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Bishops refuse to be pawns…

6 March 2007

When Don Samuel, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Crisobal, Chiapas retired, it was assumed his co-adjuntor, Bishop Raul Vera would replace him. 

Don Samuel, sometimes known as “the Red Bishop” managed to annoy the Vatican and the Mexican government with his insistance that the Church be on the side of the people… his people being the Mayan Indians.  He was one of the last of the Liberation Theologians (who insisted they had the right to use social and economic analysis as tools for developing religious teachings, and who see Jesus as “liberator of the poor”) that had been around since the 1930s, but in Latin America was especially associated with the documents and actions taken by Bishops who attended a church conference in in Medellin, Colombia in 1968. 

In the tradition of the first bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas (America’s first investigative reporter, and the inventor of actuary sciences, las Casas used statistical data to discover what happened to economically exploited people.  They died.  And he wrote about it.  And sent his finding to the Pope), Ruiz, too,  took the “Indian” side in the 500 year old conflict between the Mayans and their economic overlords.  As Bishop, Las Casas unleased the Spanish Inquisition on abusive landlords.  Ruiz doesn’t have that kind of power, and the Mexican Revolution swept away the old haciendas, but abuse of the Mayans by the financial powers in the region (and, in the NAFTA era, by outsiders as well) continues to this day.  Speaking, writing, and making Church-connected resources (lawyers, agronomists, meeting halls, etc.) obviously didn’t endear the Bishop to the local powers-that-be.

John-Paul II, coming to the Papacy in 1978, though thought to be fairly “liberal” as Popes go, saw Liberation Theology as a serious threat.  Having spent much of his career fighting Communists in his native Poland, the Pope was determined to stamp out what he saw as “Marxist influence” in the Church. 

In 1993, two constitutional changes in Mexico upped the pressure.  The ejitals — the traditional collective farms that had been made given a legal basis and became self-governing communities after the Revolution — were decollectived and turned into agrian co-ops with individual owners.  Indebted farmers were forced to sell off property to outsiders.  Secondly, the Consitution changed the Church-State relationship, paving the way for direct Vatican control over their Mexican clerics. 

After Don Samuel went too far... both in the eyes of the pro-NAFTA Salinas Administration and in John-Paull II’s anti-Marxist worldview … when he openly backed the Zapatistas after they erupted on the scene in San Crisobal in October 1994.  However, given that the Zapatistas could trust Don Samuel, and his status as a high-ranking cleric made him acceptable to the conservatives, and because the Government really had no choice, the Bishop was the chief negotiator for ending the uprising and for developing the San Andreas Accords, which were added to the Mexican Consititution to legitimize the rights of Indigenous Communities. 

[Personally, I disagree with the Accords. They recognize indigenous persons as members of communities, rather than as independent citizens, which seems to give some citizens more autonomy than others]

Ruiz had been forced to name a “conservative” coadjunctor (assistant Bishop), Raul Vera in 1997.  To everyone’s suprise, and to the delight of some, the conservative Vera converted (if that’s the right word to use) to Ruiz’ position.  He condemned the Mexican state for violence in Acteal (where 45 indigenous protesters were killed) and embarassed the Mexican government during a speech to his fellow priests in Spain.

The Vatican, meanwhile, hoping to strengthen its still new diplomatic ties with the Republic, used a murky theological dispute to force Ruiz and Vera out of their posts in Chiapas.  It’s common among the Mayans for wives to share the dignity of their husband’s offices.  In Chaipas, where there has been a shortage of priests for centuries, deacons — a low ranking cleric, who can perform some of the offices of the celebate (and rare) priests — stand in for priests in many communities. 

It was unclear at the time whether the Bishops could ordain deacons — AND THEIR WIVES — as co-deacons (a uniquely local position), but the two bishops did.  However, Ruiz was 75 years old, which meant the Church could ask for his retirement, thus avoiding a public scandal over the matter.    Now in his 80s, as “Emeritus Bishop” and shunted off the clerical stage, he is free to act as a negotiator in political/social disputes, write and otherwise make a nuisance of himself… the Zapatistas sometimes refer to him as “Comandante Samuel.” 

Church protocol, and 500 years of Chiapas precedent, would have meant Raul Vera would become the new presiding bishop.  Over both Mayan and international protests, however, Vera was transferred to the northern (and more orthodox, conservatively Catholic) diocese of Saltillo.   In the northern city (about 4 hours from Laredo, Texas) it was “assumed” the Bishop could do no harm.  Or much of anything.

At the invitation of the Bishop of Oaxaca, Vega showed up to negotiate for the APPO earlier this summer.  Somewhat insulated from the Vatican (he is a Dominican priest, who answers to his own order’s Latin American superior, who in turn answers to a world-wide superior, who answers to the Pope.  And his order has a long tradition of doing things their own way, and of relative independence), Vera still ministers to HIS people. 

His people are now the disenfranchized of Coahuila… and beyond.  In Lima Peru, where he was attending a Dominican conference, he attacked neo-liberalism and globalization, as reported by Barbara J. Fraser of Catholic News Service:   

From his vantage point 170 miles south of the U.S. border, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, Mexico, sees the people who pass through his diocese on their way to seek work in the United States as testimony to decades of failed economic policy in Latin America.The migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and places like the southern Mexican region of Chiapas, where the bishop worked in the 1990s, are victims of “a deliberately exclusive economy that makes an option for big business and excludes everyone else,” he said.“It is no longer a matter of marginalizing them — it’s exclusion,” he said.Despite decades of loans and economic adjustment packages — and more recently economic growth — more than 40 percent of Latin Americans still live in poverty.“A new president can take office with great promises and plans but be unable to fulfill them because of the terrible conditions imposed by the global economy and requirements that macroeconomic figures be kept at a certain level,” he said. “This means favoring capital growth and generally neglecting social responsibilities.”In that sense, he said, the region has changed little — and for the worse — since the second general conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, when the region’s church leaders declared their “preferential option for the poor.”

Latin America today is “in a political and social situation even worse than the one that existed at the time of Medellin,” Bishop Vera said.

The State Legislature of Coahuila, meeting within sight of the Cathedral, shocked everyone when it enacted a “Civil Unions” bill that legalized same-sex relationships.  The bill came in “under the radar” and no one expected it to pass in a conservative, “Catholic” State.  But then, Conservative Catholics usually don’t have radical Bishops:

While Vera insists that “two women or two men cannot get married,” he also sees gays as a vulnerable minority.“We cannot be arch-conservatives and say, ‘Don’t do that,’ ” Vera said. “Today we live in a society that is composed in a different way. There are people who do not want to marry under the law or in the church. They need legal protection. I should not abandon these people.”

Vera’s stance outrages conservatives.

“We are dealing a death blow to the family,” said Esther Quintana, state president of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

Nope, Esther… only the old guard. Like most writers on Mexico, I’ve adopted the anti-clerical tradition. But, within the anti-clerical tradition, there’s the anti-anti-clerical tradition that cheers on the 500 years of radical Chiapas bishops.

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