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Religious Awakening in Mexico and the Pope’s Visit

March 22, 2012

by Arjan Shahani

Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to Mexico will begin on March 23 but unlike his predecessor, Benedict will not feel as comfortable calling Mexico siempre fiel—and so hopefully some of his agenda will include discussion on religious diversity. 

Pope John Paul II called Mexico “forever faithful” in 1990 due to Catholicism being the dominant faith in the country. However, rising popularity of other religions and the emergence of atheist and agnostic thought in the country could very well be pushing Mexico to a tipping point, leading to question the favored role Catholicism plays in sociopolitical life.

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To this day, many large companies in Mexico (national and international) hold posadas, celebrate Christmas and observe other Catholic holidays such as Easter. Some even hold mass within their facilities to kick off special events. On the flip side, there are very few companies in Mexico that observe Yom Kippur or Ramadan. It is still a commonplace human resource practice to ask potential employees what their religion is during recruitment and—though none will publicly accept it—religion still plays a criteria in actual talent selection (otherwise, why would they ask about it?). This, by the way, is illegal under Article 3 of the Federal Labor Law.

Catholicism is not just favored in the private sector. During the first weeks of December and leading up to the 12th (Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe) Catholics are not only allowed to march on some of the busiest streets in the cities as part of their pilgrimage while causing transit chaos, they are even escorted by public officials to guarantee their safety. This is a nicety not usually awarded to other faiths and it is funded by taxes paid for by people of all faiths.

In Monterrey, people who park in unauthorized spaces close to a Catholic church on Sunday seldom get a ticket and, in the municipality of San Pedro, traffic officials stop cars in order to let the faithful cross the street to and from mass. This is the same municipality which in 1996 famously repealed (without clear legal justification) a permit given to the Mormon Church to build a temple next to a Catholic school. The Mormons were then left with the only option of establishing it in the outskirts of the metropolitan area. 

This differentiated treatment expected and accepted for and by many Catholics, is usually justified through statements such as “95 percent of the country is Catholic so it is ok to favor them” or the less defensive “this special treatment doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t really matter.”

But religious intolerance does hurt society and becomes even more relevant when a critical mass of it is affected.  When my taxes are being used to protect and legitimize a group of people who block an avenue not because they are participating in some form of social protest but just so they can practice their faith, it matters. Every time somebody gets a parking ticket for breaking the law but a Catholic doesn’t because public officials look the other way if the offender is on their way to Sunday mass, it matters.

Moreover, according to the 2000 census the percentage of Mexican Catholics was not 95 percent, but actually 76.5 percent and rapidly dropping. It would be a conservative assumption to think that today at least 30 percent of the population is not Catholic—so when a governmental action disregards or minimizes the beliefs of more than 33 million people in the country, it certainly does matter.

It is understandable that Mexican Catholics would want to hold on to this favored position (who wouldn’t?) but for the sake of social wellbeing, they need to come to terms with the fact that Mexico can no longer be thought of as “a Catholic country.” Forward-thinking companies and government agencies would do well in recognizing that they need to start revising the assumptions under which they operate and evolve their practices in order to become more inclusive. The non-Catholic groups and their rights cannot and should no longer be ignored.

Tags: Mexico, Religion, Pope Benedict XVI

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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