From ............. National Catholic Reporter

October 11, 1996

page 12


By JOHN ROSS Special to the National Catholic Reporter

MEXICO CITY—As Bishop of Tapachula, one of three dioceses in Chiapas, Felipe Arizmendi has sometimes admonished his counterpart from San Cristobal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, for his self-proclaimed "option for the poor".

Yet one of Arizmendi's recent Sunday homilies sounded oddly like an echo of Ruiz's words. The conservative prelate berated "international capitalism" for spreading hunger. "Poverty," Arizmendi proclaimed, "is the result of the unjust manipulation of the world economy."

At the other end of Mexico along the northern border, Sonora's conservative bishop emeritus, Carlos Quintero Arce, followed suit not long ago, criticizing President Ernesto Zedillo's economic policies for having brought the nation "to intolerable extremes of misery."

These comments are representative of a new trend among the Mexican bishops, a conference that has in recent months made an about face from its traditionally conservative stance, especially when speaking on economics.

A good example of this shift is a recent pastoral letter. "The economic model only pays attention to how the macro-economy is performing and provokes instability, weakness and misery," the bishops wrote, responding to Zedillo's claims that Mexico has emerged from 20 months of recession. And hardly a Sunday passes without Mexico City Archbishop Norberto Rivera's lambasting "neo-liberal" economics or international lending institutions for the way they "inflict an unjust economic system on the poor." Rivera was once a protege of archconservative Papal Nuncio Girolamo Prigione.

Just a few years ago, such criticism from a liberal priest might have brought arrest or a death threat, or at least pressure from church and government officials. The Mexican Constitution prohibited the clergy from voting and from wearing clerical garb in public. The clergy was also barred from publicly criticizing the government from the pulpit. These provisions from Article 130 were a carry-over from the 1800s, when Masonic leader Benito Juarez framed the so-called Reform Laws that dramatically clipped the political clout and property ownership of the [Roman] Catholic church.

In 1991, President Carlos Salinas de Gotari resumed diplomatic relations with the Vatican and recast Article 130, restoring certain rights and privileges to the church. The once-silent began to test their voices. Five years later, the criticism from the pulpit has Mexican political leaders beginning to rue the reforms. President Ernesto Zedillo, for example, recently asked the bishops to temper their criticisms of his economic policies if they "could not make any better proposals."

Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte, the co-vicar of Ruiz's diocese, said the crude reality of an economically troubled Mexico is what has converted the prelates. "The economic crisis has been the real catalyst. Now the bishops feel they must speak out because the faithful are in pain," Ituarte said.

Despite the fact that other prelates are resonating with his views, Ruiz continues to be singled out for criticism by both the Mexican government and the Vatican. In June the national council of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party — PRI — condemned Ruiz for "inciting violence and Protestantism" in Chiapas.

Later this summer, the Mexican government barred a European Parliament contribution to a mediating body, known as CONAI, that has been brokering peace talks between the Zapatista rebels and Zedillo's administration. The Vatican, meanwhile, imposed a coadjutor bishop last September on the 71-year-old Ruiz in an apparent effort to alter the liberal direction of the diocese.

The bishops have not limited their criticisms to homilies and pastoral letters on economics. They now seem to feel free to use the pulpit, publications, news conferences, public forums and even picket lines to express their views on a variety of subjects. The Jesuits, for example, recently bought a newspaper ad to protest the Zedillo government's privatization of public utilities and the petrochemical industry.