Church influence seeps into Mexican politics

Mexico City, Mexico - Time was when you could get shot for being a priest in Mexico. How things have changed!

At a meeting of the Mexican Episcopal Conference this month, the Catholic Church, having gradually recovered a precarious but real place in Mexican society in the 80-odd years since the violent anti-clericism of the 1920s and 30s, set out what can only be called a strategy for the 2006 elections.

It is being circumspect. Mexico's constitution expressly forbids political activity by any ecclesiastical group, so it is focusing on issues that concern it rather than offering direct support to any political party or politician.

It will say, in effect, "A conscientious Roman Catholic will vote for the party or candidate that best espouses the following values."

That still cuts it close. The sticky point is that it could tailor those values and policies to the ones it knows are best reflected in one of the parties. Some politicians are squeamish about its approach but the saving grace, if one may call it that, is that none of the parties provides a perfect fit.

Still, it's arguable that one can make out the outline of such a "favorite" in its ideal presidential profile.

A paper released following the conference says the candidate of its choice "should not have a previous record of shady business or dealings with organized criminals; that he or she should have an honest lifestyle; should not have been involved in scandals or the mismanagement of money; should have ample capacity for dialog with social and political groups; should generate consensus and have a history of commitment to citizen participation and the common good; should promote human rights, especially for the most vulnerable groups; and should espouse human values that promote respect for the right to life."

That's a tall order, and the authors no doubt realize that none of the current crop of presidential hopefuls can completely fill it.

However, if one looks at the candidates of the three main parties, one might recall that Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gained the candidacy in a swirl of controversy and murky manipulations that not even all of his party members are comfortable with.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has seen fit to comment that there should be a public discourse on the question of euthanasia, a definite no-no within the profile.

That leaves Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN), who has not yet been tarred with any scandalous brushes, and who so far has steered clear of commenting on his views about the sanctity of life.

As luck would have it, he is from the same party as President Vicente Fox, a devout Roman Catholic whose actions and attitudes since 2001 have opened many doors that enabled the Church to strengthen its political presence.

To reassure the skeptics, the president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, Bishop José Guadalupe Martín Rábado, stated last week, "The church will not intervene in favor of candidates or parties or against candidates or parties."

However, he said, it will hold workshops to educate citizens about democracy, to show the political responsibility of the faithful.

That moves the question of "political activity" into the field of semantics.

Mexico's experience with Church-State separation is part of a worldwide trend in which there are fears in some quarters that the separation is eroding. Even in the United States, some believe that the Protestant-based Religious Right is having undue influence on decisions made by born-again President George W. Bush.

At the Vatican last September church officials mulled the possibility of denying the sacrament of Communion to politicians who support passage of laws that violate church doctrine. That would include issues like abortion, gay marriage, and certain types of stem cell research.

The implication is that Catholic politicians might have hanging over their heads a threat that goes back to the days of Charlemagne: that of the church denying the souls of kings and other secular officials entry to Heaven should they fail to put into practice the policies promoted by the church. Is that where we're headed?

Following Mexico's Episcopal conference, Patricia Mercado, who hopes to be the presidential candidate for the Alternative Social-Democratic Party, called on the Attorney-General's Office to rein in what she termed the political aggression of the church in its efforts to influence the 2006 presidential elections.

"Clerics cannot call on citizens to vote or not to vote, nor can they tilt the balance toward one candidate or another," she said.

The Senate has asked the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to keep an eye on the churches to make sure they don't try to influence public opinion during the campaign.

The church's creation of a "perfect candidate" profile is a helpful exercise for any voter group, whether it consist of businessmen, doctors, teachers, or women. But when the church creates a profile and follows it up with workshops, the question emerges: is the church - in Mexico and elsewhere - insinuating itself into political life in a way that will become more strident in years to come?

Whatever the answer, it has indeed come a long way from the days when clerical collars were a death sentence.