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Mexico: Church-State Relations
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Religion > Church-State Relations


The Roman Catholic Church's role in Mexican history goes back to 1519. When Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of New Spain, landed on the coast of Mexico, he was accompanied by Roman Catholic clergy. All new Spanish territories were to be conquered in the name of the cross as well as the crown. Since those early days, the Roman Catholic Church has always been present, playing different roles, some of which have led to violent confrontations.

The history of the relationship between church and state following independence involves a series of efforts on the part of the government to curtail the church's influence. Nineteenth-century liberals, trained in the law and influenced by the French Revolution, were anticlerical. Liberals, who also were federalist and favored free competition, were highly concerned that the Roman Catholic Church, by owning between one-quarter and one-half of the land and by controlling most schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions, was practically a state within the Mexican state.

Between 1833 and the early 1840s, the Mexican government produced various pieces of legislation to limit the power of the church. In 1833 the government adopted several anticlerical measures, including one providing for the secularization of education and another declaring that the payment of the ecclesiastical tithe was not a civil obligation.

The first major confrontation between the church and the state occurred during the presidency of Benito Juárez (1855-72). The 1855 Juárez Law drastically reduced traditional ecclesiastical privileges. On March 11, 1857, a new constitution was adopted that denied all ecclesiastical entities the right to own real estate and abolished most remaining ecclesiastical privileges. On July 12, 1857, Juárez confiscated all church properties, suppressed all religious orders, and empowered the state governors to designate what buildings could be used for religious services. Mexico's first religious civil war was fought between 1857 and 1860 in reaction to the legislation.

The constitution of 1917 highlighted and institutionalized many of the nineteenth-century secular reforms. The new constitution included at least five articles that affected all religious groups, regardless of denomination. These articles, which remained in effect until 1992, appeared to preclude any national role for the Roman Catholic Church. Article 3 forbade churches from participating in primary and secondary education. Article 5 prohibited the establishment of religious orders. Article 24 mandated that all religious ceremonies occur within church buildings. Article 27 gave the state ownership of all church buildings.

Article 130 contained the most extensive restrictions on the Roman Catholic Church. The article stated that the Roman Catholic Church lacks legal status; ecclesiastical marriages have no legal standing; state legislatures can determine the maximum number of clergy operating within their boundaries; and operation of church buildings requires explicit government authorization. Among the most contentious provisions of Article 130 was Section 9: "Neither in public nor private assembly, nor in acts of worship or religious propaganda shall the ministers of the religions ever have the right to criticize the basic laws of the country, of the authorities in particular or of the government in general; they shall have neither an active nor passive vote, nor the right to associate for political purposes."

Beginning in 1926 and continuing until the late 1930s, various federal and state administrations strenuously enforced these constitutional edicts and related laws. Their actions paved the way for the second Mexican religious war, the bloody Cristero Rebellion of 1926-29 in western Mexico. During this period, the governor of Sonora ordered all churches closed, officials in the state of Tabasco required priests to marry if they were to officiate at mass, and the Chihuahua government allowed only one priest to minister to the entire statewide Roman Catholic population.

Church-state conflict officially ended with the administration of Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-46). With the notable exception of Article 130, Section 9, the government tacitly offered nonenforcement of key constitutional provisions in exchange for the Roman Catholic Church's cooperation in achieving social peace. Over the next four decades, enforcement of Article 130, Section 9, served the interests of both the government and the Roman Catholic Church. The constitutional restriction on ecclesiastical political participation enabled the state to limit the activities of a powerful competitor. It also permitted the Roman Catholic Church to sidestep controversial political issues and to concentrate on rebuilding its ecclesiastical structure and presence throughout the country.

By the early 1980s, however, this unspoken consensus supporting the legal status quo had eroded. The Roman Catholic Church regarded the constitution's anticlerical provisions, especially those governing ecclesiastical political activity, as anachronistic. It demanded the right to play a much more visible role in national affairs. At the same time, the church became increasingly outspoken in its criticism of government corruption. The Mexican bishops' Global Pastoral Plan for 1980-1982, for example, contained a highly critical assessment of the Mexican political system. According to the Roman Catholic hierarchy, democracy existed only in theory in Mexico. The ruling PRI monopolized power, producing apathy and frustration among citizens and judicial corruption. The principal worker and peasant unions were subject to political control. Peasants and Indians constituted an exploited, marginalized mass barely living at a subsistence level and subject to continual repression. During the mid-1980s, the bishops of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez assumed prominent roles in denouncing electoral fraud in northern Mexico. In the south, the bishops of San Cristóbal de las Casas and Tehuantepec frequently accused the government of human rights violations.

The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has emphasized that its renewed interest in political affairs does not equate with church involvement in party activities. According to the Mexican episcopate, priests should be above all political parties and may not become political leaders. However, the church hierarchy also argues that priests have a moral responsibility to denounce actions that violate Christian morality.

The Salinas administration's 1991 proposal to remove all constitutional restrictions on the Roman Catholic Church, recommendations approved by the legislature the following year, allowed for a more realistic church-state relationship. At the same time, however, tensions remained in the relationship, particularly in southern Mexico in general and in Chiapas in particular. Local government and PRI officials and ranchers accused the Bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas of having supported the rebellion that began in Chiapas in 1994, a charge that the bishop denied. Federal soldiers repeatedly searched diocesan churches in their pursuit of the rebels. The government also expelled foreign clergy who were accused of inciting violence and land seizures. In addition, the Vatican accused the San Cristóbal prelate of theological and pastoral distortions and named a coadjutor (successor) bishop for the diocese in the mid-1990s. For their part, the rebels insisted that the bishop continue to serve as mediator in their negotiations with the federal government.

Last Updated: June 1996

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Mexico was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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