Mexico’s Papal Visit: Will the Ruling Party Get a Benedict Blessing or Backlash?

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Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI is welcomed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his wife Margarita Zavala upon his arrival at Silao's international airport in Guanajuato, Mexico on March 23, 2012.

If you were Mexico’s ruling party, and your presidential candidate was down by double digits in the polls three months before the election, you’d be looking for some divine help too. So President Felipe Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) is hoping the visit from Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives in Mexico today, March 23, will help resurrect the chances of its prez contender, Josefina Vázquez. The PAN is the Roman Catholic standard-bearer of Mexican politics, and the Pope’s three-day itinerary is confined to one of Mexico’s most Catholic and PAN-ista states, Guanajuato.

But the PAN shouldn’t expect any papal miracles from this visit – and in fact, instead of getting the lift it’s looking for, the party could experience some letdown. It’s no secret that the 84-year-old Benedict is an aloof theologian compared to his charismatic late predecessor, John Paul II, who wowed Mexico with five visits between 1979 and 2002. Beyond the personality issues, in the past decade the Catholic church has taken a steep fall from p.r. grace in Mexico, which has the world’s second largest Catholic population. The most serious sin has been a relentless series of revelations about the powerful clerical order known as the Legionaries of Christ, founded in Mexico by the late Rev. Marcial Maciel. Before he died in disgrace in 2008, Maciel faced increasing charges that he had sexually abused numerous young seminarians and children – including two sons he sired with a mistress.

At about the same time the Pope touches down in the city of León northwest of Mexico City, a new book will go on sale in Mexico – co-authored by some of Maciel’s past victims – that purports to add a new and troubling layer to the scandal. Titled La Voluntad de No Saber (The Will Not to Know) the book claims to expose documents that prove the Vatican knew about the Maciel problem as early as the 1940s but did nothing about it. Maciel, in fact, would go on to be a favorite of John Paul II – one of whose right-hand men was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. He eventually had to force Maciel to resign as head of the Legionaries in 2005 and then from priestly ministry in 2006 as the abuse allegations mounted.

(MORE: “Maciel Scandal Puts Focus On a Secretive Church Order”)

The Maciel ugliness helps explain why the Catholic church in Mexico – which for most of the 20th century chafed under the anti-clerical policies of the Mexican government, which didn’t re-establish ties with the Vatican until 1992 – has lost up to a fifth of its followers in the past two decades, as my colleague Tim Johnson of McClatchy News Service reports this week. Much of that flight has gone to Protestant Evangelical sects, which is why Benedict is expected to make Catholic “reconversion” in Mexico a central theme of his homilies there.

Johnson also points out that many Mexicans are irked at the church, led in Mexico by the conservative Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City, because of what they call its less than passionate concern about the country’s nightmarish drug war, which has seen more than 50,000 people murdered or missing since Calderón took office in 2006. They’re most distressed by reports that a number of Catholic priests and parishes have embraced donations from drug trafficking bosses – including Heriberto Lazcano, aka El Verdugo or The Executioner, head of the bloodthirsty Zetas gang, who funded the construction of a chapel in his home state of Hidalgo, near Guanajuato, complete with a plaque bearing his name.

There are, of course, a number of Mexican priests and bishops who are pushing the church to take a harder stand against the narco-violence – and some, like the Rev. Genaro García in Mexico state, who was murdered by narco-extortionists in January inside his church, have been victims. Church spokespersons tell TIME’s Dolly Mascarenas that getting the Mexican hierarchy more committed to the “effort of peace,” especially by supporting emerging victims groups lobbying the government for deeper police and judicial reforms, is high on Benedict’s agenda this weekend. (Some narcos have promised not to kill anyone during His Holiness’ stay in Mexico. Which of course just mean they’re giving themselves three days to reload. Memo: you’re still monsters.)

But even that can work against the PAN. If the Pope does make Mexico’s violence a prominent theme of his visit, it may only serve to remind Mexican voters why so many have moved away from Calderón and his party in the first place: the President’s bold but ill conceived military crusade against the drug cartels, which critics say has simply worsened the bloodshed. Other aspects of Benedict’s visit may also have the potential to alienate, including the fact that he won’t be stopping in Mexico City. The Vatican insists it’s because the metropolis’ altitude would be hard on the aging pontiff; but many speculate it’s because he’s displeased with the lead the city’s government, run for the past decade by the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), has taken in promoting reforms like gay marriage that defy church doctrine.

Either way, it’s a toss-up whether the Pope’s visit will help the PAN chip away at the lead of Enrique Peña Nieto, the presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico as a one-party dictatorship for 71 years until the PAN toppled it in the 2000 election. In the latest Mexican poll, Peña scored 33% compared to 22% for the PAN’s Vázquez and 14% for the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. All three plan to attend the Pope’s Sunday mass in the city Silao – but it’s Vázquez whose campaign will be praying hardest that Benedict’s Mexico sojourn confers political blessing instead of backlash.