Pope Excommunicates Mexicans

Mexican bishops say doctors, nurses who perform abortions, politicians who support the legalization would be excommunicated

By Gabriel Buelna
Published on LatinoLA: May 11, 2007

Pope Excommunicates Mexicans

While Americans focused on misconduct by police during May Day events last week, the abortion debate erupted in Mexico, causing a roar throughout Latin America and the Vatican. Threatened by the legalization of first trimester abortions by the Mexico City assembly, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message that legalizing abortion of any kind will not be tolerated. Mexican bishops, led by the comments of the pope, threatened to excommunicate sympathizers. Not since the days of the Mexican revolution has a religious issue so seriously threatened the delicate balance between the Catholic Church and the Mexican government.

Mexico has long been a bastion of Catholicism complete with the traditional conservatism and obedience. The breaking of ranks in the form of Mexico City's pro-abortion legislation was not taken well by the Vatican. While the announcement was shocking to some, it should not have come as a surprise. The relationship between the Mexican State and the Catholic Church has been tenuous since the creation of the Mexican Constitution in 1917. For over 70 years, the clergy were stripped of real-estate, the right to vote and an array of laws intended to eliminate any role of the Church within Mexican society. Catholics even rebelled against the government in the bloody Cristero War of 1926 that lasted for three years and left 90,000 dead.

It was only in 1992 that Mexico restored its official relationship with the Church, granting legal status to all religious groups, providing limited property rights, and eliminating restrictions on the number of priests in the country. The Church experienced revitalization as the political power of Mexico's elite Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) began to wane. In hindsight, it's not surprising the Church decided to lash out at this point in history. Mexican President Felipe Calderon is the first modern president to publicly worship and show any type of public spirituality; thus, providing some political cover to the Church.

While the Mexican Catholic Church has regained some of its role in the country's public life, it should move forward with caution. The Mexico of today is not the Mexico of the 19th century, where the entire population lived in poverty, was illiterate, and no political pluralism existed. Mexico today has legalized civil unions in several states and voting rights are somewhat respected. As the confidence and awareness of individual rights develops in Mexico, the Church is mistaken to believe it can dictate it's will as it did in the past.

In a public letter to citizens, Mexican bishops have said doctors and nurses who perform abortions and politicians who supported the legalization would be excommunicated. With an estimated 200,000 illegal abortions and 100 deaths per year, the Church's strategy is destined to backfire. Elected officials, media and citizens throughout Mexico have begun to question the heavy hand of the Vatican as interfering in internal politics.

Abortion critics have stated legalizing abortion would lead to a moral decline throughout Mexico. The problem with this argument is that Mexico has seen tremendous moral decline in the last two decades not from changes in social laws, but from its economic deterioration that has led millions of families to dissolve and emigrate to the United States. Case in point, last week the Mexican government reported that since 2000, they have lost more Mexican citizens to emigration (577,000 a year), than to deaths (495,000 a year). To comment on moral decay in the face of these numbers shows a complete disconnection with reality.

While 88% of Mexico remains Catholic, membership worldwide continues to decline by one percent each year. Despite the fact that Latin America is home to half the world's Catholics, the outlook is not positive. In Brazil alone, the percentage of Catholics fell from 83% in 1991 to 67% in 2007. The debate over abortion in Mexico and eventually throughout Latin America can be a healthy discussion for the Church. Nobody expects the Catholic Church to accept abortion. Who would want to be part of a church that is so whimsical about its teachings? What Latin America demands is a Catholic Church willing to accept that its membership has different relationships with governments and that public health concerns are important.

This past weekend, my older daughter received her First Holy Communion. I am proud she is part of an institution that is doing good things throughout the world with its educational system, charities and ministries. What nobody likes is to be threatened with excommunication for disagreeing with the Church. If the goal is to reduce or eliminate abortions, the Church will need to create the social networks to reach the women who need help when they are faced with an unwanted pregnancy, whatever their choice might be in terms of abortion. The 200,000 Mexican women a year that receive illegal and dangerous abortions need to know that their Church can provide guidance and support without repercussions.

What do you think?

About Gabriel Buelna:
Gabriel Buelna, PhD, MSW is Executive Director of Plaza Community Center in East Los Angeles and a faculty member in the Chicana/o Studies Department at Cal State Northridge. You can visit his blog at

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