IN Mexico, the "elephant" and the "ants" are squaring off, to
use the terminology of the Vatican's envoy to Mexico, Geronimo
In January, Mexico officially mended a more than century-old
rift between the Roman Catholic Church and the government by
rewriting the Constitution to give legal recognition to religions
here. But the ever-so-important fine print remains to be spelled
In recent weeks, a vigorous debate has erupted over what will be
the precise relationship between church and state. The debate has
far-reaching ramifications, ranging from tax status to religious
education to media access.
"The other churches are worried that the reforms will be
hijacked by the Catholic hierarchy," says Roberto Blancarte,
president of the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico, a
nonsectarian academic research group. "It all comes down to the
clarity of a law which is supposed to grant religious liberty but
may end up persecuting or creating an inequity between the
There is no official legislative committee yet. No specific laws
have been submitted for approval. As the complexity of the project
becomes more obvious, the timetable keeps slipping. "Nobody wants
to talk about concrete positions yet," confides a lawyer close to
the process. Meanwhile, the lobbying is intense.
A prime point of contention is what will qualify as a church
under Mexican law. Under the 1917 Constitution, churches here were
not recognized as legal entities, they could not own property
(edifices became state property), and church officials could not
vote. The January reforms grant legal recognition, but it is up to
the National Congress to define the terms.
Several Catholic bishops are suggesting that churches be granted
different rights based on historical presence. In April, Cardinal
Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo said it would be an "injustice" to give
equal legal recognition to religious associations without taking
into account the historic weight and number of members of each
church or denomination.
Or, as papal representative Prigione put it recently, one
doesn't receive "an elephant the same as an ant."
Some European countries handle the issue with a sliding scale of
rights and qualifications for a religious organization, says Jorge
Adame Goddard, a church-state specialist at the National Autonomous
University of Mexico.
"It's important not to let a group of people attain recognition
as a religion which is trying to commit fraud or put commercial
interests above religious interests - like some American television
evangelicals," Dr. Adame says. But, he adds, "minority religions
must be protected from being suffocated by larger churches."
Dr. Blancarte says the government is not competent to make such
distinctions. "It's dangerous to get into the area of judging what
is a sect and what is a church. Remember, Christians were once a
Jewish sect." He advocates treating religious organizations like
"the Boy Scouts or a lawyers' association. If they use illegal
drugs or commit fraud, prosecute them. …