Jorge A. Vargas*
Mexico is a land of contrasts. Discovered and initially populated by the Spaniards in 1519, when Spain was about to reach its peak as the world's major political, economic, and military power, Mexico had no choice but to become a Catholic nation. Under the laws of Castille in force at that time, by mandate of King Charles V, no exploration, discovery or possession of any land in the name of the Spanish Crown was to take effect anywhere in the planet without the direct involvement of the Catholic Church.1
Placed at the same level as kings and emperors, and recognized as occupying a superior rank on spiritual matters, the Catholic Church prepared its priests to serve not only as brilliant navigators and cosmographers2 but, more importantly, as inspired missionaries and devoted promoters of the Catholic religion on a global scale.3 The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries formed part of an era when explorations for wealth, knowledge, and souls were a common occurrence.4 With a population approaching 100 million, of which eighty-nine percent are Roman Catholic,5 Mexico is the largest Catholic country in the world.
However, many international observers have been unaware that official relations between the government of Mexico and the Catholic Church over the last 140 years have been seeded with mutual suspicion, loaded with chronic tensions, and marked with severe and violent confrontations. Therefore, it is ironic that in the world's largest Catholic country the relations between the government and the Catholic Church have been severely strained.
In general, the antagonism between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church originated because of the immense wealth and unequal political power acquired by the Church over the first three centuries of Mexico's existence as a nation. The Church's wealth and political power became so great that it first challenged, and later openly opposed, the public policies advanced by the government, including its own constitutional nature as a republic, as established by Mexico's Federal Constitution of 1857.6 The confrontation between these two forces finally culminated in a military campaign in which the Catholic Church and a group of conservatives, with the support of Napoleon III, embraced the establishment of a monarchy in Mexico. This regime was to be headed by Maximilian of Hapsburg, instead of the republican government then led by President Benito Juarez. Yet the republican forces, with the political and military support of President Abraham Lincoln, defeated the French invading forces and the conservative army supported by the Catholic clergy. This defeat, epitomized by the tragic episode of Cerro de las Campanas in which Maximilian and his generals Miramon and Mejia were shot in Queretaro in 1867, reestablished the Republic throughout the nation, led by the government of President Juarez.
It was during this period that President Juarez enacted the Reformation Acts (Leyes de Reforma).7 These legislative enactments were designed to deprive the Catholic Church of its immense wealth and political force. This was done by means of a series of decrees which, inter alia, nationalized all ecclesiastical assets, placed acts pertaining to the civil status of individuals-civil marriages in particular-under the control of public authorities and public law, regulated cemeteries and interments, and banned all religious orders.8As a direct result of the Reformation Acts, the content of which was reproduced in its entirety in Mexico's Federal Constitution of 1917, a clearly anticlerical legal regime was formulated. This regime imposed severe restrictions on the Catholic Church and established an extreme separation between church and state. It is a regime that, despite the loud and persistent protests advanced by the Vatican since its enactment, remained in force until 1992. The constitutional amendments made in 1992 to Articles 27 and 130 represent a profound change in the content and scope of the former legal regime. …