MEXICO CITY (CNS) — Archbishop Franco Coppola, the new apostolic nuncio to Mexico, presented his credentials to President Enrique Pena Nieto, then raised eyebrows with comments on his heavily Catholic host country.
“From afar, it’s known that there is a considerable rate of violence here in Mexico and this is not good,” the nuncio said after the Oct. 24 ceremony at the National Palace. “It is not possible that a country with a population so Catholic, so faithful, has a level of violence like this. That is why I will center my dialogue on this.”
The archbishop’s comments offered an uncomfortable reminder of the disconnect in Mexico between religiosity and social commitment in a country where 83 percent of the population professes the Catholic faith and yet corruption and violence are distressingly prevalent.
Corruption — not uncommon in a political class increasingly seeking the support of prelates — robs Mexico of an estimated 2 percent to 10 percent of its gross domestic product and hits the country’s poorest people the hardest, according to analyses of the problem.
Violence, meanwhile, has been carried out by cartel thugs who were baptized Catholic and sponsor patron saint feasts. The brutality has hit shockingly high levels as drug cartels dispute smuggling territories and carry out crimes such as kidnapping and extortion against ordinary people.
It’s a conundrum that church observers struggle to explain.
“Mexicans identify themselves as Catholic. But it does not necessarily mean that most Mexicans are practicing Catholics, who fully know and live the Gospel, or who follow — or even accept — in general terms church teaching,” said Pablo Mijangos Gonzalez, professor of history at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.
“For a majority of the population, to be Catholic means praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe and some favorite saints, attending church on social occasions (baptisms, weddings, funerals) and taking care of their families and loved ones. That’s about it,” he said.
Archbishop Coppola’s arrival in Mexico comes as the 10th anniversary of the crackdown on cartels and organized crime ordered by former President Felipe Calderon. It’s a conflict that has cost an estimated 150,000 lives and left more than 25,000 Mexicans missing.
“Violence is not inherent in the national character, but responds to specific processes, factors and circumstances,” Mijangos said, pointing to problems such as the strengthening cartels fueled in part by the continued demand for drugs in the United States and an inflow of illegal weapons.
Mexico’s church hierarchy has reacted somewhat timidly to the violence, often staying silent or preferring not to upset the local authorities or speak strongly because of security concerns.
It’s something Pope Francis addressed to bishops in Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral during his visit in February: that he wants priests to speak out stronger on the issue and to not “hide behind anodyne denunciations.”
“(The nuncio) was emphasizing what Pope Francis said in his messages during his trip to Mexico,” Rodolfo Soriano Nunez, a Catholic sociologist in Mexico City, said of the nuncio’s comments.
Mexico’s bishops have spoken out strongly in recent months on social matters, however. The bishops’ conference blessed pro-family marches organized by lay Catholics and evangelicals to oppose a proposal from Pena Nieto to enshrine same-sex marriage in the constitution.
Archbishop Coppola, who arrived in Mexico after serving as nuncio in the Central African Republic, opined that there should be “a Mexican way” on the issue. He later posted on his Facebook page comments made by Pope Francis as the pontiff returned from Azerbaijan, in which he said gay and transgender people deserve proper pastoral attention.
Some church observers interpreted the nuncio’s comments as a signal that he wanted to take a less confrontational approach on an issue that has mobilized conservative Catholics and has seen the president’s own party, which lost big in local elections, postpone any discussions in Congress on same-sex marriage.
“By quoting Francis, he is reinforcing the notion that he will prioritize Francis’ approach,” Soriano said. “He is not calling for war, legislative or otherwise.”