On Being a Catholic in Mexico Today

Interview with Jaime Septien, Director of El Observador

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MEXICO CITY, NOV. 12, 2002 (Zenit.org).- While Mexico is numerically the second largest Catholic country in the world, its Constitution and public life are among the most secular anywhere.

In hopes of understanding this obvious paradox, ZENIT interviewed Jaime Septien, director of the weekly newspaper El Observador, one of the most up-to-date and vibrant Catholic periodicals in Mexico.

Q: A few years ago, a priest could not wear anything to distinguish himself as such and, even now, a politician talking about his or her faith would cause a scandal. How can such contradictions be explained?

Septien: The truth is that Mexico is a country of contradictions, not to say absurdities. Almost half of the population is very poor, but we have perhaps a dozen tycoons who are among the 500 wealthiest men in the world. People here often say that Kafka’s literature would have had a strong regional flavor in Mexico.

Eighty-eight percent of the population over 5 years of age call themselves Catholic. In some regions, one finds the highest percentage of Catholics on the planet, with 96, 97 even 98% of the population being Catholic. The contradictions in Mexico are not due to conflicting principles.

History is the cause. From the second half of the 19th century on, the government’s hostility toward the Church — and vise versa — grew to the point of the state’s cruel attacks on the «Cristiada.» Between the 19th century Reform Laws and the 1917 Constitution, many revolutions, riots, and civil and military confrontations took place, in which the Church was caught in the middle.

What the 1917 Constitution did was to create a «don’t ask, don’t tell» policy regarding the Church — pushing Catholicism into the sacristy, removing it completely from all dimensions of the public sphere. Since then, we have lived under this «only possible doctrine» [of radical separation] — which coincides perfectly, interestingly enough, with the party line of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI].

It is true that some things have started to change during Vicente Fox’s presidency. The other day, for example, Santiago Creel, the secretary of state, graced the opening ceremonies for the new session of the Fox government with an inadvertently humorous phrase, which reflects both the good will and the naiveté regarding religious freedom in the new Mexican government. Creel said that things have changed so much in Mexico, that bishops can now attend public events «wearing their typical costume.»

Q: Is it possible to be a Catholic and a politician in Mexico? If one is a Catholic, is one excluded from politics?

Septien: Not excluded, but marginalized. It might seem like the same thing, but in the mathematics of Mexican politics, 2 plus 2 never makes 4. It can make 400 or 6, depending on the circumstance.

I mean to say, there is no express prohibition anywhere. All our presidents have been, more or less, Catholics — except for López Portillo, who was a Hegelian! But no one until Fox said so.

This explains the tremendous scandal between the PRI political class and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The protocol is that one can be a Catholic, but one must not say so. If one says so, he becomes suspect, «revives ghosts of the past,» and must want to return to the regime of privileges for the Church, with priests sitting in the Chamber of Deputies – something that never happened.

A politician can go to Mass, but privately, and not as a politician, but as a person. He can go on Sunday and furtively, lest he witness to his faith. Of course, his rights are infringed, but in Mexico, we have learned to live with deception — I pretend that I’m not, but I am.

For all that, it is possible to be Catholic and a politician in Mexico. What it means is that one must struggle against the current in a very special way, because the current here is not something that opposes you with a face, with norms, with something concrete.

It is something amorphous, elusive, a kind of psychological PRI-ism that says: «You can be a Catholic up to a point; beyond that, you are attacking the Constitution» — which is absurd, since Catholicism calls for diffusion, for a public presence.

Q: How did this dichotomy arise?

Septien: From several sources: foremost, fear. For at least two decades –from 1920 to 1940 — admitting one was a Catholic could result in one’s being shot, or sent to prison. Governors such as Garrido Canabal in Tabasco killed priests who did not obey his dictates — for instance, that priests must marry.

Another source is the invisibility that we Catholics have enjoyed in Mexico since independence in 1810, and more concretely since the time of Juárez, in the mid-19th century.

Juárez regarded the Church as the greatest stumbling block to the country’s emancipation. He wished to «purify» it, so that it would fulfill its spiritual mission and remove itself from earthly power. He purified it so much as to make it invisible.

Yet another source is indifference; another, pure cynicism. Such politicians as Fidel Velázquez, one-time leader of the national labor union, raved and ranted against priests and Catholics, but wanted a priest for family baptisms and a cross on their coffin. I myself have interviewed politicians who have told me, without my even asking them, that they are Catholics but «try not to mix Catholicism with their public life.»

Q: Who are the enemies of the Church in Mexico?

Septien: Enemies, enemies: I suppose the Masons, all 50 of them, who make an exceptional amount of noise, and have been entrenched in political and judicial power for at least a century and a half.

However, the greatest enemies of the Church are at home — I am referring to the multitudes of disgraceful Catholics in Mexico. Extremely wealthy Catholics, whose social commitment is nonexistent. But also among the poor: I recently read a sign at a construction site: «Protestant bricklayers needed.» The perception is: Catholic bricklayers don’t come on Mondays, arrive late, and only pretend to work.

Q: Has the Church failed then in the formation of its faithful in social doctrine? Can this situation change?

Septien: The critical problem is education. There are two kinds of education in Mexico. If you want your children to have a Catholic education, you must send them to private schools. And, as private schools — also invisible, even if politicians send their own children there — are not recognized by the government, and receive no subsidy whatsoever, they are very expensive.

The second kind is the extensive and chaotic public education system, where students pay nothing, but also omit all mention of religion, morality or anything else that sounds like Christianity. So, private school graduates live on a planet with God, but without a public commitment and the capacity for Christian transformation that it brings, while public school graduates live on another planet, without God and with all the deficiencies of moral poverty.

Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican secretary of foreign relations, recently discussed parity between public and private schools with some Mexican bishops, such as Bishop Mario De Gasperin of Queretaro. However, no one in the government, despite Fox’s concrete campaign promise, dared to refer to this taboo of the revolution [1910-1917], which states that education in Mexico is «secular, free and obligatory.»

It’s a clash of civilizations; the gap seems unbridgeable. The Holy Father himself referred to the gap between the two Mexicos as «harsh.» Perhaps someday there will be some way to reconcile the two, but frankly, I see this as still being very distant.

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