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MEXICO: Vatican Incomprehension Stymies Pastoral Plan in Chiapas
MEXICO CITY -- Felipe Arizmendi, the Catholic bishop of the southern Mexican diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, birthplace of the indigenous Zapatista guerrillas, claims that the Vatican, which has imposed restrictions on him, does not understand his pastoral plans or the particular characteristics of his mainly indigenous flock.

Mayan women in San Christobal de las Casas, Mexico. Photography by Bill Bell.

"I regret the misunderstanding with the Pope, but we shall insist on clarifying that we are not promoting an autonomous church here, but an autochthonous (authentically inculturated) one, as fully accepted by the Second Vatican Council," the bishop said in an interview with IPS.

According to Catholic Church authorities in Rome, there are "ideological" problems in this diocese in the Mexican state of Chiapas, as their understanding is that an autonomous church is being encouraged. On these grounds, the Vatican recently reiterated its 2001 ban against Arizmendi ordaining new indigenous deacons.

"We have already explained our plans several times, and have made changes to them, but they do not understand us. We shall continue to plead our case, although I know that the distance and the different realities do not favour good communication," said the bishop by telephone from his offices in the colonial-era city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

A letter sent to Arizmendi by the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Francis Arinze, was published in the latest issue of Notitiae, the official bulletin of the Congregation. It said that the diocese of San Cristóbal`s plans contained "grave doctrinal and pastoral ambiguities" that should be corrected.

Among these ambiguities, the letter said, was the implied intention of allowing the ordination of married indigenous deacons, a claim that Arizmendi denies.

As a prelate he "fully supported" celibacy for those who wish to be priests, Arizmendi stated.

"I went to the Vatican in October and explained my position. But if they sometimes don`t understand us in Mexico City, imagine what can happen at the Vatican," he said.

Arizmendi has been bishop of San Cristóbal since May 2000, when he succeeded Samuel Ruiz, whom the Vatican also criticised repeatedly for his liberation theology tendencies. Ruiz was dubbed the "red bishop" by local ranchers.

Arizmendi, who constantly speaks out against poverty and the human rights violations suffered by indigenous people, and is also critical of the present political system, said he would continue to pursue approval of his pastoral plans.

What the bishop basically wants is for the Vatican to lift its ban on ordaining more indigenous deacons. "We have 330, but many are old and sick and unable to support the Church, so I hope we can ordain another 200 or more, which is what we need," he said.

The diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas is spread over an area of 37,000 square kilometres in Mexico`s poorest state, and has a population of 1.5 million, the great majority of whom are indigenous people.

"For this whole area, where roads are bad or non-existent, we only have 330 deacons, 84 priests and 8,000 catechists, which is obviously insufficient," the bishop said.

In February 2001, the Vatican ordered the suspension of ordinations of indigenous people on the grounds that those already ordained appeared to lack "solid and balanced" training.

Deacons are ordained church ministers one step below priests. They can assist at religious sacraments and carry out missionary work in the name of the Catholic Church. Unlike priests, they may be married, in which case they remain as permanent deacons, that is, without the option to go on to be ordained as priests.

Religious expert and columnist Bernando Barranco said that the Vatican`s mistrust about possible links between sectors of the clergy and the insurgent Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) may lie behind the ban, as well as the pro-indigenous rights policies that the Church has applied for 50 years in the San Cristóbal diocese.

Several indigenous former catechists and missionaries are known to belong to the leadership of the EZLN, which took up arms in the state of Chiapas in January 1994, only to lay them down a week later to become a non-violent group advocating political change and indigenous rights in Mexico.

Bishop Ruiz, who was in charge of the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas for 40 years until he reached mandatory retirement age, promoted the training of indigenous deacons and priests, following the principles of the "Autochthonous Church" called for by the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (Vatican II), the conclave carried out in 1962-1965 which revolutionised Catholicism.

Ruiz`s work encouraged indigenous social organisation and their demands for better living conditions. The Zapatistas built on this legacy for their armed uprising, against express opposition from the San Cristóbal diocese.

Advisers of the late Pope John Paul II who had questioned Ruiz`s work decided to put an end to the ordination of indigenous deacons in order to "normalise religious life" in San Cristóbal. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the same attitude has prevailed.

Arizmendi, who has continued along the same theological lines as Ruiz, is still requesting that the prohibition against ordaining deacons should be lifted. In Chiapas, deacons are nominated by the indigenous communities, although the bishop has the final word.

The number of deacons in San Cristóbal de las Casas is the highest among Mexico`s Catholic dioceses, and the Vatican considers it to be excessive.

According to Arizmendi, this opinion stems from a lack of knowledge of the reality of his dioceses, where many indigenous communities are isolated from urban centres and from roads.

The bishop stated that the rapid growth of "other (Protestant) religious denominations" among the indigenous peoples of Chiapas is due to the shortfall of Catholic Church ministers, including deacons.

Diego Cevallos, IPS




Updated 30.01.2007
Published by: Magne Ove Varsi