More than meets the eye for AMLO and the Catholic Church in Mexico

By Carli Pierson

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August 22, 2020 / Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico City, Mexico

The relationship between the government of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the official leadership body of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico is complicated. Relations between the current administration and the Vatican started off tense when, just four months after taking office, the president asked King Felipe VI of Spain and Pope Francis to apologize for the abuses committed during the Conquest of Mexico, 500 years before. While the Mexican elite cringed, the traditionally marginalized sectors of society including indigenous people and lower income families applauded their president. The tension was palpable.

But since the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic things have gone increasingly downhill; a gist of the discord was published for the world to see in late June in a statement on the website Conference of the Mexican Episcopate. Speaking with scholar, author and renowned expert in religious sociology of Catholicism, Bernardo Barranco Villafán, I asked him what the president’s relationship with the Catholic church was like now.

“The current relationship, like many things in the country, is very affected by the eruption of the coronavirus. The inertia with which the President was incorporating the churches into social benefit works had been causing much debate before the pandemic because of the secular nature of the state. The Catholic Church felt very uncomfortable because the president gave spaces to Pentecostal churches.”

He’s referring to the president offering churches of all denominations to get heavily involved in public works, a move that horrified secularists and constitutionalists staunchly committed to the idea of Mexico’s history of a fierce separation of church and state. López Obrador has justified the move saying that the country needs a deep moral reckoning and a moral constitution, and that religion should play a part in that societal change.

I posed the same question to Dr. Elias Masferrer Kan, research professor at the National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH) in Mexico and president of the Latin American Association of Religious Studies. He told me, “The problem is complex, that is, historically, since the reform laws of the 1850’s and the Constitution of 1857, where we saw a drastic separation of Church from State in Mexico. Since then, there has been a rupture between the Mexican Catholic Church and the state and that’s in part because the Mexican Church historically bet on the loser. In other countries in Latin America they [the Catholic Church] bet on the winner but Mexico and Uruguay are the only exceptions.”

Mexico City-based historian, commentator on the popular radio station Radio Formula, political scientist and writer Monica Uribe mostly echoed that statement. She told me, “It is a very peculiar story in the case of Mexico with the theme of the Church. The heroes of the Reform changed the narrative where the Church became the bad guy…You have to understand the history to understand the tensions now.”

Both scholars are referring to the Church’s massive power and wealth it held prior to president Benito Juarez’s Reform Laws and the 1861 invasion of Emperor Maximilian I in 1861, which the powerful, conservative members of the Catholic Church supported. Five years later Maximilian would be arrested by the Mexican government and executed.

But while AMLO and his administration have an obvious drift between them — his overall relationship with religious orders of Catholic clergymen and with other Christian denominations is generally good according to Dr. Masferrer. He said, “Now there are really two Catholic churches in Mexico. The first is that of the religious orders and these groups generally support the current government. Most of the Bishops, but not all of them, are with the PRI and PAN (the country’s two historically powerful political parties) in its neoliberal versions, but a very important sector of the diocesan priests and Bishops are against the current government.”

I spoke with Fr. Gerardo Casillas, the spokesman for the Diocese of Campeche, about the Catholic Church’s relationship with López Obrador’s government. He was cautious with his wording but told me “As a church we are being very respectful, we are monitoring the government’s work and freedom of expression, religious freedom…but the government wants to control everything, even religion.”

Uribe told me she thinks there is now “almost no dialogue” between the Bishops and the government. “The Church recognizes the authoritarian and populist tendencies of López Obrador and that’s why they don’t want to reach out to him,” said Uribe. She added that during the previous three administrations the Church’s relationship with the executive branch of the government was good. With [Vicente] Fox it was good; he had a relationship with the Legionaries of Christ, with the most conservative bishops. With Calderón it was also good — he always had a relationship with the Social Doctrine of the church that was between progressive and centrist. As for the previous president, Enrique Pena Nieto, she said “…things were also fine; at one point he even wanted to go into the priesthood.”

Andres Manuel campaigned on a platform of austerity for the government and an end to corruption. Dr. Masferrer went on to explain that “…after a constitutional reform of 1992 that permitted the Catholic Church to regain some of its previous powers before the Reform Laws and the 1857 Constitution, the Bishops under the PRI and PAN parties were beginning to have the same privileges as other Bishops in Latin America — the would get a new car every year courtesy of the government, a good salary, things like that.” In other words, for the first time in nearly two centuries things were getting better for the Bishops in Mexico. That is, until López Obrador came to power and he changed all the rules again.

“He has a sort of amorphous populist religiosity.” Uribe told me. Andres Manuel has participated in Mesoamerican rituals like cleansings (limpias), prayed with Evangelical pastors and carries a card of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, in his wallet. And he knows precisely what he’s doing — in terms of popular strategy, AMLO is right on track. In Mexico and Latin America Evangelical Christian churches are growing rapidly, and those churches and their congregations have an important role in the lower-income sectors of the population. Throughout Latin America Evangelicals are voting for conservative candidates and supporting conservative causes.

Barranco explained “…these political moves make sense. On one side he’s looking for alliances with popular Christian evangelical churches to gain political weight with a growing sector in Mexico and Latin America, and on the other hand he’s trying to prevent conservative Christian groups from forming alliances with the right or ultra-right factions of the Catholic Church in Mexico.”

He went on to say, “in the past politicians have been very rigid — I’m Catholic or I’m Christian”. But López Obrador has repeatedly said, “I will kneel where the people kneel”. He understands that the religiosity of the Mexican people is very diverse.” He [AMLO] recognizes the weight of popular religion and it puzzles us. Is he ingratiating himself with the public or is it something much more intelligent than that?

Although Mexico’s Bishops may not like the president’s overtures to Evangelicals and in spite of the pandemic and an economy that is in the midst of a deep recession, AMLO remains popular with the people according to pollsters in the country. This could be yet another case of the Church failing to support the right party and losing more of its Mexican worshipers to Evangelical congregations.

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