Church-State Relations in Mexico Under Vicente Fox

Interview with Jaime Septien, Director of El Observador

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 18, 2001 ( Ten months into his term of office, Mexican President Vicente Fox visited John Paul II today at the Vatican.

To get a sense of church-state relations under the Fox administration, ZENIT interviewed Jaime Septien, director of El Observador, the Mexican Catholic weekly newspaper.

–Q: What are the positive aspects of church-state relations since President Fox came to power?

–Septien: There has been a change in Mexico. Let´s say, the rules didn´t change, but respect for the rules. The Fox administration is seriously committed to combating corruption, which implies being in favor of justice.

However, he has been in power a short time, and the dead weight carried for the past seven decades is great.

–Q: What are the negative aspects?

–Septien: Church-state relations have remained somewhat suspended. The bishops were very pleased with the change of regime; not because of the promises they might have on Fox´s part but because of the nation´s — of society´s — awakening. July 2 [the day of Fox´s electoral victory] was, in fact, a democratic celebration.

However, something happened in the Government Secretariat; a force of the past imposed itself. And the Government Secretary, Santiago Creel Miranda, decided to opt for the conventional method of simulated understanding, which the PRI practiced to perfection.

–Q: Are there unfulfilled promises? Will they be fulfilled?

–Septien: There was a decalogue of promises from Fox on religious freedom and specific issues of recognition of the Church and churches, which haven´t begun to be fulfilled. It is as if he had forgotten them.

This does not go unnoticed by many Catholics and a good part of the hierarchy. We thought that, at last, the Mexican government was going to acknowledge the real contribution of the Catholic Church to the society of our country. However, it all remained a promise and, what is worse, a campaign promise.

–Q: Fox is, perhaps, the first president of Mexico who says he is a Catholic, and practicing at that. Does Fox´s religious dimension affect his personality and political action?

–Septien: I think Vicente Fox is a good man, a clearly Catholic man, which is not the same as being committed. He has the Jesuits´ mark, namely, traces of formation for social action. However, there is something about Mexico that triggers … panic in Catholics when they come to power.

That is, they align themselves immediately with the PRI´s regime of simulation and disconcert and with “Juarismo.” There are clear signs that a good Catholic can be a good politician, but in Mexico these signs are either not perceived or they are perceived very diffusely.

We don´t want Fox in the sacristy, but we do want him to define his action, especially his social action, according to the doctrine of the Church.

–Q: Mexico became famous in the 20th century for being one of the countries in which the constitution and the government were very hostile to religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Indeed, for decades the fundamental rights of freedom of worship were violated. … With Fox´s advent, has the anti-clericalism of the PRI “dinosaurs” been left behind? Could this mentality return to power?

–Septien: The Catholic Church in Mexico has an interesting future ahead of it, not so much because of the accessibility that the present administration will give it, but because following the document “On Encountering Jesus Christ Alive in Solidarity With All” (published last year), it has realized that it can influence Catholics, and men and women of good will in Mexico, without having to pass through the filter of power.

In other words, [the Church] has become aware of its immense moral power and of its independence of political power. It should be clarified, that the atmosphere is more relaxed, far more relaxed. For example, Fox would never frown on a liturgical celebration held outside chapel walls.

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