Although there has been conflict between church and state in Mexico since the country's independence, more than 90 percent of the population remains Roman Catholic, according to 1990 census estimates. The state feud with the Roman Catholic Church is reflected in the 1917 constitution, which imposes many restrictions on the influence and privileges of the clergy in Mexico. The early drafts of the 1917 constitution banned public religious ceremonies, the establishment of monastic orders, and property ownership by the Roman Catholic Church, and forbade the clergy from participating in elections. All church buildings, according to law, were considered national property, and church ministers had to be Mexican nationals. The law also prohibited criticism of public law and institutions, both public and private, by members of the clergy.
Far from bring a traditional conservative force, however, the Roman Catholic Church has been a strong advocate for social and political change. In the late 1980s, for example, the clergy were active in the northern states, condemning electoral fraud to the extent of threatening to cease celebrating masses unless there were a recount of the vote. The Roman Catholic Church was also instrumental throughout the 1980s in demanding recognition of its legal status and electoral participation for the clergy. Despite the traditional view of the Roman Catholic Church as representative or supporter of the elites, the Mexican Roman Catholic Church has emerged during the last decades as the defender of social justice, and the more progressive clergy have worked closely with underprivileged sectors to increase economic and social reform.
The Salinas administration changed dramatically the relations between church and state in Mexico (see Church-State Relations, ch. 2). During the fall of 1991, Salinas's government took the first steps toward lifting some restrictions on church activities and introduced a reform proposal to end constitutional limits on the church. The new law, approved by the Congress in December 1991 and promulgated in January 1992, amended the constitution of 1917. Under the new law, the Roman Catholic Church is formally recognized by the state, the clergy are allowed to vote, the possession of property by churches is legal, and religion may be taught in private schools. Mexico also established diplomatic relations with the Vatican, relations that had been broken in 1867. State and church, nevertheless, remain separate, and church buildings remain state property.
Protestant groups in Mexico have tended to support the PRI, in light of the party's broad appeal. The political alternatives are not viable options for Mexican Protestants because the opposition on the right, the PAN, openly represents Roman Catholicism and groups on the left exclude religion from their political goals. Toward the latter part of the twentieth century, the participation of Protestant groups in Mexican politics increased as Protestants supported efforts aimed at political change.
Given the country's anticlerical history, it is highly unlikely that the Roman Catholic Church will assume a direct role in Mexican politics in the near future. However, the church's traditional commitment to social justice and economic development, along with the government redefinition of its institutional responsibilities, provides the Roman Catholic Church with a strong voice on future political issues.
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