Mexico's Catholic Church raises voice in 2006 race

Mexico City, Mexico - Mexico's Catholic Church is flexing its muscles before the 2006 presidential race, urging candidates to take a stand on issues like abortion, while a church leader calls for civil disobedience over moves to legalize euthanasia.

In a public letter on Monday, Mexico's conference of Catholic bishops said society needed clear proposals from candidates to address priorities such as crime and job creation as well as issues of top concern to the church.

"We are particularly interested that they speak honestly about issues related to respect for life and strengthening families," the council said.

The statement came as a debate over euthanasia moved to the forefront and just weeks after a controversy over the use of emergency contraception galvanized Roman Catholic leaders and polarized members of President Vicente Fox's Cabinet.

On Sunday, Cardinal Norberto Rivera told Mexico City's faithful that when government policy contradicted human rights, "one should not obey," referring to a move by lawmakers and others to consider legalizing euthanasia in some cases.

Although not unprecedented, such pronouncements put the church on delicate ground in this nation of more than 100 million people, some 85 percent of them Catholic.

Mexico has the world's second-largest Catholic population but many Mexicans hold sacred the separation between church and state and question Catholic doctrine on key issues such as birth control.

Abortion is illegal but widely available, and there have been moves to ease abortion restrictions.

"Catholics are as diverse as the citizenry," said Fernando M. Gonzalez, a religion expert at UNAM university. "The church hierarchy tries to homogenize what is not homogenous."

In Monday's letter, the bishops took care to avoid any air of partisanship, saying simply they wanted the church to take part in consolidating democracy at the polls.

The church will offer workshops to educate voters and "remind them that Christian faith commits the believer to the creation of a more just society."


Despite legal controls on political activity by clergy dating back decades, the church has traditionally sought to participate in politics. "This is cyclical," Gonzalez said.

Before the 2000 race that brought Fox to power and unseated the long-ruling PRI party, Catholic leaders pleaded for fair elections and denounced past fraud in what was seen as a thinly veiled attack on the incumbents.

"Historically, the church has taken a position in electoral processes and flirted with the possibility of taking a greater role than allowed, and it is always criticized," said Marcela Bobadilla, a political analyst at Mexico's IMEP think tank.

What appears new this time is the move to influence public affairs through civic education programs, rather than from the pulpit, she said.

Many believe Fox's conservative government has opened the way to greater church influence. Fox, a Catholic, launched his election campaign in 1999 by holding aloft a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe -- a potent religious icon.

More recently, he named Carlos Abascal, known for his conservative Catholic roots, as interior minister. Abascal was sympathetic to church leaders' outrage over federal plans to put the emergency contraceptive, or "morning-after" pill, in public clinics. But the program went ahead.

Responding this week to Rivera's comments about civil disobedience, Abascal allowed for the possibility of "conscientious objectors" regarding euthanasia.