Mexico gears up for Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit

The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico this year took the unusual step of issuing guidelines on how Mexicans should vote in the upcoming presidential election: Candidates should value marriage as a bond between a man and a woman and should place prime importance on “the right to life, starting at conception.”

Both ideas were clearly aimed at leftist parties and others who have backed same-sex marriage and abortion, legalized in recent years in Mexico City.

Pope Benedict XVI arrives Friday to a Mexico that, officially, is a strictly secular nation. And although the Catholic Church has almost always enjoyed a powerful position, it has taken on a particularly activist role in partisan politics during the last decade.

Benedict’s visit is designed in part to give a boost to the church and its shifting role. He is coming here to the central Bajio region, which is the most conservatively Catholic part of Mexico; he is avoiding leftist-ruled Mexico City because of the altitude, Vatican officials say.

The pope will meet with President Felipe Calderon, whose right-wing, pro-Catholic National Action Party, or PAN, has ruled for the last 12 years. Under the PAN, the church has steadily inserted itself in public policy, experts and longtime church observers say.

With church encouragement, 19 of Mexico’s 31 states have passed laws that either declare that life begins at conception, bestow rights on fetuses or otherwise criminalize abortion. In a number of cases, women who had abortions or miscarried have been jailed, including 160 women here in Guanajuato state, where Leon is located.

Senior bishops, among them Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez, lashed out at Mexico City’s mayor and other leftist politicians when the capital approved gay marriage, and they even accused Supreme Court justices who backed the measure of accepting bribes to do so.

In addition, PAN legislators are currently attempting to change the church-state separation provisions of the Mexican Constitution in a way that some say would allow overt Catholic activities in public schools.

“The church has always had power, but what’s new is that it has become increasingly politicized as it attempts to impose its own moral agenda,” said Bernardo Barranco, an analyst with Mexico’s Center for Religious Studies.

The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico is complex.

To this day, as a holdover from the 1910 revolution, religious organizations are banned from engaging in partisan politics — recent electioneering guidelines drew sharp criticism from many who said they violated, or at least tempted, the ban. Revolution-era laws prohibited priests from appearing in public in their vestments, for example.

The church fought back in the 1926-29 Cristero War when thousands of people were killed as Roman Catholic rebels unsuccessfully rose against the secular government. It wasn’t until the 1990s that several restrictions on clerics, such as the vestments ban, were eased.

Benedict, on his first trip to the Spanish-speaking Americas, is also coming to a Mexico suffering its most violent period in a century. More than 50,000 people have been killed in the 5 1/2 years since Calderon launched a military offensive against well-armed drug cartels.

The cartel most active here in the central state of Guanajuato, where Benedict will spend his time in Mexico, has promised to keep the peace.

The pope “will visit a country that has been praised the world over for its hospitality and the good cheer of its inhabitants,” the archdiocese of Mexico said in a published editorial. “But he comes at a moment in which violence has seized entire regions, where that proverbial hospitality has been replaced by hostility from criminal gangs.”

Catholic leadership here has frequently been scolded for failing to take a more assertive position against drug traffickers. In some parts of the country, priests have been threatened, kidnapped and killed. Others have accepted donations from traffickers to build chapels or make repairs in their parishes. It has proved a quandary, especially for clergymen caught in violence-ravaged regions.

“There is a disconnect between the hierarchy’s calculated, political statements about the drug trade and the position of priests on the ground needing to make quick decisions in the face of conflict,” Zac Deibel wrote in an analysis for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs late last year. The result, he said, is “a lack of concerted action and difficult moral and ethical dilemmas faced by clergy on the front lines.”

And in another controversial move, Benedict is not meeting with victims of sexual abuse by priests, something he has done in most other countries he has visited, including the U.S. This comes despite Mexico having been home to one of the church’s most notorious abusers, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel.

Maciel, who the church now says fathered at least three children by two women and sexually, physically and emotionally abused numerous young seminarians and others, was for years protected by the Vatican under the late Pope John Paul II. A Mexican, Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ, which rose to become one of the most powerful and influential orders in the Roman Catholic Church. Maciel was frequently at John Paul’s side, especially during his many trips to Mexico.

The Catholic hierarchy in Mexico also defended Maciel for many years and has stayed largely silent since his disgrace. For Benedict to meet with abuse victims, the Mexican bishops would have had to formally request the encounter, as their counterparts did in other countries. They made no such request, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said last week.

This city and neighboring Guanajuato, meanwhile, were readying themselves Wednesday for Benedict’s arrival. Enthusiasm is only slowly gathering.

“When people here say ‘the pope,’ they mostly think of John Paul,” said Julio Leyva, a 15-year resident of Leon who works at a hotel. “The church is telling us this pope brings a special light. We’ll just have to see.”