Papal visits have long been momentous political and religious occasions in Mexico. They have been so ever since John Paul II made his triumphal 1979 visit into a virtual plebiscite on Mexico’s decaying one-party regime. The current upcoming papal trip, the first by a Latin American pope, is also generating frenzied expectation in Mexico.
But those expecting a papal showdown with the powers that be—at least with the obvious political candidates—will probably end up disappointed.
It is inevitable that Francis will touch upon some politically sensitive issues while setting out his vision for the Church for Mexico. Migration via both borders, narco-violence, and the marginalization of indigenous communities, among others, will all be discussed. But it is another question entirely as to how coded or explicit, hence how politically explosive, Francis’s public message will be.
If Francis is careful not to gift Mexican politicians too many opportunities to benefit from his visit by association—the invitation to address congress, as he did in the U.S., was quietly spurned—it is equally unlikely that he will antagonize the Mexican government by making direct political statements.
This, after all, is not just a Catholic country but one with a long and oftentimes vindictive anticlerical tradition, from which the Church escaped in law only recently in 1992.
Mexico’s Catholic hierarchy will also implore the Argentine pope to exercise caution in his public pronouncements so as not to jeopardize the pursuit of what it calls religious liberty—that is, the free expression of religious ideas in civil and political society, including the media.
It makes one wonder what diplomatic pressures lie behind Francis’s recent, clearly preemptive pronouncements that he comes as a messenger of peace, not to smite.
What people can expect is a more pragmatic approach in which the pope’s main criticisms fall on the Mexican Church’s distance from the disenfranchised and its inhibiting closeness to political power, rather than on power itself. Above all, Francis will desire to address the credibility problems of the Mexican Church by offering some symbolic but none too subtle lessons in humility and inclusivity.
The itinerary of Francis’s visit is unmistakably designed to take marginalized, even pariah, sectors of Mexican Catholicism into the mainstream and leave them there. In many ways, it is the obligatory visit to the national shrine, the Basilica of Guadalupe, that feels like the odd one out.
Everywhere else, Francis will be calling on the Church to be openly of and for the dispossessed, a Church of the poor not just a pious refuge or patriotic symbol.
In the migrant-filled city of Juárez, for example, Francis will celebrate an alfresco Mass right on the border. These days, that is a veritable Sermon on the Mount.
In the Pacific state of Michoacán—historically an orthodox Catholic bastion, but ravaged by cartel and militia violence in recent years—Francis will surely urge the Church to do more to dress the wounds of a state and a country that are traumatized by organized crime.
The most intriguing visit may be to the southern, heavily indigenous state of Chiapas and the diocese of San Cristóbal Las Casas. Here the Church has long been in Francis’s preferred image, and for just as long has been attacked for it by the government and by Rome. Now that Church, indigenous priesthood and all, will be center-stage.
So it is not just politicians who are feeling jittery about Francis’s visit or seeking to co-opt it: some princely figures in Mexico’s powerful Catholic hierarchy are also feeling decidedly nervous.
The cardinal archbishops of Morelia (in Michoacán) and Mexico have clashed in an unusually public spat over the latter’s description of Michoacán state as lawless, violent, and corrupt. While one conservative figure bids to outdo Francis on the eve of his visit, another protests.
In short, Francis’s visit will be remembered more as a pastoral than a political one, an attempt to reboot Mexican Catholicism in more socially committed terms. If he succeeds, that would represent a low-key but important triumph.
Matthew Butler is an associate professor of modern Mexican history and is also affiliated with the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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