Mexico Finalizes Restoration of Ties to Catholic Church

Article excerpt

MEXICO, the last nation in Latin America without diplomatic ties to the Vatican, has decided to re-tie the knot after a 125-year break.

Although some 90 percent of Mexico's 85 million people profess to be Roman Catholics, the church existed for generations as a virtual outlaw. Recently that changed, and the Sept. 20 move to establish full diplomatic ties is a largely symbolic capstone in a church-state reconciliation process begun when Carlos Salinas de Gortari became president in 1988.

Most Mexicans, according to various polls, do not see this as a significant issue. It has not provoked the kind of debate that, for example, US President Reagan got when he restored ties to the Vatican in 1984 after more than a century lapse.

"This is something symbolic which draws the attention of the international community, more than Mexicans, to the constitutional changes made by Salinas which are in fact far more important," says Roderic Camp, a Mexico expert at Tulane University in New Orleans.

But it is a reversal of historic trends and indicative of Mr. Salinas's effort to leave no stone unturned in his campaign to "modernize" Mexico - be it in terms of agriculture, trade with the United States, or religion.

Since the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, Mexico has been predominately Catholic. The church became a powerful partner with Spain in the colonization of Mexico. The church owned more than half the territory of Mexico by the 1800s. When Mexico's revolutionary leaders came to power, they struck back at the Vatican for supporting the rich elite.

In 1857, Benito Juarez, one of Mexico's most revered founding fathers, expropriated all church property. In 1867, relations with the Vatican were severed. The Constitution of 1917 outlawed the church as a legal entity, forbade foreign-born priests to preach here, prohibited clerical garb to be worn in public, and made voting and political activity illegal for church leaders.

Over the decades, the anti-church laws were enforced with less and less vigor. …