Francis effect? Observers see shift in stance of Mexico's bishops
Catholic News Service
MEXICO CITY — Mexican prelates normally prize cordial and close relations with politicians and refrain from criticizing public policy.
But Mexico's bishops posed uncomfortable questions for President Enrique Pena Nieto in a May 2 meeting, challenging him on the government's agenda of structural reforms and sharing the sense of dissatisfaction they hear from many ordinary Mexicans.
"In no way are we trying to not recognize the great efforts and advances that have been taken under your management," Cardinal Francisco Robles Ortega told the president at the bishops' bi-annual meeting in Cuautitlan Izcalli, near Mexico City.
"We want to pass on what we hear from the people of different social strata, their angst and anguish and -- allow me to say -- their annoyances. We do so with honesty and a true desire to serve."
Public questioning of the president is rare given the history of unhappy church-state relations in Mexico. The bishops' relationship with Pena Nieto had been considered close prior to his taking power Dec. 1, 2012.
Church observers say the status quo is shifting, however: The bishops see their plans of playing a more prominent role in public policy diminished, and Pope Francis, who clashed with presidents while archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, prefers prelates to side with the people instead of the powerful.
Mexico's bishops may be moving uneasily toward more critical positions with the federal government and the business class, starting with an April 30 letter, asking the president if his agenda of structural reforms in areas such as education, finances, telecommunications and the oil industry would meet expectations.
"The Mexican church ... has been passive, very comfortable in its relationship with power, but with the presence of Pope Francis, (he) has questioned and asked for more social sensibility from his bishops," said Bernardo Barranco, a columnist and veteran observer of the Mexican church, who saw signs of the pope's vision in the statements.
"This document is proof of the new times that Pope Francis has brought about."
Barranco also attributed the statements to timing: Mexico's bishops travel to the Vatican in May for meetings with Pope Francis.
"Many of them probably feel fearful that they're confronting President Enrique Pena Nieto, that they're putting him in an uncomfortable spot," Barranco said. "But they have the demands of Pope Francis that they move, that they do something for society, for the poor, for the worries of the faithful."
The bishops' comments came at an inopportune time for the president, whose popularity has plunged since taking office in December 2012.
Polls show public skepticism, especially as the economy slumped in 2013 and new taxes were implemented Jan. 1. An April survey by the Reforma newspaper put the president's approval rating at 48 percent, unusually low for Mexican standards. An equal number disapproved, while other polls showed even worse numbers.
International investors, meanwhile, have lauded Pena Nieto for pushing through tough structural reforms in areas such as energy, competition and education -- issues his party previously opposed during a dozen years of opposition. Pena Nieto says the reforms will allow Mexico's economy to grow by 5 percent annually, double the rate of recent decades.
"We have become only a government that is dedicated to mitigating poverty," Pena Nieto said in a statement after the meeting. "Poverty is contained when there is economic development that permits people to be incorporated into productive activities."
Puebla Auxiliary Bishop Eugenio Lira Rugarcia, conference secretary-general, told reporters after the meeting that the president promised responses within five days.
"Reforms in favor of everyone and not only one group are required," said Bishop Lira, who also broached the topic of security -- a topic Pena Nieto says is improving in Mexico and which churchmen often avoided in past years.
"The topic of security can't wait," the bishop said. "We realize from Mass intentions that people ask for relatives who have been affected or are kidnapped."
Given that the bishops spoke publicly on issues such as insecurity and questioned the president's political agenda before a presidential meeting made some observers wonder if the bishops were sending signals of discontent over the failure to incorporate their own policy preferences in the structural reforms.
"They're being left on the outside," said Ilan Semo, political historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.
Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party previously ruled Mexico for 71 straight years, promoting a secular ethos and promoting anti-clerical laws such as prohibitions on the church owning property and priests talking politics. The laws gradually eased and relations appeared easy between Pena Nieto and the church hierarchy -- to the point he was invited to the Vatican in December 2009, and the Archdiocese of Mexico City annulled the marriage of his then girlfriend, now-first lady Angelica Rivera.
The church's policy agenda also appeared to be advancing, with Congress in 2012 approving an amendment to Article 24 of the Mexican Constitution to allow increased religious liberty.
But Semo said the path is impeded for the church introducing religious education into public schools and religious associations owning radio and television outlets. And on matters of health and culture, the church "is no longer consulted" as it was at times during the 12 years of Catholic-friendly National Action Party rule.
"It's a warning," Semo said of the bishops' statement. "It's a warning that we could see a further distancing. A further distance is, 'We no longer support you.'"