Mexico’s Free Speech Fracas: For Once It’s Easy to Defend the Church

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A woman holds a rosary during a mass for peace in the cathedral in downtown Monterrey, Mexico, Saturday Oct. 2, 2010. ( Photo: Carlos Jasso / AP)

Mexico’s Roman Catholic Church isn’t an institution that progressives usually rush to defend. Its leadership is about as obscurantist as they come, and its history – including the disgraced Legionaries of Christ and their late pedophile leader, the Rev. Marcial Maciel – is checkered at best. But if you advocate free speech, and if you believe that Mexico today is a bona fide democracy that protects free speech, then it may be hard not to back Mexico’s Catholic hierarchy in its battle this summer with the nation’s electoral tribunal.

This year the Mexico City Archdiocese called on Catholics not to vote for political parties that support legal abortion or gay marriage. So last month – citing an archaic statute that prohibits organized religion from publicly endorsing or opposing political candidates – a panel of judges at the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) ordered Mexico’s Interior Ministry to sanction the archdiocese and its spokesman, the Rev. Hugo Valdemar, with substantial fines. “According to the [tribunal],” said Valdemar, who is appealing the ruling, “a citizen’s critical opinion of a political party…is an attack against the democratic life of the country. Such a proposition is not only a judicial contradiction, but borders on the ridiculous.”

(See “Mexico City’s Revolutionary First: Gay Marriage”)

At least in this case, the IFE judges and the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which brought the complaint against the archdiocese, risk the improbable feat of making the Mexican Catholic Church look like a champion of liberal democracy. In its ruling, the IFE tribunal insisted that it’s “protecting the secularism of the state.” But does a political proclamation by a religious group really threaten the secularism of a state? Does Mexico risk becoming Iran if it lets priests publicly criticize politicos? No. In reality, it’s the IFE judges, the PRD and other backers of Mexico’s outdated Religious Associations Law who may be undermining the country’s fledgling democracy.

That’s especially true when you consider that the law was first promulgated by one of the most undemocratic forces in Mexican history: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico as a one-party dictatorship from 1929 to 2000. Granted, the PRI was reacting to the Church’s centuries-long abuses, which were appalling. On the eve of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, for example, the Catholic Church held at least half the nation’s real estate. As a result, the revolution produced draconian codes that prohibited churches from owning property, operating schools or speaking out on politics. Priests were even barred from voting and wearing clerical garb in public. When some Catholics rose up against the restrictions in the Cristero Rebellion of the 1920s, government authorities hanged numerous priests from telephone poles.

The PRI’s law hardly exterminated religion in Mexico: almost 90% of Mexicans still call themselves Catholic. The PRI’s real intention was to silence another opposition voice, which is the kind of anti-democratic machination that Mexico supposedly discarded after the PRI was finally toppled 11 years ago. It’s one thing to separate church and state – to prevent governments from endorsing one faith over  others, for example, or to strip a church of its charitable tax-exempt status if it turns its pulpit into a political action committee. But it’s another thing to violate civil rights. By continuing to enforce the Religous Associations Law, Mexico’s politicians risk looking like censors who use the same muzzling practices they claimed to abhor when the PRI was in power.

They also encourage the anti-free speech behavior we’re seeing from a growing number of other Latin American governments. Last month a judge in Ecuador – where the National Assembly is considering a law that would essentially make President Rafael Correa the arbiter of what can and can’t be published or broadcast there – sentenced newspaper editor Emilio Palacio to three years in prison for an editorial that called Correa a “dictator.” (By making the criminal complaint, of course, Correa risked lending credence to Palacio’s article.) In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez has stepped up use of “media responsibility” and anti-defamation laws that threaten jail time for anyone who insults the President or public officials or who “spreads false information” that “causes public panic.”

(See “Venezuela’s Bicentennial: Should Chávez Re-examine Bolívar – and His Revolution?”)

Like Mexico’s Religious Associations Law, these statutes belong to Latin America’s anti-democratic past. This is 2011, not 1910, and in genuine democracies today slander and libel are the purview of civil courts. Love or hate the Church, in this instance the priest is right: to criminalize free speech borders on the ridiculous.