The Pope and Mexico’s Spiritual Crisis

Pope Benedict XVI prepares for trip to a Mexico torn by violence on the street—and in the womb.

Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Mexico will bring the pontiff to a country much transformed since the path-breaking visits of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whom some credit for the radical changes that have delivered the nation from the 80-year stranglehold of an anti-Catholic party dictatorship, and inaugurated a new era of democracy and individual freedom.

For the first time since the rise of the ultraliberal and anticlerical regime of Benito Juarez in the 1850s, a nominally pro-Catholic party has taken the reins of federal power in Mexico, and Church authorities speak with unprecedented freedom. The poverty and extreme poverty rates of the country have fallen significantly in recent years, multiple political parties compete for public office, and the press enjoys a liberty of expression that is virtually complete.

The democratist individualism of the new Mexico, however, has come at a price. Vicious narcotraficking gangs are vying for control of key points in the Western Hemisphere’s supply route for the rich markets of the United States and Canada, and their internecine wars and conflicts with government forces have claimed over 47,000 lives in only five years.

Looming even above the massive death toll from the country’s drug wars is the fact of 75,000 unborn children killed in the nation’s capital, Mexico City, since the legalization of abortion in 2007, a massacre of innocents that the country has not seen since the end of Aztec rule. Added to the death toll are millions more that will never be conceived, as contraception lowers the birthrate below replacement level. While Mexico is advancing economically, demographically and morally the nation is in stark decline.

There is little doubt that Pope Benedict had Mexico’s spiritual crisis in mind when he decided to visit the country in its Catholic heartland, in the southwestern state of Guanajuato. The state and its environs remain one of the few strongholds remaining to the Church in a society that is increasingly besieged by what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death”—the anti-life and anti-family consensus embraced by global elites and international foundations, which is making devastating inroads in this historically Catholic country.

Tension grows between Church and State

In Mexico, Pope Benedict will find a Catholic Church that enjoys and unprecedented freedom from government interference, but whose doctrines are ever-less heeded by an increasingly secularized society.  Mass attendance and priestly vocations continue to be low, as they were when John Paul II last visited in 2002. Non-Catholic sects are on the rise, and Catholicism is declining, as it has in much of Latin America since Vatican II.

The growing secularism of Mexican society has led to bitter conflicts between the country’s most important Catholic bishops and aggressive government officials, especially in the nation’s capital. The conflict came to a head in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled that Mexico City’s homosexual “marriage” law was constitutional, and must be honored by the country’s 31 states.

Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez, Archbishop of Guadalajara, called the ministers of the Supreme Court who had voted for the verdict, as well as an earlier verdict accepting the constitutionality of abortion, “traitors” to the country. He added that they had been “fed” by international organizations in cahoots with Marcelo Ebrard, the ultra-leftist governor of Mexico City. Fr. Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, accused Ebrard and the socialist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) of creating “laws that are destructive to the family, that cause worse damage than narcotrafficking.”

The remarks led organs of the Federal government to invoke the country’s Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship, which dates back to the persecution of the Catholic Church in the 1920s, led by the dictator Plutarco Elias Calles. Article 29 of the law prohibits clerics from “associating for political purposes, as well as carrying out proselytism or propaganda of any kind in favor or against any candidate, party, or any political association.” Ebrard also initiated procedures against the two clerics with Mexico City agencies on grounds of “human rights” and “discrimination.”

Both Sandoval and Valdemar have remained defiant, and although they have lost their cases in the first instance, they have appealed. Valdemar has said that Ebrard’s suits against him are motivated by “intolerance, hatred, and viscerality” and even warned that the actions of the governor could “unleash a war in the country.”

Such words may seem alarming, especially given a history of conflict between Church and State that led to the deaths of over 100,000 people in the 1920s and 30s, and resulted in an 80-year standoff between Mexico’s two most important institutions.  However, the mere fact that Cardinal Sandoval and Fr. Valdemar can speak publicly in this way represents an enormous change since the country began the process of political reform in the early 1990s, when clerics were not even permitted to wear their distinctive garb in public.  And, although Ebrard may be winning in the juridical venues he handpicked for his showdown with Catholic leaders, he has tellingly lost the nomination for presidential candidate of the PRD to his more Catholic-friendly rival, Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Paradoxically, while the country’s Catholicism is at a historical weak point and even in decline, its leaders exercise greater political influence in the new climate of openness, and national politicians are generally eager to court the favor of the clergy.  There is perhaps no stronger indication of this change than the historic visit to Pope Benedict in Rome in December of 2009 by the crown prince of Mexico’s historically liberal and anti-clerical Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Enrique Peña Nieto.

Peña Nieto, whose nomination as the PRI’s presidential candidate in this year’s elections was already a fait accompli, was accompanied by his then girlfriend and now wife, the actress Angela Rivera; the two used the occasion to announce their engagement, in what was widely seen as an attempt to receive the papal blessing for the union. The spectacle of a political party that had been forged by freemasons and liberals during Mexico’s most bitter church-state conflict, bowing to the institution it had been created to oppose, could not speak more loudly about the Church’s growing political influence and freedom of speech.  Nieto, who is currently the front-runner in the presidential elections, has said he will also attend Benedict’s Sunday mass in Leon.

While an ultraliberal Supreme Court hangs on the precipice of legalizing abortion throughout Mexico’s 31 states, the nation’s parties are seeking to separate themselves from the abortionist agenda. The ruling National Action Party (PAN) has nominated the strongly Catholic Josefina VÁzquez Mota for the presidency, in a move that has rattled the party’s more moderate establishment, led currently by President Felipe Calderon. Even Manuel Lopez Obrador, the socialist PRD’s candidate for the presidency, has retreated from its socially liberal agenda, offering to take “input” from the public on abortion and promising not to impose it.

On the agenda: the sanctity of human life

The pope is scheduled to travel to one of Mexico’s most Catholic states, Guanajuato, where he will spend three days in the environs of the city of Guanajuato and the state’s capital, Leon. Guanajuato represents the rough geographic center of Mexico’s “Catholic heartland”—the states that have historically exhibited the strongest attachment to the Catholic faith, including Jalsico, Zacatecas, Michoacan, San Luis Potosí, and Queretaro.

The pope will fly out of Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport at 9:30 am on Friday, March 23, and arrive at 4:30 pm at Guanajuato’s International Airport, where he will give an opening speech.  The next day he will say mass in private at the chapel of the Miraflores School, and at 6 pm he will receive a visit from President Felipe Calderón in the House of Conde Rul. Forty-five minutes later he will greet children in Guanajuato’s Plaza de la Paz.

On Sunday, the Holy Father travels to the city of Leon, where he will say mass at the Bicentenial Park, pray the Angelus Domini, and give a speech. At 6 pm he will celebrate vespers with the bishops of Mexico and Latin America in the Cathedral of the Most Holy Mother of the Light (Madre Santísima de la Luz) of León, and give another talk. He leaves at 9:30 the next day from Guanajuato International Airport, from which he will fly to Cuba for the second and final leg of his trip.

Although a specific list of topics that the Supreme Pontiff is likely to cover has not been given to the press, the country’s papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, has said that the pope will address the issue of the violence plaguing Mexico.

“The pope will bring us courage for difficult times, in order to have the strength to fight against violence and help us unite for peace,” Pierre said in late November.

A March 4 editorial published in the Archdiocese of Mexico’s “Desde la Fe” (From the Faith) newspaper, further hints that the Holy Father will speak about a variety of political and social issues

“In reality, there are no topics alien to the concern of the church in the midst of society and, therefore, there are no topics that the Pope won’t touch in his religious and social message,” the archdiocese stated, adding that “he might say a word toward our political and social reality, where we place our commitment, all of us Catholics as citizens.”

The primary concern for Benedict is likely to be the growth of what he has dubbed the “anti-culture of death,” in Mexico: the increasing disrespect for the values of human life and family, which have resulted in tens of thousands of murders on the street and in the womb. The state of Guanajuato is one of eighteen that have passed right-to-life amendments to its constitution in the wake of the legalization of abortion in Mexico City in 2007, which allows and even provides abortion-on-demand during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to any woman requesting it. The Supreme Court, however, currently stands one vote away from overriding Guanajuato’s and the other states’ right-to-life amendments by imposing abortion as a constitutional “right” on the entire country.

The socialist-dominated government of Mexico City has passed a panoply of anti-family laws as well, including the creation of homosexual “marriage,” and express divorce. Even at the federal level, the government has approved sex-ed programs that legitimize the homosexual lifestyle, and has contemplated the commercialization of human embryos. The country faces numerous other problems of interest to the Catholic Church as well, including a high percentage of impoverished citizens, government corruption, and environmental issues.

A deeper problem, however, appears to underlie the cultural and moral decline afflicting Mexican society, and that is the condition of the Church itself, which faces liturgical abuse and vocational malaise, and is failing to communicate its teachings to large numbers of the faithful. While Mexicans maintain a fierce attachment to outward signs of piety, so deeply embedded in the culture, the substance of the faith appears increasingly lost in the hedonism and religious indifferentism of the modern world.

If the previous visits of Pope John Paul II are any measure, Pope Benedict will be greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds, eager to see and hear him. A narcotrafficking gang active in the state of Guanajuato has even agreed to a “cease-fire” called for by the Bishop of Leon. But Pope Benedict will need more than an emotional outpouring if he is to reverse the trends threatening Mexican society.  He will need a “new evangelization” that will begin with Catholics themselves, who remain the moral anchor of the society, and its most defining element.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Matthew Cullinan Hoffman 26 Articles
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic essayist and journalist, and the author and translator of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian's Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption (2015). His award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Catholic World Report, LifeSite News, Crisis, the National Catholic Register, and many other publications. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a focus on Thomism.