Church leaders upset with proposed change to Mexican Constitution

MEXICO CITY (CNS) — Catholic leaders across Mexico expressed disappointment with the lower house of Congress’ approval of a proposed constitutional amendment that would enshrine separation of church and state.

Statements issued by the archdioceses of Mexico City, Guadalajara and Leon described the proposed wording as "regrettable" and a setback for religious freedom in a country with a history of contentious church-state relations.

The statements also described the change as an attempt to silence Catholics and other religious groups at a time when Mexican politicians are addressing social issues such as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

"No one disputes the proper and healthy separation of the spheres covered by church and state," said Father Hugo Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, in a statement Feb. 12, the day after the legislation passed. "But it’s questionable if what is understood by ‘secular’ is an irrational, anti-religious attitude that is specifically anti-Catholic and attempts to regulate and subjugate the church in regard to its evangelizing and social mission."

The proposed constitutional change comes as Catholic leaders — joined by their evangelical and Greek Orthodox counterparts — have voiced objections to Mexico City’s new same-sex marriage laws, which take effect in March.

It also comes as Catholic leaders are perceived to be wielding enormous influence over the social policies such as the constitutional bans on abortion that have been approved in 18 jurisdictions over the past year and a half.

To amend the constitution, the legislation still would have to be approved by the Senate, half of Mexico’s state legislatures and President Felipe Calderon.

The Mexican Constitution already guarantees secularism in some areas, such as public education.

Church officials have denied allegations of improper meddling in political issues and say critics are misinformed about the role of religious institutions in the public policy process.

"Abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage, etc., are not mere political issues," Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara said in a Feb. 12 statement. "These are issues of morality and concern many honest and decent people and also the church and the ministers of other denominations."

Mexico has enforced the strict separation of church and state since the approval of the reform laws of Benito Juarez in the late 1850s and subsequent anti-clerical measures.

Some of those measures — such as bans on priests and religious wearing habits in public — were discarded in 1992 when Mexico established diplomatic relations with the Vatican. But other restrictions remain, including a ban on religious organizations owning media outlets and a prohibition on speaking of political matters inside places of worship.

Catholic officials have called for an end to those restrictions and for a guarantee of "freedom of religion," instead of the current "freedom of worship" mentioned in the constitution, but have denied wanting to meddle in political matters.

"In one of the most extensive and comprehensive documents of the past few years, the Mexican bishops’ conference affirmed, ‘We understand and accept the secular state,’" said Archbishop Jose Martin Rabago of Leon, former president of the bishops’ conference, in a Feb. 9 statement.

The archbishop added, "We don’t want to return to the old 19th-century concept" that estranged church and state and limited the church’s role in Mexican public life to "merely spiritual matters."

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