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The Catholic Church in Mexico.

L' Eglise a deux genres d' ennemis; le premier la persecute, le second s' en detourne. Le second est le plus fort

Julien Green

Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States General Porfirio Diaz, President of Mexico

THE conventional image of Mexican Catholicism is, for many people, that of the whisky priest in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, the novel based on Greene's travel in the southern states of Tabasco and Chiapas in the spring of 1938, his notes of which were later published as The Lawless Roads. Greene claimed that not much imaginative embroidery was needed to turn his experiences into a novel. 'These are all facts, I tell myself. These things really happened to me-or at least to that long dead man who bore the same names on his passport as I do'. Readers can accept that or not, as they please. He prefaces his account, early in the book, of the martyrdom of the Mexican Jesuit, Father Miguel Pro, in 1927 with a reference to that other Jesuit, the English Edmund Campion, in 1581, finding similiarities between the persecution of priests by President Plutarco Calles in Mexico in the 1920s and that in England at the time of Elizabeth I. Calles' persecution however was emotional and reactionary, that of Cecil a matter of cold-blooded policy at a time when England was threatened by foreign enemies and thus, of necessity, a good deal more efficient. The Vatican considered The Power and the Glory subversive since it could be described as a celebration of evil rather than of good. Greene is not the first Catholic to have fallen for this old trick but the Vatican's reservations enhanced the novel's appeal among some Catholic circles in England, almost none of whose members knew anything about Mexico. What they enjoyed was the frisson it offered, the excitement of flirting with danger. The muddle, confusion, casuistry and hypocrisy prevalent in Mexico at the time of Greene's visit, to say nothing of the violence, offered generous scope for someone who liked to shock middle-class opinion. If he believed, as he claimed, that the revolution was a struggle for the soul of the Indian there is little evidence that he cared where that soul ended up.

Any visitor to Mexico, assuming he strays wider than Acapulco and Cancun, will sooner or later be struck by the fact that the country is full of monuments of religion, living and dead. The ruins of indigenous civilisations, Aztec, Zapotec, Mayan, their pyramids, public buildings and temples, stand side by side with the ruins of Catholic churches and convents. There are magnificent cathedrals in Mexico City itself, Guadalajara and Puebla, their beauty enhanced by the superb light when it penetrates the murk of pollution. Even quite modest provincial towns have a wide arcaded square at their centre dominated by a large and graceful church. Some of the most notable are to be found in the state of Oaxaca, on the western seaboard where Mexico narrows out into an isthmus to join the South American continent, pre-eminently the most Indian part of Mexico with Yucatan and Chiapas. They have been carefully documented by Robert Mullen in Dominican Architecture in Sixteenth Century Oaxaca. It is not a title a visitor would automatically select when deciding which book to take with him which is a pity since Dr Mullen did his researches the hard way, travelling on foot or on horseback through difficult countryside. In taking the visitor off the beaten track he offers some insights into the soul of Mexico at a formative period of its history, which Greene tried to do later at an equally critical moment.

What the Dominicans did in building their churches in Oaxaca is, broadly speaking, what the Catholic Church as a whole did throughout Mexico, adapting to different local environments as required. It sometimes benefited from bureaucratic mistakes in far away Spain; thus the splendid cathedral at Merida, which seems wholly out of scale with its surroundings, happens to be there, it is said, because the architectural drawings were sent to the wrong place by the Council of the Indies in Seville, having been destined originally for Lima, a much more prestigious setting. Such mistakes did not happen very often and whereas local adaptation was dictated by climate, geography, tradition, and the availability of building materials and skilled masons, it was Spanish friars who supervised every detail. As with their teaching they proved remarkably sympathetic to local feeling. It is why, to an European visitor, church ornamentation often seems excessively morose and penitential. In Mexico, Indian traditions-and experience--of suffering were grafted on to Spanish spiritual foundations. This 'syncretic union', as it has been described, "which makes the Mexican church what it is' might not have been what the Church intended but was compelled to accept.

Having only recently expelled the Muslims and, even more recently, the Jews, Spanish religious authorities, like the Vatican, considered orthodoxy supremely important. Its answer to the Reformation was to do better what it did best, to sweep away old abuses like simony and generally tighten up all round. The conversion of the Mexican Indian took place against the background of the Council of Trent (1545-63). Spain, which played a leading part in it, was about to enter a remarkable age of Christian enlightenment which was to produce St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross as well as El Greco. From Spain the Counter Reformation was to spread northwards. Like it or not it found itself increasingly infected by the spread of Renaissance humanism of Erasmus and More. To some, no doubt, the vast territories of the New World must have seemed like a Heaven-sent opportunity to put the clock back. To the Church's credit it did the opposite; it determined to keep pace with the times, to put new ideas into practice and to build on what it found to hand in Mexico itself. The timing of its arrival and the material already in place, the natural disposition of the Indian towards religious faith, were not the least of the assets exploited by the Church when it began the work of conversion.

Another factor influencing the Spanish world view at the time was the growing influence of Islam in the Mediterranean and its spread eastwards. Under the Ottoman Sultanate it seemed bent on recouping what it had lost in Spain itself by strengthening its position in the Eastern Mediterranean and extending its influence and territorial gains towards the Habsburg possessions in Central and Eastern Europe. Hitherto a continental power Islam was by then also a maritime one, in warfare as in trade, extending its influence far eastwards into South East Asia. It is no accident that Mexico eventually became the launching pad for the Spanish conversion of the Philippines and for this it had to have a secure base, one not threatened by internal dissent and revolt. This, too, argued in favour of peaceful as opposed to the forced conversions of the Caribbean islands.

Men like Hernan Cortes, those who led the Spanish conquest of the Americas, were motivated by ambition, just as the Norman conquerors of Southern Italy and Sicily had been almost three centuries earlier, and sprung from similar stock, land-hungry younger sons of the impoverished lesser nobility, but in Mexico the Church, after a slow start, did its best to curb their rapacity. Spain--and the Vatican--had justified the earlier colonisation of the Caribbean by the Papal Bull of 4 May 1493 which said the aim should be to convert the indigenous Caribs and Amerindians. Practically speaking it became a dead letter since the colonists paid it not the slightest attention and the local ecclesiastical authorities appear to have made no real effort to check them. As a result of their depredations, and the new diseases the colonists brought with them, both populations were reduced to the point almost of extinction. By the time Spain reached Mexico times had changed and a different climate of opinion reigned, one more sympathetic to the Indian. The doctrine of 'right of conquest' promoted by many leading jurists in Spain itself had given way to one, whose chief advocate was Francisco de Vitoria, which claimed that 'legitimate empire carried with it major moral and spiritual responsibilities, which were in fact its prime justification, and had to be restricted and mediated by ... both natural and civil law'.

Cortes, who once described himself as 'a gentlemanly pirate' might have been a relatively enlightened man for his times but there were others who were not. Having taken what they wanted, the conquistadores felt they could do what they liked with the Indians. If they felt any qualms of conscience they were easily suppressed by appeal to the Arisotelean argument about 'natural slaves' which the Church itself had used since the time of St Augustine. But as the grip of Spain tightened over Mexico so did that of the Church, on Indians and conquistadores alike. Communications throughout their vast new territory were bad and the Mexican peoples over whose future they presided were of disparate origin and tradition. In some places, such as Oaxaca, the Spanish administration was intelligently grafted on to the Oaxacan. Elsewhere the local authority was supplanted by something wholly Spanish in style and character. Broadly speaking the closer one got to the capital the more likely it was that the second rule became the norm. It is this, and not just the topography and architecture, which gives the altiplano, as the high central plateau is called, such a distinctive feel, rather like that of Castile as compared to the rest of Spain. The intelligence that directed the missionary work of the Church was on the whole consistent with the overall political direction of the Council of the Indies in Seville. It was a work in which Charles V, the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, and his son, Philip II, took a close personal interest. They were devout men but not bigots. For the times their attitude was enlightened--though the population of the Spanish Netherlands would not have thought so--and each had decided views of his own as to what was best for the Indians who were their subjects. Unlike the Protestants of the Low Countries, the Indians were not heretics to be persecuted but children to be taught. Finally there was that formidable figure, the Spanish Royal aunt. There was always a fairly generous supply of these ladies, more than could possibly be married off dynastically, and for the unmarried the work of conversion became almost a personal crusade and means of redemption.

It is not difficult to imagine what a people as religious as the Mexican Indian felt when not only their civilisation but the religion on which it rested was swept away. Psychologically the conquest, the manner of its achievement, the loud voices, beards, armour, horses, swords, cannon, the dramatically swift collapse of what had been stable points of reference hitherto, had a profoundly disorientating effect. It was Cortes himself who proposed that the conversion of the Indian population should be entrusted to the mendicant orders, a suggestion which Charles V supported and Pope Hadrian VI incorporated in the Bull Exponi nobis fecisti (1522). It was three years after the surrender of Montezuma that the first Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian friars arrived to begin the work on a properly organised basis, dividing the country between them. Though Cortes--who admitted its defects but could think of no better alternative--argued for the retention of the encomienda system (the grants of land and almost feudal rights and prerogatives over the Indians), it was eventually abolished by the Council of the Indies, in theory at least. It was wasteful, its abuses provided Spain's ideological enemies with damaging propaganda and it was, above all, contrary to the spirit of the Papal Bull of 1493.

It was the fortunate conjunction of three principal factors that was to stamp the conversion of the Mexican Indian with a character of its own; first, the relative moderation of Cortes himself; second, the determination of Charles V and Philip II to ensure that their administrators respected the spirit as well as the letter of the Papal Bull of 1493; and third, the character of the Franciscan friars and others who were shipped out to begin the work. The Franciscans, in particular, were more often than not men of birth and intellect who were more than a match for those conquistadores with whom they came into conflict. Among them was Pedro de Gante, Peter of Ghent, who was said to be a bastard son of the Archduke Maximilian, the grandfather of Charles V. Men like him recognized that the conversion of an exhausted and bewildered population had to be a matter of example and persuasion. It is coincidental that both Peter of Ghent and Pope Hadrian VI should have been Flemings and have shared the same intellectual and spiritual formation. It was not the narrow orthodoxy of the Inquisition but the humane traditions of the Renaissance which provided the guiding principles of the critical early period of conversion.

One reads of the Church's 'civilising mission' without perhaps remembering that, despite the universalist message of the Gospels, it was an European civilisation which it was purveying and this to peoples who belonged to sophisticated civilisations of their own. The problem the Church was confronted with from the start was not simply of winning over hearts and minds as a route to the soul but of doing so with subtlety and an understanding of the traditions and beliefs of those they hoped to convert. It was just this problem which confronted Father Ricci in China and Father de Nobili in India. They became experts at what military strategists would call the indirect approach. They sought to insert Catholicism into the intellectual and spiritual main-stream of the people they sought to convert which meant that they had to convince the opinion formers before starting on the population en masse. Ricci and de Nobili were Jesuits (who were not present in Mexico at the start) but the same approach was followed in Mexico by men like Bartolomeo de Las Casas, Bishop of Chiapas, Juan de Zumarraga, Bishop and later Archbishop of Mexico, and Vasco de Quiroga. Such an approach-as de Nobili and Ricci were also to discover-ran into strong conservative opposition from the Vatican. The endemic turf wars between the various orders in Rome were also a handicap. The Council of the Indies had to cope as best as it could with the effects of these conflicts but an enormous burden devolved on the bishops in Mexico itself. Luckily most of them were well up to the job. Zumarraga, after great suffering, succeded in driving out of Tarasco the notorious Benito Guzman, by far the worst of Cortes' governors whose rapacity has been described as 'illimitable'; Quiroga, who took Sir Thomas More's Utopia with him to Michoacan, in a few short years created a haven of tranquil prosperity there. Las Casas' administrative ability was equalled by his diplomatic skills; the Indians had no more eloquent or tireless an advocate with the Council of the Indies. Their example persists to this day in the radical traditions of the Southern bishoprics.

Brief though the period of conquest and its immediate aftermath was, it is worth spending some time on these early years since it is then that the Church's reputation as the 'friend of the Indians' was made. What is interesting is the close coordination between the principal parties, those directing the enterprise from Spain and those carrying it out in Mexico. It is all the more remarkable given the difficulties of communication over thousands of miles of ocean constantly threatened by the activities of Spain's enemies. As a feat of practical imagination the work of the missions was especially striking. But there was a fundamental conflict of interests in Spanish policy towards its Mexican territories which made it impossible to sustain and build on the the enlightened work of Las Casas and others. Its elements were threefold; first, the Indian could never be considered the equal of the Spaniards. From the outset they suffered under civil disabilities which hardened with the passage of time in tune with changes in outlook in Spain itself. Second, Spaniards came to stay, not merely as a handful of adventurers and friars but as a society with its own aspirations and self-assigned prerogatives. This Creole society inserted itself between the governing class, Spaniards who administered Mexico on behalf of the Crown, and the Indian population whose traditional leaders, the aristocratic class, deprived of encouragement and subjected to increasingly authoritarian social regulation, eventually lost their bearings and disappeared from view. As time went on the class that counted in Mexico became this Creole class of landed proprietors. The encomienda system to all intents and purposes returned in the guise of the haciendas, large tracts of land to which, and to whose Indian population, new settlers helped themselves. Finally the Church itself, like the Church in Spain, became increasingly narrow-minded in outlook, a process which was accentuated by the decline of Spanish military power and political influence, accelerated by the loss of the Spanish Netherlands, which, in a sense, cut the umbilical cord with that Flemish humanism which had once nourished Spanish thinking about the aims and purpose of government. 'To discourage Indian enlightenment eventually became the deliberate policy of both State and Church in the colony....The era of creative evangelism and of restless social experiment, in which the energy of the Renaissance had been given free rein was over, and the practical humanism, excercised for the benefit of the people, gave place to...the accumulation of material wealth'.

These two elements were the inevitable consequence of the fact that, before it needed anything else, first and foremost Habsburg Spain needed money, and the gold and silver mines of the New World were its principal source in income. The whole structure rested on the conscript labour of the Indian. Hard, practically-minded men saw little purpose in enlightening him with the social idealism of the Renaissance. Zumarraga, one of its principal exponents, died in 1548. By 1580 his ideals had been supplanted by ones much less solicitous. From henceforth Church and State might still share an identity of purpose but it was one altogether different from that which had once motivated it. With hindsight the quarter century from 1525-1550 was to prove to have been a golden age: 'in many ways the mid-sixteenth century was the period of greatest harmony in Indian-Spanish relations. The immediate stresses of the post-Conquest period had ended, and a new generation of Indian leaders, schooled by friars and not yet disillusioned by Spanish exploitation, had come into being. Spaniards of the middle sixteenth century showed more respect for Indian civilisation, and Indian leaders more respect for Spanish civilisation, than at any other time'.

Once Viceroys were appointed to Mexico the Church became an integral part of the viceregal administration so that Zumarraga's successors as Archbishops of Mexico sometimes acted as Viceroys in an interim capacity. Generous endowments and grants of land made the Church rich and it became increasingly so through agricultural experiment. It is to the Church that the New World owes the introduction of vine growing--said to have originated from a bag of Malaga raisins-and citrus cultivation. It continued with its work of social welfare, if not of social advancement, for the Indian, through its schools, hospitals and asylums. In strict observance of a decision of the Council of the Indies, taken in 1555 under Dominican pressure, its hierarchy remained wholly Spanish, excluding not only the native Indian but also the Spanish-Indian mestizo, and it is partly due to its influence that Colonial legislation kept non-Catholics and, generally, non-Spaniards, out of Mexico. This might be thought to have inhibited the colony's economic and social development but that does not seem to have been the case. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Mexico, by then fixed in a traditionally colonial pattern of administration, enjoyed a remarkably long period of properity.

The American Revolution and, more importantly, the French Revolution, had a profound effect in Mexico, as in South America as a whole. By the late eighteenth century the Church had become self-indulgent, indolent and intolerant. The Inquisition, though it was directed against the Creoles and not against the mixed or Indian populations, created revulsion and opposition and helped to accelerate the spread of liberalism and anti-clericalism. Liberal sentiment could be found among the clergy, too, perhaps acting in the spirit of the early friars, for it was still the case that, despite the conformism imposed by the Church authorities, their tradition had never wholly died out and continued to flourish in some of the remoter bishoprics and parishes. The move towards independence from Spain was started by a country priest who was very much affected by this revival of liberal ideas. He, and others like him, might be said to represent the more influential and politically aware parts of the mestizo and Indian populations against the politically dominant Creoles, the one seeing the French Revolution and all it stood for as a route to political advancement and social emancipation and the other seeing it as a threat to civil order. It was a situation in which Spain, politically and militarily by then a shadow of what it had once been and itself facing the prospect of civil war, was powerless to intervene. Mexico won its de facto independence in 1825. In December 1836 independence became de jure. Consular relations between Spain and Mexico were established soon afterwards and full diplomatic relations followed in 1839. There seems to have been little bitterness on either side.

Fanny Inglis, a well born and well educated Scotswoman who was the wife of Angel Calderon de la Barca, Spain's first Ambassador to the new Republic, was in Mexico at this time, from 1839-1842, and her letters have quite a lot to say about the Church. As a Protestant she can hardly be expected to approve of all she saw but as an intelligent and perceptive observer she sees a number of good things. She admired the work of the friars and the strict discipline and devotion of the Carmelites, but she was critical of the Church's slackness and complacency. Overall, the impression on reading her letters is that outwardly little had changed; the Church carried on much as it had done when Mexico was administered from Spain. Nevertheless Independence was a heavy blow to the Church politically and culturally. It had identified itself with Spanish rule too closely for it to be possible to become Mexican overnight. The nineteenth century was in any case to prove a period of great confusion in Mexican history in which the new Republic struggled to find its feet. It was at this deleterious moment in Mexican history that the phenomenon of the United States made itself felt. In the 1830s, Texas, which was then under Mexican rule, revolted and eventually this large territory (even larger than the US state of Texas) joined the American Union. In the next decade Mexico lost even more territory to its expanding northern neighbour after being defeated in the Mexican-American War. The US acquired California and other parts of the West. Both in Texas and California one can still find traces of the Mexican Catholic past in the mission churches founded by the Franciscans in those areas. The Alamo in the centre of San Antonio, the very symbol of the Texan revolt, was originally a Franciscan mission while the city is ringed by active Franciscan mission churches still serving their mainly Mexican congregations. After the American Civil War when industrial development really got going, the contrasts between the largely non-conformist, aggressively liberal, self-confident and expansionist mood of the United States and the reactionary, introspective and largely incoherent mood of the Republic of Mexico could hardly have been greater. Its psychological effect is difficult to estimate, even today, creating, as it does, an emotional pull, especially on the north, that acentuates the differences between it and the much poorer south of Mexico.

But in 1857, with the accession of President Benito Juarez, the Church found itself confronted by a President determined on sweeping reforms that would, if implemented, strip it of its property and privileges. Juarez has been described as a man 'whose adherence to the letter of the law was the faith of an atheistic lawyer in an age of anarchy'-like many in the French Revolution-and was not one to be deterred by Papal interdiction from pressing ahead. Civil war broke out; Juarez has been into exile only to fight his way back, re-entering Mexico City in 1860, whereupon he immediately reenacted Reform laws even more sweeping than the first, confiscating all Church property that had not been sold, exiling bishops, the Papal Nuncio and the Spanish Ambassador. He also suspended repayment of the interest on the vast foreign debts Mexico had accumulated under himself and his predecessors, thus provoking the intervention of creditor countries, especially France, and, in 1857, their decision to place Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, on the Mexican 'throne' with the title of emperor. The Church seemed to have survived the appalling vicissitudes of the previous seven years, which witnessed atrocities quite as bad as those Graham Greene was looking for almost a century later, to find itself back in business as before.

It was to prove a false dawn. Maximilian himself was shot by firing squad at Queretero in 1867 and Juarez returned to office and the reforms went ahead. Worse was to follow. Since the Church had worked consistently during most of the nineteenth century to check the spread of liberalism and had sought the help of France and Austria in turning what many Mexicans considered the tide of progress and nationalism back, it found itself in a weak position when the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1909. The long period of anarchy which followed was one in which it was exposed to retribution of a particularly savage kind, unable to defend itself. When its congregations tried to do so they were butchered. The new Constitution of 1917 was Juarista in tone and content and left the Church with no formal authority, its status as a national institution lost. This was going too far for public sentiment, however, and the Cristero Revolt of 1926-29 showed that the Church still commanded immense spiritual authority, especially in the south. President Calles' reaction, such as the martyrdom of Father Miguel Pro, has already been described. In certain states such as Veracruz, Tabasco and Chiapas the Church virtually disappeared as an organisation and even in the more sophisticated part of Central Mexico it was said that a Cristero corpse hung from every telegraph pole along 250 miles of the road running north from Guadalajara.

However, persecution did not succeed in destroying the religious sentiments of the Mexican people. A successor of Calles, President Lazaro Cardenas, another reformer, once was heard to remark, 'I am sick of closing churches only to re-open them. I shall now open them all and in ten years religion will have disappeared'. Persecution of the Church continued however during the 1930s and 1940s provoking the Sinarquista revolt which succeeded in challenging the government's authority very seriously in the southern states during the latter decade. It was followed by a period of relative calm during which a working relationship of sorts was established. Publicly the turning point might be said to have come with the accession of President Manuel Avila who announced, Yo soy creyente-'I am a believer'-on taking office. For its part the Church no longer sought to challenge the disabilities imposed by the 1917 Constitution. Instead it began to rebuild, both literally and metaphorically.

The process of replenishing the ranks of the priesthood was slow and candidates were often of poor quality. But they were Mexicans and though their ordination was something the early friars had never contemplated-or if they had they had done so only to dismiss the idea-it was the logical outcome of their mission. There was little money to spare for rebuilding and repairing churches-those 'white churches ... like faces the world has corrupted waiting through the dry months and the rains'-but gradually, under the astute guidance of the then Primate of Mexico, Cardinal Miranda, and with the tacit connivance of successive governments, the Church was nursed back to a state of reasonable health, outwardly at least. Both sides found that there was more to be gained from respecting the limits imposed by the constitutional struggle and its aftermath. The visit of Pope John Paul II to Mexico in 1979 served to confirm the depth of religious feeling in Mexico. His popularity was something even the most charismatic Mexican politician might have envied-and charisma is not the strong point of the majority of them, living or dead. The significance of the choice of Mexico, constitutionally lay and secular, as the destination of the then newly elected Pope's first foreign visit was lost neither on the government nor on the Mexican Church itself. The Mexican people, for their part, gave the Pope a welcome which helped to inaugurate a series of journeys whose number was unprecedented but whose warmth of reception was never surpassed. Its memory remains strong; in April Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Archbishop of Mexico City, announced that he hoped that Pope Benedict XVI could visit Mexico for the Sixth World Meeting of Families in January 2009. In expressing his desire for the papal visit the Cardinal mentioned the 'great influence toward the north'. While not yet saying whether he will go to the Meeting, the Pope hailed the forthcoming gathering in Mexico: 'All the Christian families of the world look to this nation "always faithful" to the Church, which will open the doors to all the families of the world'.

What of today? The relationship between Church and State seems stable. Today's economic and social problems are of an order which necessitates close cooperation between the two. Many of the constitutional restrictions on the Church imposed in 1917 have been allowed discreetly to lapse. Formal relations with the Vatican have been re-established--not that either side appeared to have felt the old working arrangement whereby the Vatican was represented by an Apostolic Delegate particularly disadvantageous in practical terms--and the Church has felt confident enough to beatify thirteen lay and religious members who were killed during the Cristero Revolt. The Church cannot, as in certain other Latin American countries, present itself as a moral alternative to the government. Nor can it allow itself to become the focus of opposition. It must position itself on social issues like population control with extreme care; likewise on issues such as liberation theology. This is less of a matter of concern now than it was two decades ago, but one nonetheless still sufficiently sensitive in the southern bishoprics to present problems for the Church. The Church's participation in the major topics under discussion at the Latin American Episcopal Conference is also dictated by the need to keep relations with government in good repair. In some respects its most important task there is to represent the interests of the enormous Chicano community in the United States. What the Church needs to show is flexibility, in adapting to social and economic change, in its handling of perennial issues like poverty, now affected by factors originating well beyond Mexico's borders, and in responding to the different priorities and style of each new Mexican government.

According to the 2000 Census 101,456,786 Mexicans above the age of five are, at least nominally, Catholics. This is about 91 per cent of the total population. They are organised into 88 dioceses with 15,700 priests and 46,000 nuns and men in religious orders. This is the second largest Catholic population in the world; Brazil is the largest. In 1992 most of the anti-clerical legislation was abolished and priests can now vote but not hold office, which is exactly what the Vatican likes. About 6 per cent of Mexicans are Protestant divided mainly into Pentecostal or Mormon.

The Church has its own internal problems too. History for a start has bequeathed it a contentious legacy. The Mexicans are a religious people but their devotion assumes many forms, sometimes bizarre to more conventional eyes. The religious practices of the south would look very strange to a northener. Pope John Paul II referred to Mexicans as Guadalupanos, devoted to their own cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe (where the Virgin appeared to an Indian Christian, Juan Diego, in 1531) to a point hardly short of idolatry. The wider problems of Catholicism, like the wider issues in which the Church is involved, appear to most Mexicans as peripheral. Unlike in some Latin American countries there is little public debate about theological issues. There is nothing specifically 'Mexican" about these points; they are common to the Church almost everywhere, and the Mexican Church faces the same problems as most others, those of outward conformism and inner agnosticism, declining congregations, shortage of vocations and the indifferent quality of many candidates for the priesthood. The dearth of priests in rural areas has consequences in the increasing numbers of unbaptised children and young couples cohabiting outside marriage. On the other side of the coin the growing influence of Opus Dei and the appeal of right-wing Catholicism on the lines of Action Francaise in 1930s' France tend to generate fears of a reaction from those influential and vocal parts of the Mexican community still actively hostile to the Church. Another problem whose dimensions and longer term implications are causing unease is the spread of Protestant envangelism directed mainly from the United States. The evangelist missions are young, enthusiastic and prepared to put up with considerable hardship. They penetrate to remote areas from which the Church itself has been forced by lack of priests to withdraw. Many of their members are Chicanos, returning southward to their country fired with proselytising zeal and expert in the latest techniques of mass communication.

The early friars did not think that their mission was an easy one. But despite the vicissitudes faced by the Church in Mexico since the sixteenth century their achievement remains one whose principal motivation was to protect the weak and defenceless, those who then appeared to have lost everything. Its later record is more debatable but if, as history suggests is quite possible, it sometimes failed the ordinary Mexican it did so less cynically and without the cruelty of the various Revolutions that took place in his name. Whether the Church ever again finds itself in the situation it enjoyed in the golden age described earlier is an open question but it seems unlikely. It will depend in large measure on the stance it adopts on the social reforms so urgently needed in the country. The moral alternative it offers cuts less ice than material progress. By contrast with the resounding opening chords of the first movement today's challenges might seem disappointingly subfuse and diminuendo. There is one problem, however, which threatens to deprive the Mexican of his birthright just as surely as the conquistadores did. This problem is corruption, so pervasive and prevalent in Mexico and for so long that it might be described as sanctioned by time and thus ineradicable. Globalisation has grossly inflated its dimensions, not just in Mexico, and the ordinary man is increasingly at the mercy of the cynical abuse of the elaborate and complex systems which dominate his daily life. They fuel and are fuelled by the drug trade and by the accumulation of wealth on an unprecedented scale in relatively few hands. The result is a distortion of social values in which the spiritual aspects of life disappear altogether or are replaced by belief in magic. This is not an uniquely Mexican problem but it is one that most emphatically requires a Mexican contribution in redressing it. It provides an opportunity for the Church to challenge the philosopher Philipper Soller's claim that L' ancient lerge religieux et philosophique a done perduson autorite. et est rechete a bas prix par la mafia economique.

As to the whisky priest, whatever Greene might have claimed about his novel's authenticity, its central character remains a travesty of his real life counterparts whose memorials are to be found throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Sources

Graham Greene: The Lawless Roads; The Power and the Glory

Bernal Diaz: The Conquest of New Spain

W H Prescott: The Conquest of Mexico

Sir Nicholas Cheetham: New Spain--The Birth of Modern Mexico; History of Mexico Hugh Thomas: The Conquest of Mexico

Charles Gibson: The Aztecs under Spanish Rule

Stanley G Payne: Spanish Catholicism

Robert Mullen: Dominican Architecture in Sixteenth Century Oaxaca

Dudley Ankerson: Agrarian Warlord; Saturnino Cedillo and the Mexican Revolution in San Luis Potosi

Calderon de la Barca: Life in Mexico

Sybille Bedford: A Visit to DonOtavio

Philippe Sollers: Une Vie Divine

Unpublished papers relating to the Cabrera y Ipina family of San Luis Potosi.

Sir Allan Ramsay, a former diplomat, was Political Counsellor and Head of Chancery at the British Embassy, Mexico City, from 1983-86.
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Author:Ramsay, Allan
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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