Part IV: Making Clergy Second Class Citizens

We have taken a wild and rough ride through Mexican history in the first three parts of this series of articles that analyzes the effort currently underway in Mexico to amend the Constitution in order to declare the country a secular, or laica, Republic. Taking the lead from current Mexican Representative Juventino Castro y Castro of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), we have sought to understand the roots of this effort by studying the circumstances under which the Liberal[1] Constitution of 1857 was adopted. We saw how the Mexican government expropriated Church property and examined in some detail the negative consequences this would have had for the poor who had depended on the Church for their economic well-being. Moreover, we examined how the Liberal Reform was consolidated and reached its peak with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Finally, we briefly studied the Mexican Revolution which gave Mexico its Constitution of 1917, which remains the supreme law of the land. In Part IV, we look directly at the text of the Constitution of 1917.

Article 3 declares, among other things, that education is a right of all persons in Mexico, and that “the aforementioned education shall be laica and for this reason, shall be completely separated from all religious doctrine.” Article 24 stipulates that “every person is free to profess his preferred religious belief;” that “the Congress cannot dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion;” and that “[t]he acts of public religious worship are ordinarily celebrated in the temples. Those which are extraordinarily celebrated outside the temples will be subject to the appropriate regulations.” These two articles are ordinary enough. Except for the fact that a free and secular education is dictated by legislative and judicial acts in the U.S., and not by Constitutional fiat, the language of these two sections is close enough to what we are already used to here. However, Article 130 turns a radical corner, establishing in Constitutional language one of the primary aims of the Constitution of 1857 and the nineteenth century Liberal ideology that followed it. Section A requires all Churches and religious groups to obtain a government registration in order to exist. Section B stipulates that the government authorities will not interfere in the internal life of religious associations. Section C establishes that Mexican citizens may practice any religion but in doing so must satisfy all conditions established by law. Section D prohibits religious ministers from exercising any public governmental office. And the odious Section E states:

Religious ministers may not assemble for political purposes nor may they proselytize in favor of or against any candidate, political party, or political association; they may not oppose the laws of the land nor any of its institutions nor may they offend in any way against any of the national symbols, in any public reunion, in acts of worship, or in any religious advertising or publication

Reading the text of these various Constitutional articles makes one wonder why the Mexican government would waste any time attempting to amend Article 40 to include the word, laica, in its definition of the Republic. Article 3 already establishes the laica character of education within the Republic. Article 24 expresses the right to freedom of religion. And Article 130 goes so far as to formally strip active religious ministers of their rights before the law. In the U.S., religious organizations may assemble peacefully to protest unjust laws. They may speak out to explain the meaning of their doctrines, including the public consequences of those doctrines. The U.S. bishops, for example, may explain what respect for life means, and they have lawful means at their disposal to translate that respect for life into an organized, active opposition to the current health care bills which support abortion.

Not so in Mexico. Religious ministers have second class status when it comes to the right to freedom of speech – and this is already the de facto state of Mexican law. One wonders why anyone would seek to amend the Mexican Constitution to add formal language establishing the laica character of the Republic. Such language already exists! And the laws which support that language have teeth. I recall reading a newspaper article in Mexico in the 1990s which explained that any priest who preached politics from the pulpit could be fined about 300 days of the current minimum wage – several hundred or perhaps a couple thousand dollars at the time – per incident. And the judge of what was or was not political language would be the same government that issued the fines.

Thus, it is clear that the efforts to adopt secularist Constitutional language in language have been associated with bigotry, even violence. One may argue that the violent wars led by Benito Juarez were necessary to ensure the stability and independence of the nascent Republic; those arguments have been made, and they are good ones. But just as certainly, that violence led to such a strong desire for stability that Mexico accepted the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. And that dictatorship, in turn, led to the extreme, unimaginable violence of the Mexican Revolution. With more violence, we see a return to anti-Catholic bigotry expressly written into the Constitution of 1917. In Part V, we will study how this bigoted language affected post-Revolutionary Mexico.

[1] Recall that the term Liberal is not identical to the modern term of the same name. Rather it refers to an historical movement led by secular forces to dissolve the largely monarchical European political order at the time and to diminish or eliminate the power of the Church.

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