After Years of Antagonism, Mexico Smoothes Ties between Church and State

Article excerpt

AS Pope John Paul II steps off the plane Aug. 11 in Mexico, he will receive an honor absent from the papal pomp and ceremony of his last two visits here: the playing of the Mexican and Vatican national anthems.

This is a tribute bestowed upon visiting heads of state. A small detail. But it is also an important symbol marking the closure of a 125-year rift between the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic Church. And it hints at the dramatic changes in Mexican church-state relations since Pope John Paul II was here in 1990.

Last year, the Mexican government established formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican. But more significantly, analysts say, a sweeping 1992 reform of the Mexican Constitution bestows legal status on all religions here. (Pope visits Denver, Page 7.)

"The changes are fundamental. We've entered a new chapter in Mexican history," says the Rev. Manuel Olimon Nolasco, a historian at the Pontifical University of Mexico.

Mexican governments have long refused to officially recognize the existence of the Catholic Church, or any other. Prior to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the country's land was concentrated in the hands of the wealthy; the Catholic Church was the largest landowner. The clergy actively participated in politics. The 1917 Constitution changed the old hacienda system, turned church land over to the government and forbade clergy from voting. Clerical garb could not be worn in public. All churches have since operated in a legal vacuum as penance for those past sins of political meddling and "excessive" property ownership.

In the past year, all that has changed. Churches and their members are claiming their legal rights under the new laws. Priests can vote. And, conversely, politicians who once feared the stigma of attending even their own daughter's wedding in a church, now openly meet with church leaders. In recent weeks, the Catholic hierarchy has met and lobbied the candidates of the ruling party likely to run for the presidency next year. "That's nothing new, except it was done in secret before," Fr. Olimon says.

But the Catholic Church - with an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the population as adherents - is not the only beneficiary of changes.

To date, the Mexican government has certified 413 "religious associations." Another 1,323 are in process. Of the total certified to date, 74 percent are non-Catholic Christian denominations.

Some Mexican officials privately admit their surprise not only at the number of faiths active in Mexico but at the degree of organization and professionalism expressed by the various religions in the registration process. …