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Mexico has Changed, But Maybe Not for Better, Says Saltillo Bishop

David Agren - Catholic News Service
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January 9, 2013

José Raúl Vera López, Saltillo, Mexico (Jackie Campbell)

SALTILLO, Mexico - Although church-state relations have thawed in the past 25 years, Saltillo Bishop Raul Vera Lopez said he remains dissatisfied with government restrictions on religion.

"The Religious Associations Law continues leaving us being as controlled as we were previously," Bishop Vera told Catholic News Service in early January, as he celebrated 25 years of being a bishop.

"We have to report where our priests are to the Interior Ministry," he said. "A soccer player can come on and off the field. ... If I change priest's parish, I have to report that."

The gradual warming of church-state relations is one of the many changes Bishop Vera has witnessed during his quarter-century of being a bishop in Mexico, serving dioceses stretching from Chiapas on the southern border to Saltillo in the North.

He has witnessed some of the biggest events to have marked Mexico over that time: the 1990s indigenous uprising in Chiapas, the end of one-party rule on the federal level in 2000 and the worst of the country's crime and drug-cartel violence, which has hit the areas covered by the Diocese of Saltillo especially hard.

Even with the country now carrying out competitive elections, having moved from a closed economy to signing free-trade agreements, with church officials now in a position to criticize the current social and political situation, Bishop Vera struck a sour note on how the modern-day Mexico has unfolded.

"Things have deteriorated over the past 25 years," Bishop Vera said.

The response was typical of the bishop, perhaps the country's most outspoken Catholic leader and no stranger to controversy - both in and out of the religious sphere.

He celebrated his episcopal anniversary by inviting the people whose causes he champions and who are on the margins of society: the defenders of Central American migrants traveling through the country, indigenous Mexicans suffering human rights abuses and the gay youths he has brought into a diocesan ministry.

Speakers at the early January event included Dominican Father Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian considered the father of liberation theology.

Absent were his Catholic counterparts, the business elites and government officials - all of whom appear publicly with prelates in other parts of Mexico on special occasions.

The approach was vintage Bishop Vera, highlighting his style as an outsider and someone quick to wade into some of Mexico's thorniest social conflicts. It also reflected his philosophy, "The church is for everyone."

His style - especially his comments on the country's political process - has not made him many friends in high places.

"Political parties in Mexico have become a disgrace," he said.

"There are no party ideologies. It's a business," which earns them approximately $300 million annually in taxpayer subsidies, he said.

Mexico has moved from one-party rule under the oft-oppressive and once anti-clerical Institutional Revolutionary Party to 12 years of governance under the Catholic-friendly National Action Party - which, Bishop Vera said, "was equally rotten ... along with being corrupt and inept, too."

The Institutional Revolutionary Party retook power after a summer election in which Bishop Vera alleges vote-buying was rife, a charge the current government and electoral officials say is false.

"In the last election, (the) government in office now ... took advantage of the poverty that (their past) governments provoked and later offered (people) 100 pesos so that they would vote for them," Bishop Vera alleged.

Economic matters often animate Bishop Vera. Last fall, he took to the pulpit to denounce changes in the country's labor laws, which he says will allow employers to further exploit workers.

The signing of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, along with additional accords opening the Mexican economy and the scrapping of price supports for farmers, also still grate at Bishop Vera.

"This accelerated inequality in Mexico," he said. "Some businessmen got rich, but it damaged the general population."

His outlook runs counter to many economic outlooks. Investors and analysts express giddiness over the state of the Mexico economy - which is expected to outpace Brazil in 2013 and grow more with possible structural reforms. Some suggestions have surfaced that Mexico has become a middle-class country, as people now own homes, vehicles and personal electronics, but Bishop Vera remains bearish.

"Would (analysts and investors) compare the minimum wage with the price of a basket of basic goods?" he asked.

Making people poorer, he said, is the violence attributed to a crackdown on organized crime and drug cartels, both of which have flourished due to corruption. Small-time drug dealing and the disputes of retailing turfs only make matters worse.

"When I became a bishop ... all the drugs produced in Mexico were exported," he said. "Later drugs began to stay here. ... Drugs began to be sold and consumed in Mexico."

Bishop Vera avoids criticizing other bishops and meddling in the matters of other dioceses, but he said the Mexican church's biggest shortcoming is the formation and training of the laity, who are unable to participate properly in public life.

"We're extremely weak in the formation of citizens so that they defend civic and political rights," he said. "Our ministry is still linked to the giving of the sacraments. We teach them a little bit of the Gospel because they're about to receive a sacrament."

Bishop Vera expressed optimism about newly formed social movements, such as the Movement for Peace, led by Catholic poet Javier Sicilia, and the pre-election student movement YoSoy132, which began in the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.

"There's a political consciousness that's a little more potent," he said.

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