Catholic Church in Mexico Draws Political Fire over Voting Guidelines for Faithful

Mexico City, Mexico – Mexico's Roman Catholic Church drew fire Tuesday for releasing a set of voting "guidelines" for the faithful ahead of the July 1 presidential elections.

All religious groups in Mexico are banned from engaging in electoral politics, or supporting or opposing any candidate or party. The guidelines published by the Archdiocese of Mexico on its web site appear to closely skirt the restriction.

But the issue is a sensitive one in Mexico, where harsh anti-clerical laws sparked the 1926-1929 Cristero war, an uprising by Roman Catholic rebels against Mexico's secular government in which tens of thousands of people died. While loosened in the 1990s, many restrictions on church activities in Mexico remain.

The latest "pastoral guidelines" do not mention any party, saying only that Catholics cannot "choose as a political option those who support or promote false rights or liberties that attack the teachings contained in the Holy Scriptures, tradition and doctrine of the Church."

That appeared to be a reference to gay marriage and abortion rights, both of which the church has hotly opposed.

The guidelines also say Catholics "should be alert to the commitments of the candidates and their parties to respect the foremost of all rights, which is the right to life, from the moment of conception."

The suggestions appear aimed especially at candidates of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which has enacted both gay marriage and legalized abortion in Mexico City, which it governs.

The publication comes just over a month before Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit central Mexico from March 23 to 26.

Bernardo Barranco, an expert at Mexico's Center for Religious Studies, called the guidelines "a provocation" and said that while they did not appear to violate the letter of the law, it violated the spirit of Article 130 of Mexico's constitution, which states that "priests and ministers cannot form political associations nor carry out propaganda for any candidate, party or political group."

"It is written very carefully, very trickily," Barranco said. "The problem is that it is written in such a way that it does not explicitly violate the law, but implicitly it does."

It is not the first time church officials have spoken out publicly on political issues.

In 2007, church officials harshly criticized a Democratic Revolution abortion proposal.

And in 2003, two Roman Catholic priests received warnings from the Interior Department not to get involved in politics after a compliant was filed by a small political party. The now-defunct party, Mexico Possible, had accused a total of 13 prelates of cautioning parishioners not to vote for parties that supported abortion or gay rights. Mexico Possible interpreted those statements as a campaign against its own platform.

The church was an integral, often domineering part of Spain's colonial government of Mexico for nearly 300 years. A liberal backlash in the 19th century led to confiscation of most church property and strict limits on clerics.

Tensions gradually eased and reforms in the 1990s allowed priests to wear clerical garb in public, to vote and to establish openly religious schools, all of which were previously prohibited.

However, debate was reignited in recent months after a group of legislators presented a proposal in congress to further loosen regulations by guaranteeing parishioners the right to celebrate religious events in public, freely use media outlets and guarantee the right of parents' to give their children a religious education.

Critics say the vaguely worded proposal could open the door to pushing religion into public schools and public affairs.