this cosmopolitan metropolis merely as The Picture – 18,000 buck-naked chilangos and chilangas (Mexico City residents) staging a mass nude-in in the great Zocalo plaza as captured by internationally celebrated photographer Spencer Tunick. Tunick has made a good living setting up such shoots in many of the world’s major cities.
But the artist’s shoot, usually viewed as a harmless lark, raised hackles in conservative quarters here and indeed has become one more irritant in a spate of nasty squabbles between Church and State.
In one pose, Tunick had his naked subjects kneel in prayer, heads pressed against the ground in the Islamic fashion, and turned towards the rambling old Metropolitan Cathedral, a citadel of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico. Not at all happy with the pulchritude, the nation’s leading prelate, Cardinal Norberto Rivera demanded that Tunick remove any image of the Cathedral in the photo. Spencer Tunick had been contracted by Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a tall handsome JFK clone, who had just been excommunicated by Cardinal Rivera.
Church-State relations are always dicey in Mexico. Extending from the Conquest and Colonial rule into the 19th Century civil war between conservatives and liberals, and through the Cristero war which took 30,000 lives in the aftermath of the anti-Church Mexican revolution, the face off between civil and clerical authorities continues to provoke confrontation.
Although 93% of all Mexicans profess to be Catholics or at least Guadalupanas (devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe), what the Church refers to as the “Jacobin” strain continues to find voice. Indeed after a century-long rupture, Mexico and the Vatican only resumed diplomatic relations 15 years ago.
Since Mexico City went left in 1997, relations between the Church as personified by the Metropolitan Cathedral on one side of the Zocalo and City Hall on the other, have been frosty. But they went into deep freeze last November when the capital’s legislative assembly. dominated by the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), signed off on the nation’s first gay union law to the dismay of the archdiocese. Then on January 1st, the northern border state of Coahuila legalized gay unions – Mexico’s first gay “marriage” took place March 7th in Coahuila when two lesbians tied the knot.
Although the Church hierarchy fussed and fumed at all this blasphemy, the moral pontifications of the bishops and cardinals had a hypocritical ring in light of serial pederasty scandals involving predator priests, perhaps the most scandalous of which stars Cardinal Rivera himself.
As Bishop of Tehuacan in Puebla state during the late 1980s and early ’90s, Rivera is accused of protecting the rapist priest Nicolas Aguilar who parents charge with abusing 60 young boys in the diocese. Rivera would later exercise his exalted power as Cardinal of Mexico City, the world’s largest Catholic congregation, to ship Padre Nico to Los Angeles where he would have similar protection from Cardinal Roger Mahoney. But after the good father had notched 26 new victims in Mahoney’s jurisdiction, the Cardinal quietly flew Aguilar back to Mexico as if the whole affair was covered by some NAFTA chapter on priestly pederasty.
Never arrested for his crimes, Pope Benedict XVI last October stripped Father Aguilar of his clerical functions and he is now said to be eking out a living in Mexico State selling religious cassettes. Both Cardinals Mahoney and Rivera are being sued by Aguilar’s victims who have vowed to bring criminal cover-up charges against the two powerful Churchmen.
According to SNAP-Mexico, a molestation survivors network, at least 40 U.S. predator priests on the lam from U.S. justice are loose in Mexico – no figures are available as to how many Mexican “padres pederastas” have fled north of the border for protection.
The pontiff of all Mexican pederast priests is Macial Marcial, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, an immensely wealthy order, who made a habit of raping young acolytes he accompanied to Rome for nearly six decades – the first accusations date back to the 1950s. Kept out of sight in the Vatican by Pope John Paul II, Benedict finally condemned the 86 year-old Marcial to a life of prayer and penance on his palatial estate in Michoacan.
But more pertinent than gay unions and gay priests, the battle between Church and State that is lighting up the heavens these days is an old bugaboo – legalized abortion.
This April 24th , the Mexico City legislature, availing itself of its solid PRD majority, passed an abortion on demand bill. The measure would apply to the first 12 weeks of gestation only and the procedure performed at the city’s 14 hospitals without fee. Like the legalization of gay marriage, the abortion on demand law was the first anywhere in the country, and spurred on by Cardinal Rivera and Jorge Serrano Limon, long-time leader of Pro Vida, a vitriolic anti-abortion group, street marches, mass pray-ins, and Pro Choice – Pro Vida scuffling in the Zocalo followed. Passage of the bill led the Vatican to issue excommunication orders for Mayor Ebrard and all legislators who had voted for the abortion law.
The law was also immediately slammed by President Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa (his baptismal name), a devote Catholic and member of a founding family of the archly rightwing National Action or PAN party, created in the 1930s by Catholics to oppose what they labeled a “Bolshevik” president (Lazaro Cardenas.) “I stand with life” the President assured Televisa, the nation’s number one TV octopus, using the standard anti-abortion euphemism. His wife, Margarita Zavala, seconded the sentiment.
After dining with Carlos Aguar, bishop of Veracruz and president of the Mexican Episcopal Council or CEM which groups together the country’s hierarchy, Calderon instructed his attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora to intervene in the brouhaha. This May 26th, both the Attorney General and the National Human Rights Commission under the signature of ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes, an Opus Dei associate, filed for relief with Mexico’s Supreme Court on the grounds that the Mexico City law violated the constitutional rights of “the product of conception.”
Roe Vs. Wade a la Mexicana has an instructive history. In 1999, the court quashed another abortion-on-demand edict promulgated by then-Mexico City interim mayor Rosario Robles but under the Supreme Court’s rules, each case must be treated separately and does not establish a precedent,
Nonetheless, since the Robles decision, the court has moved to the right and Pro Vida’s Serrano Limon, who was given millions of pesos by Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox to establish adoption homes that audits show he lavished on fancy lingerie, is reasonably optimistic that the current abortion law will be struck down. Serrano curses the PRD as if it was a biblical plague. “First it was homosexual marriage. Then it was abortion. What’s next? Euthanasia?” he asked the left daily La Jornada. “Exactly” one PRD legislator, who asked not to be quoted, responded.
The PRD and the Church hierarchy squared off after the July 2nd 2006 presidential elections which many thought was stolen from leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO.) During the bitter campaign, the Church’s preference for Calderon was patent – though often masqued by the homilies of the bishops and the cardinals as “a vote for life.”
Sunday after Sunday, irate AMLO supporters – tens of thousands were then camped out in protest on the streets of the city – invaded the Metropolitan Cathedral with pro-Lopez Obrador banners and disrupted Cardinal Rivera as he said Mass. Police had sometimes to be called and the cathedral’s doors were locked to prevent infiltrators, making Sunday Mass a kind of invitation-only séance.
More recently, Cardinal Rivera grew furious with Mayor Ebrard after access to the Cathedral was blocked during Sunday Mass because of preparations for a concert by Shakira, the pop idol whose gyrating belly button must cause the Church fathers to gnash their teeth.
This Monday (June 3rd) Felipe de Jesus Calderon will have his first tete a tete with Pope Benedict XVI in the Holy See before setting out on a European junket. In a previous persona as the Vatican watchdog for doctrinal heresies, Cardinal Josep Ratzinger waged an unrelenting witch hunt against Mexico’s liberation bishops, most pointedly Chiapas emeritus bishop Samuel Ruiz who Ratzinger, a one-time member of Hitler’s Nazi youth brigades, hounded for preaching “a Marxist version” of the Gospel.
Ratzinger’s relations with the Latin American Church turned tense during his recent visit to Aparacida Brazil to address the continent’s Council of Bishops or CELAM. Whereas his predecessor John Paul II accepted responsibility for the genocide of 50,000,000 indigenous peoples in the wake of the Conquest and the Evangelization (sounding a little like Subcomandante Marcos, John Paul once shouted ‘Mexico needs its Indians and its Indians need Mexico!”), Pope Benedict has proven himself a holocaust denier.
The Church’s trajectory in Latin America had been a “glorious” one he told the bishops on May 13th. Rather than imposing Catholicism upon the Indians and annihilating ancient native belief systems, the Evangelization had been the “salvation” of the continent’s indigenous population. Latin America’s Indians “silently desired Jesus Christ as their Savior” Ratzinger avowed. Although later he would concede that their had been “shadows” during the Church’s reign in the Americas, no mia cupla was forthcoming.
On the eve of the huddle between Calderon and Pope Benedict, Mexico’s foreign minister Patricia Espinoza was adamant that abortion was not on the agenda – which in diplo-speak, means it is the only item on the agenda. With Latin America moving left at the speed of sound, Ratzinger fears a domino effect as abortion-on-demand laws sweep the continent – actually, there is little current evidence that leftist regimes promote abortion. At least two Latin American socialists, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, preside over countries with total bans on abortion.
Still, if abortion-on-demand stands up in Mexico City which has the largest
concentration of Catholics on the Church map (most of the 215 woman upon whom abortions were performed in the first month of the law were Catholics), the implications for the Church’s future in Latin America are dire.
“Popes try to impress upon Catholic presidents that they should serve the Church,” observes Roberto Blancarte, once a diplomat in Rome. Although Benedict will applaud the Mexican president for his stand “for life”, he will ask him to do more to rescue the Church from the incipient danger of legalized abortion and take his convictions to the rest of Latin America, to convince other heads of state that a woman’s right to choose and the decriminalization of abortion is a grievous sin against Jesus Christ.
Given the current socio-political dynamic in Latin America, Calderon, despite his deep Catholic roots, cannot commit to so lost a cause. “Felipe Calderon goes to the Vatican with his own problems – the narco wars for example. He doesn’t need new ones” considers La Jornada religion writer Bernardo Barranco.
JOHN ROSS is in Mexico tracking Brad Will’s killers and reimmersing himself in the real world. If you have further information write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.