Part I: The Long Conflict Between Church and State

Mexico is a beautiful country and a beautiful nation. The two terms are not identical. Properly understood, country speaks of the natural and human gifts which God has seen fit to bestow upon a particular part of His creation. In Spanish, we say país, and this is important, for the natural gifts are paisaje and the human gifts — our brothers and sisters — are paisanos.

Nation, on the other hand, is what we humans build in the country. In Spanish, the word is almost identical — nación — and those with nationality or citizenship ties to the nación are known as nacionales or ciudadanos. That last term is of particular interest. Ciudadanos are literally members of the city, or ciudad, and both the English and Spanish terms are derived from the Latin, civitate. This latter term is suddenly of intense interest to all of us as Catholics. Augustine’s famous treatise on heaven and the world is known as Civitate Dei, the City of God.

Augustine contrasts this City of God to the City of Man — or if you prefer, the City of the World — well over a thousand years before Spanish was ever spoken in the Mexican nation. Augustine clearly teaches that the citizens of the City of Man do not and must not relinquish their citizenship in the City of God. Equally, those happy souls who recognize their proper citizenship in the City of God do not therefore abandon the City of Man. The two coexist, at least in the persons of the citizens themselves. With this, we turn to Mexico, where the tension between the City of God and the City of Man is not well resolved. And this in spite of the war between Man and God which continues in her City, in her Republic, even down to the present day.

Article 40 of the Constitution of the United Mexican States stipulates that “it is the will of the Mexican people to set themselves up as a representative, democratic, federal Republic made up of free and sovereign States.” On February 12 of this year, the lower house of the Mexican Congress voted to modify this article so that it reads, “it is the will of the Mexican people to set themselves up as a representative, democratic, federal, laica Republic made up of free and sovereign States.”


The addition of this simple little word, laica has raised a lot of controversy in Mexico. Laica is the Spanish word for lay — as in layperson or laity — but at the same time it carries with it the connotation that we express in English with the word, secular. Thus, this Constitutional amendment – which is now in debate in the Mexican Senate and if approved there, will move on to the states — will expressly define the Mexican Republic — understood here as the government — as a secular one. The question, then, is this: is it good for a government to be explicitly secular?

Those who voted in favor of the amendment think so. César Augusto Santiago Ramírez of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) said following the vote that “there is no intention to attack any religion or to prevent the citizens of Mexico from exercising fully their most felt rights.”[i] Feliciano Martin of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD): “Laicidad[ii] is an important instrument, for example, for the defense of women’s rights when they are limited or subordinated for religious reasons in how they make decisions about their own bodies.”[iii] But the most apt argument, perhaps, came from Juventino Castro y Castro, also of the PRD; he said that expressly defining the Republic as laica reinforces the definition made by the Constitution of 1857[iv], which was a “positive solution for coexistence between majority and minority religions, and to prevent the beliefs of the few from becoming dominant by means of the force of the State.”[v] This last comment best captures the intent of the Mexican Congress in pushing for this Constitutional amendment: it is a reinforcement of the thread of history instituted by the Constitution of 1857.

So our journey necessarily digs deeper into the history of Mexico. In the years leading up to 1857, the central Mexican government was weak. Mexico formally declared its independence from Spain in 1810 but the two nations fought over the issue until 1821. Immediately following independence, the threat of Spanish re-conquest loomed[vi]. From that point until about 1887 or so, the country suffered one civil war after another; fought against France, Texas, the United States, and Great Britain; and even had to suffer the disgrace of being ruled for several years by the Hapsburg monarch, Fernando Maximiliano, who reigned as emperor of Mexico from 1864 to 1867.

The Constitution of 1857, referred to by Representative[vii] Juventino Castro y Castro, was itself adopted on February 12, 1857. Later that same year, there was a problem with the Spanish government over the payment of debts owed by Mexico. At the same time, the Archbishop of Mexico would condemn “the constitutional precepts [that were] ‘hostile to the Church.’”[viii] In March, 1857, the Archbishop sent a “notice to all priests ‘preventing them from granting absolution without prior retraction to any of the faithful that had sworn to the Constitution” (same reference). In the coastal highlands of the Sierra de Alica, northwest of Guadalajara in the state of Nayarit, “Manuel Lozada took up arms on his own to commit acts of vandalism.”[ix] Mexico was a mess, and the perception was that the Church had intervened unnecessarily in the action of the State.

So began the conflict between Church and State[x] in modern Mexico. This conflict has helped to define, for better or worse, the historical path that Mexico has trod. This article is the first in a five-part series that will examine the current effort to modify the Mexican Constitution in the light of Mexican history. The history that will be told here is not well known, not even among most Mexicans. However, that history is crucial if we are to understand the undercurrents of the current movement to explicitly define the Mexican Republic as laica, or secular. On the surface, it seems an innocuous effort, perhaps even a positive development. After all, most of us have been taught that “secular” simply means neutrality on the question of religion. We will see, however, that in Mexico laica is anything but neutral.

[i] Méndez, Enrique and Roberto Garduño. “Oficializa la Cámara de Diputados que México es una República laica”, 12 Feb 2010. Web. Retrieved 7 Mar 2010.

[ii] Lacidad is the characteristic of that which is laica.

[iii] Méndez and Garduño.

[iv] The Constitution of 1857 is a predecessor of the current Constitution of 1917.

[v] Méndez and Garduño.

[vi] Zoraida Vázquez, Josefina, Lilia Díaz, Lorenzo Meyer, La historia general de México, Volumen 2. México, D.F.: El Colegio de México, 1976. Print. Hereafter, this is referenced as LHGM 2, with appropriate page numbers. The post-independence problems with Spain are detailed on pages 737-768, in particular.

[vii] Representative is not the most apt term. In Spanish, the lower House of Congress is known as the Cámara de Diputados, and the elected members are known as Diputados. This is often translated into English as Deputy or Federal Deputy, but the term means Representative, and that is what many of us are most familiar with.

[viii] LHGM 2, page 840.

[ix] LHGM 2, page 840.

[x] The conflict proper has its roots in the colonial period, with difficulties becoming greater as Spain began its own internal conflict between monarchists loosely associated with the Church and republicans loosely associated with the ideals of the French Revolution. This spilled over into Mexico. See LHGM 2, pages 737-768 for further details.

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