Issue 10, August 2009
Roman Catholicism continues to be the dominant religion in Mexico today, at nearly 89%, though that percentage is starting to decline. Protestants make up the majority of the remaining religious groups, along with some Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Even though Catholicism is the dominant religion, religious life is complex, and is reflective of Mexico’s religious and historical past.
The Spanish brought Catholicism with them to the New World when they arrived as conquerors, and embarked on an aggressive push to convert indigenous populations. Missionaries made attempts to understand local culture, learn native dialects, and occasionally speak out against mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish. Since Catholicism shares elements of certain beliefs with indigenous religions – e.g., Aztecs and Catholics both believed in fasting, pilgrimages, and the idea of a divine mother figure – missionaries were able to capitalize on these similarities when converting the population; missionaries even incorporated some indigenous traditions into Catholic practice, such as allowing worship to take place at indigenous religious sites and on Aztec religious dates.
Church leaders in the new colony were given broad political power and were major land owners. A prominent example of the Church as part of the colonial structure was the creation of encomiendas (which later evolved into the hacienda system), under which the peninsulares were granted land and the authority to manage those living on that land, as long as they collected tributes and ensured that Indians living on their lands converted. The close connection between church and state led revolutionaries in the early 20th Century to push for provisions in the 1917 Constitution which would strip the Church of significant political influence. These included restricting religious schools, and preventing the Church from owning property. Overall these restrictions have been a part of the modernization of Mexico’s political and economic structures in the last century, though the Church still wields considerable influence on society.
One of the most significant controversies surrounding the Catholic Church in Mexico today regards abortion and family planning. Artificial birth control and abortion are prohibited by the Catholic Church; these prohibitions have serious societal and economic repercussions. In 1972 the Church called for reduced family size, and has promoted family planning clinics and education programs. Abortion continues to be allowed only in cases of rape, health conditions, or fetal defects, except in Mexico City, where it was legalized in 2005.
Today the Catholic Church is beginning to speak out more on social and economic issues, and in fact sided with the Zapatistas in their recent social and economic struggles. In societal terms, the Church continues to function in many ways as the glue that ties together the many disparate peoples of Mexico, and provides a unifying connection in community and family life.