The politics of regulating religion in Mexico: the 1992 constitutional reforms in historical context.

Author:Gill, Anthony

On 28 January 1992, the Mexican national legislature approved changes to the 1917 Constitution and effectively reversed over a century of officially sanctioned hostility to religious organizations. Six months later, the federal government released La Ley de Asociaciones Religiosas y Culto Publico (henceforth: Ley Reglamentaria), a detailed set of legal statutes that form the basis of contemporary church-state relations. Having obtained the, legal recognition and freedom it had sought for many years, leaders of the Catholic Church greeted this new legal framework with a sense of optimism. Jeronimo Prigione (the papal nuncio who spearheaded the church's struggle to obtain legal recognition throughout the 1980s and 1990s) stated: "We [the Catholic hierarchy] are sincerely appreciative and thankful for the effort of the House of Deputies, and the concern of the President [Carlos Salinas], a wise statesman, ... for opening new horizons in the relations between the Church and State, channelling the forces of the two societies towards the service of social and religious peace."(1) Archbishop Adolfo Suarez Rivera, then president of the Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano (CEM), declared that this legislation "has marked a new stage in our history. It has been the fruit of a long process.... it is undeniable that it has represented a big step that has opened roads to the freedom of the Church so that it can better realize its task of evangelization."(2) Since the passage of the Ley Reglamentaria, officials from both the government and Catholic Church acknowledge that relations between the two have never been better.(3)

In addition to meeting the desires of the Catholic bishops and improving relations between the church and government, the 1992 legislation fit President Carlos Salinas de Gotari's neoliberal program for modernizing Mexico. This program was intended to liberalize Mexico's statist economy and democratize its corporatist political structure. As presented to the public, the Ley Reglamentaria enhanced Mexican democracy by restoring legal recognition and civil liberties to religious organizations and their employees. Ley Reglamentaria meshed nicely with Salinas's neoliberal philosophy as it essentially deregulated Mexico's "religious economy," allowing for greater competition and less government interference in the theological marketplace.(4)

Previously, government policy was based fundamentally on controlling the one social institution that posed the greatest ideological challenge to the secular state--the Catholic Church.(5) Even during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the liberal rallying cry of "separation of church and state" meant, in practice, church subordination to the state. At first glance, Ley Reglamentaria appears to break this pattern. However, a closer examination of the current religious law reveals that the state continues to exercise substantial power over religious organizations, a political strategy consistent with past practices. What has changed is not that the government now has a laissez-faire approach to religion; instead, the manner in which political leaders control religious organizations has shifted to meet new environmental constraints. Among these constraints have been the increased instability of the ruling party and a reinvigorated Catholic hierarchy. Granted, political leaders today are less able to subordinate churches to their will than in the past, but the various restrictions and ambiguities of the current law provide politicians the legal openings to take arbitrary actions against religious personnel or organizations based solely on political considerations. The ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) frequently uses selective enforcement of the Ley Reglamentaria to reward or punish the Catholic Church for actions taken in the political sphere. The primary victims of these machinations have been Catholic progressives and[ evangelical Protestants; the latter are used as the government's principal threat against the Catholic Church. By examining the actual text of the Ley Reglamentaria, and the events leading to its passage, I argue that Salinas's policy of religious deregulation was not merely an attempt to buy the political support of the Catholic episcopacy, as has been commonly asserted, but also was written with the intent of restructuring government control over religious bodies.

This article is divided into three sections. The first section briefly explores the historical patterns of church-state relations in Mexico. This places the current changes in proper historical context and lays the foundation for the main thesis, that Salinas's political strategy towards religious organizations is consistent with that of previous governments. Next, the events leading to the 1992 reforms are explored. The causal chain is traced back to the late 1960s, when subtle shifts in the relative bargaining power of the Catholic Church and state began. The final section examines the actual text of the Ley Reglamentaria, commenting on the apparent motivations behind each of its major articles. The significance of these new regulations for evangelical Protestants is also discussed as non-Catholic religions factor into the government's strategy of controlling the social influence of the Catholic Church.


Much has been written on church-state relations in Mexico.(6) Rather than detailing a history covered elsewhere, this section briefly focuses on the general patterns of church-state interaction. As Karl Schmitt argues, the fundamental concept governing these patterns--corporatism--as been stable over time:

Mexico, despite seeming shifts in policies, promulgation of new laws and constitutions, and violent swings from bloody conflicts to peaceful accommodation, a corporatist concept of the state has pervaded the thinking of the leadership both political and religious.(7)

Schmitt defines corporatism as

a type of political system in which political interests are and should be expressed primarily through organized groups rather than by individual actions such as voting; in which the state acts as regulator and harmonizer among the groups; and in which the groups themselves, are noncompetitive, lacking in autonomy differentiated by function or occupation (not class), and unequal in status.(8)

In terms of church-state relations, the central feature of Mexican corporatism is that the government consistently has endeavored to regulate organized religious behavior, either by controlling the internal workings of the Catholic Church, or by limiting its external social influence. The strategy chosen, and its relative success, is largely a function of the relative bargaining power of the episcopacy and politicians, which is in turn determined by the institutional strength of church and state under a variety of environmental circumstances. At times, this relationship has had positive-sum qualities (i.e., each entity benefited), while at other points in Mexico's history, church-state relations were viewed in zero-sum terms. The latter case typically occurred when politicians considered their own political survival jeopardized by an independent and powerful church.

Understanding the patterns of interaction between the Mexican Catholic Church and state requires an awareness of the institutional interests of each actor involved.(9) The Catholic Church, above all, wants to evangelize. That is, it primarily wants to maximize the number of people adhering to Catholicism, and then assure that their faith is deeply ingrained. However, this task is complicated by the fact that religious organizations are particularly vulnerable to competitors and that they also rely heavily on voluntary contributions to finance their operations, leading to a continual crisis of underfunding. For this reason, the Catholic Church has a strong interest in state protection and subsidization.(10) This has been historically true of the Mexican Church.(11) On the other side of the equation, government leaders want to stay in power and exercise the greatest degree of control over society that is reasonably possible. Religious leaders, whose fundamental base of authority emanates from "the divine," offer a potential challenge to the authority of the secular state, especially since an appeal to religion is a potentially powerful means of social mobilization. For this reason, government leaders possess an incentive to control religious organizations either by co-opting their source of moral authority (i.e., getting the clergy to legitimize the state), or by limiting the degree of social influence that religious leaders possess. As we shall see, politicians throughout Mexican history often pursued both strategies simultaneously.

The corporatist patterns of church-state relations in Mexico have their roots in the colonial era. A weak Holy See, eager to reach new souls across the Atlantic, agreed to give the Spanish Crown almost complete regulatory power over the Catholic Church in the Americas. The patronato real, as it was known, included the naming of bishops, the right to determine diocesan and parish boundaries, authority over the construction and maintenance of religious buildings, and extensive control over church finances.(12) From this point on, secular rulers would consider it their sovereign right to regulate church affairs. Although the terms of this arrangement heavily favored the state, it would be improper to consider the church to be completely subordinated during this time. In essence, church leaders viewed the patronato as a bargain that could be renegotiated at any time. For instance, Jose Luis Romero noted that in Argentina, although the church lived by the terms of the patronato, "it aspired to override political authority each time it could, and it was accustomed to make use not only of the prestige it enjoyed with the people, but also...

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