Las Americas

The New Mexican Inquisition


Mexico City, January 25

Suppose you were an orphan and you were adopted by a couple of queers — how would you know which one was your mother and which one was your father?” sneered Juan Sándoval Iníguez, Cardinal of Guadalajara, speaking before a recent international anti-abortion conclave organized by the abrasive Catholic PRO VIDA group at a prominent university here.

Cardinal Sándoval, who is prone to display such intolerance in public, was Pope John Paul’s designated representative during the recently concluded Synod of the Americas in Mexico City, which set the Roman Catholic Church’s agenda for the “new evangelization” of the Americas.

Pope John Paul II often displays similar intolerance when it comes to sexual politics. His harangues against abortion, the condom, family planning, safe sex, and homosexuality have rankled non-believers for a generation, and the Pontiff’s performance during his recent Mexican trip, perhaps his last to Latin America, did not feature much new material. On the eve of John Paul’s departure for the Aztec capital, he inveighed against same-sex marriage — an admonition graphically illustrated by Televisa, one of the sponsors of the Papal visit, when it flashed film of a lesbian marriage on its news broadcasts. As expected, John Paul also weighed in against birth control and abortion at every opportunity, whether a mega-Mass attended by two million faithful or a demure tête-à-tête with the international diplomatic corps.

While Church antipathy to government family planning programs rages, Mexico’s population has swelled to 100 million, with more than a quarter living in extreme poverty. Although family growth has slowed to 2.9 children per household, increases are concentrated in the poorest regions — 75 percent of the babies are born to the poorest Mexicans. The Roman Catholic Church wields great influence in impoverished areas, such as Chiapas, where birth rates are growing a third faster than the rest of the country.

Similarly, the Health Secretariat’s limited abortion options are relentlessly attacked by a church hierarchy often divided on other issues. Conservative bishops concur with liberationists, such as San Cristóbal de las Casas’ Samuel Ruíz, that abortion is a mortal sin. Indeed, after passage of a state abortion-on-demand law several years ago, Don Samuel protested by displaying grisly pictures of aborted fetuses in San Cristóbal’s “Cathedral of Peace.” Yet a million abortions, most illegal, are performed in Mexico each year, according to leading reproductive rights spokesperson Marta Lamas, who estimates that 1,500 women a year lose their lives in such procedures.

Government condom distribution programs have also met with heavy flak from the Church. Conasida, the Health Secretariat’s AIDS agency, counts 38,000 active cases in the country, a figure that independent safe-sex groups claim should be tripled. AIDS is now the third leading killer of men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four.

The war against abortion and the condom is declared from the pulpits of the land every Sunday by the lords of the Church, but the ground troops in this holy crusade are lay zealots, like the rank and file of the PRO VIDA group. PRO VIDA, formed in the late seventies, parallels the growth of the U.S. anti-abortion movement after Roe v. Wade. Under the direction of Jorge Serrano Limón of the Mexico City archdiocese, PRO VIDA has grown into a mass pressure organization that holds weekly vigils and pray-ins outside of Health Secretariat offices for family planning and AIDS-prevention programs.

“The Secretary of Health (Dr. Juan Ramón de la Fuente) is sterilizing 300,000 women a year against their wills,” Serrano recently told a reporter during a demonstration — the PRO VIDA leader was apparently referring to the agency’s distribution of inter-uterine devices. Serrano insists that family planning programs are designed to force women to work outside of the home. “They are trying to destroy the family in these offices,” he mutters, staring down the stone building. A thin, intense man, Serrano and his followers have not yet blown up any clinics or murdered an abortion doctor, but the PRO VIDA rap echoes that of U.S. anti-abortion firebrands. Besides “murdering babies,” Serrano charges that Conasida condom giveaways actually spread AIDS and teen-age pregnancy, because “30 percent of these things fail to work properly.” Serrano contends that condom distribution is a conspiracy hatched by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Only chastity, marital fidelity, and “education” are the correct Catholic cures for overpopulation and the spread of AIDS.

But PRO VIDA’s educational agenda contrasts with that of the government’s Secretary of Public Education, which this year for the first time issued fifth grade sex education text books. Serrano fulminates at the new books, which propagate such “unnatural acts” as masturbation and same-sex marriage. As is often the case, PRO VIDA’s opposition to sex education is joined by the National Union of Heads of Family, an organization of conservative Catholic parents, which has declared a boycott of the new texts.

According to a study prepared by National University sociologists Javier Navarro and Erika Barzón, PRO VIDA’s Daddy Warbucks is Jorge Barroso Chávez, an immensely wealthy Catholic businessman whose ties to conservative members of the Mexican Episcopal Conference have earned him the clout of a lay bishop. As the long-time head of the Mexican Red Cross, Barroso refused to distribute Conasida condoms, endorsing Serrano’s position that the prophylactics are unsafe. Ironically, the Red Cross was similarly unprotected against Barroso’s alleged rape of its coffers. Former agency board members who quit in disgust charge that the “bishop,” who has since resigned from the Red Cross himself (although he remains “honorary president for life”), absconded with $303,000 received from the U.S. embassy for victims of a 1997 hurricane. When called to account by the embassy, the now ex-director wrote a check on the Red Cross to cover the sum in question. Barroso, both a ranking member of the Knights of Columbus and the Legionnaires of Christ, was a special invitee at an exclusive Papal Mass celebrated by the Pontiff for the nation’s business elite.

The Legionnaires of Christ are a wealthy lay order founded by Father Marcial Macial in Mexico in the early forties; it shares PRO VIDA’s anti-abortion enthusiasm. A bastion of anti-communism during the Cold War, the order has grown to 2 million adepts in fourteen countries, and is devoted to building a network of private schools to serve upper-crust Catholics — the Legionnaires now run dozens of primary and secondary academies in addition to the University of Anahuac in Mexico City and the University of the Mayeb in Yucatán.

A recent investigation by the national daily La Jornada revived charges that Father Macial sexually abused students under his tutelage. Nine former students who claim abuse — among them a Harvard professor, a rector of a university, a U.S. sub-secretary of defense, and several doctors and lawyers — have challenged the church to punish Father Macial. In addition, La Jornada published portions of a deposition accusing Macial of morphine abuse. “His suitcases were always filled with ampules when we traveled,” one former student recalled. But Father Macial, nephew of three Mexican bishops, is an untouchable amongst the Catholic hierarchy. Rather than rebuke, Macial received a hefty dose of praise from the top, when John Paul sent him a special blessing on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination. (Monsignor Macial was a member of a key Synod commission, and the Legionnaires were instrumental in organizing the Pope’s visit.)

In response to the allegations against Macial, PRO VIDA’s Serrano Limón decried “a conspiracy against the Church,” and Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the most powerful churchman in the land, labeled Salvador Guerrero’s series as “lies and more lies.”

The Mexican Church’s radical right wing is hardly a fringe movement. PRO VIDA has the backing of at least one political party and the two highest-ranking and wealthiest Cardinals in Mexico. From his pulpit at the capital’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Norberto Rivera, who tends the largest diocese in Christendom (20 million faithful), rains down imprecations on a litany of libertine sins — condom use, homosexuality, new age religion, and abortion. The archdiocese’s weekly newspaper, New Criterion, recently lambasted Mexico City mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas for allowing a forum on sexual diversity to be held in a city building, and accused the chief of government of trying to legalize same-sex marriages.

Up in Guadalajara, Cardinal Sándoval keynotes PRO VIDA events at the same time as he sermonizes in favor of the death penalty. Sándoval also condemns human rights groups as a “noxious” element which, in connivance with unnamed foreign bankers and governments, seek to damage Mexico’s international reputation. Although the issue of human rights was a recurring theme in John Paul’s public statements here, in Sándoval’s vision, such abuses are just made-up “stories.”

The Church’s radical right has ample resonance among the rank and file of the conservative National Action Party. The PAN’s political platform includes an anti-abortion plank, and the party endorses PRO VIDA’s campaign to attach a right-to-life amendment to the constitution (nearly a million signatures have already been gathered). National Action’s 1994 presidential candidate, Diego Fernández de Cevallos (Barroso’s lawyer in the Red Cross scandal), is a stern anti-abortionist who holds that “a woman’s body is not her own.” The PAN’s probable presidential candidate in 2000, Jalisco Governor Vicente Fox, who shares the anti-abortion stance, was a prominent guest at John Paul’s mega-Mass.

In cities and states under National Action administration, the PAN has delighted the Roman Catholic hierarchy by imposing its own moral strictures upon the citizenry. Examples abound: in Guadalajara, city officials barred mini-skirts on the job; in Veracruz, a gay film festival was canceled; a photo exhibit of nudes was covered up in Aguascalientes; and traditional nudity at the annual Carnavál shindig in Mérida Yucatán was declared in violation of decency regulations. The party’s former president, Carlos Castillo Peraza, a devout Catholic, claims latex condom use is an environmental hazard. For feminist Marta Lamas, such Catholic puritanism is nothing new. “The church,” she observed, “has always played a determining role in sexual politics in Mexico.”

John Ross, whose first work of fiction, Tonatiuh’s People: a Novel of the Mexican Cataclysm, was not endorsed by the Pope, reports regularly for the Observer from Mexico.