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Salinas Starts Furor over Church-State Relations

December 26, 1988

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has kicked a political hornet’s nest by suggesting the Roman Catholic Church, technically illegal in Mexico since 1917, be restored to normal status.

The constitution ratified in that year by the triumphant forces of the Mexican revolution went beyond separation of church and state. It denied the church legal existence and tried to eliminate church influence.

Mexico remains the most Catholic country in the hemisphere nonetheless, and the church has not faded. Every year, millions of people take part in public processions to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country’s patron saint.

Salinas acknowledged reality by declaring in his inaugural speech Dec. 1 that a ″modern state deals openly and modernizes its relationship with unions, business groups, news organizations ... and the church.″

It was the first time in modern Mexico a president publicly acknowledged the church as part of society. Sitting in the gallery for the first time were representatives of the church: Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada, four other bishops and Papal Nuncio Girolamo Prigione, the pope’s ambassador.

Church leaders welcomed the move and conservative parties said they favored a debate to redefine the church’s role. Critics said the government should stick to the constitution.

Salinas’ Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has controlled the government since it was founded 60 years ago, was torn between supporting him and loyalty to the constitution’s framers.

Congresswoman Socorro Diaz said: ″The reopening of a debate settled by history ... does not strengthen national unity and creates disagreement and confrontation among Mexicans.″ She is director of El Dia, a newspaper sponsored by the party’s left wing.

Some saw the president’s move as an effort to widen support for his government while his party is losing traditional backing from labor and the middle class.

The issue does divide the opposition. During a debate in Congress, conservatives shouted ″Fanatic 3/8″ ″Robespierre 3/8″ and ″Son of Lenin 3/8″ at left-wing members who opposed the reassessment.

An officially anti-clerical government leading a largely Catholic population is one of Mexico’s contradictions. The government ignores technical violations of the law by the church in order to maintain social peace.

One paragraph in Article 130 of the constitution says: ″The law does not recognize the religious associations known as churches.″

In the eyes of the peasant, union and military revolutionaries who wrote it, the church was part of an oppressive landowning establishment. To the hierarchy, they were godless destroyers of established order.

Churches cannot own property and the government has the power to determine the number of priests in each state. Foreign priests are prohibited from working in Mexico and public displays of religion are forbidden.

Priests do not have the right to vote, but do so. They are not allowed to speak or write about politics or the government, but write opinion columns. They are barred from teaching, but the Catholic Church runs schools and universities where the children of government leaders study.

Presidents hold private meetings with bishops.

Two million people attended a Mass in Mexico City conducted by Pope John Paul II. He spent a week in Mexico during his first trip to America.

In the late 1920s, Catholics conducted the Cristero revolt because of government persecution. A church hero was the Rev. Miguel Pro, a Jesuit priest executed by the government, who was beatified in November.

A few days after the Salinas inaugural, Interior Minister Fernando Gutierrez Barrios caused front-page headlines by declaring: ″The church exists,″ and since then the debate has covered acres of newsprint.

In Congress, Popular Socialist Party member Alfredo Reyes Contreras said even the presence of prelates at the inauguration had violated the Mexican constitution. He demanded an investigation.

A leader of the Unified Socialist Party, Gilberto Rincon Gallardo, a Catholic, said change is needed because the current situation ″stimulates fanaticism.″

The Popular and Unified Socialist parties both belong to the Democratic Front coalition that supported Cuauhtemoc Cardenas against Salinas in the July 6 presidential election.

Salinas should be able to get the two-thirds vote he needs in Congress to change the constitution, if he wants to do so. His party controls 60 of 64 Senate seats, and although it has only 260 of 500 lower house seats it can expect support from the conservative National Action Party’s 101 members.

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