[Note: I've been creeping up to and running from the topic of Catholicism and religion in Mexico for quite some time, trying to get it right and, probably, in the process, digging myself into a hole. I finally decided that I would start with some very basic facts (see below) and then move on to look R Catholicism in the lives of the characters in Carlos Fuentes's book, Las Buenas Conciencias. And then on May 15th, ten days ago, Carlos Fuentes, died. He wasn't young, and I didn't know him personally, but it seemed like a personal loss. I was introduced to Fuentes's work in maybe 2000 during literature classes at UNAM-San Antonio. His cosmopolitanism, which included much familiarity with the US probably had something to do with his accessibility for all of us there. He also came to speak at the University of Texas-San Antonio and talked about his education as a youngster in Washington, DC in a school where children of diplomats from many countries were students. He talked about how one teacher made a point of having the students talk about their various countries and traditions. He felt this had a good effect on all of them. Mexican he was, but also a citizen of the world who could lead his readers across boundaries of culture and belief and could reveal the souls, the animas of all kinds of human beings. He wrote not simply with passion, but could convey in a few words a panoply of color and emotion: could, sentence after sentence, build complex images and stories that wove together the love and cruelty, the pain and selfishness and bravery of human beings. He was a truly great writer.
And I want to add that my very good friend Carole Stivers took that course with me. I miss her a very great deal. She died last spring.
Not too long ago I wrote about everyday Mexican Catholicism as I saw it here where we live. Even though we have good Mexican friends and have shared much with a few of them, there are many Mexicos, and of course, many ways of being Mexican. And each Mexican, as is each human being, is a world unto himself.
I have mentioned before that when I was in my Master's Degree program in social work, our final and best course in family therapy (in anything at the school, really) was given by Arthur Mandelbaum, a visiting professor from the Menninger Clinic. Instead of urging more academic tomes on us, he urged us to read novels. GOOD novels by authors who were captivated by and could portray the intricacies and intimacies and depth of human beings and their relationships. He said that none of us could learn well the variety of people and cultures we would come in contact with from either personal experience or from research findings. We could come much closer through novels.
So here I will give you some statistics on Mexican religion, and then I will go on to the main topic to prove Mandelbaum's point at the same time I want to give you a flavor of a Catholicism that existed in one time and place. Most of this comes from a Wikipedia article, but there are many, many resources available, should you wish to pursue them.
You may be surprised to learn that Mexico does not have an official religion -- no, Catholicism is not an official religion. The Constitution of 1917, adopted during the Mexican Revolution, was the strong start of the separation of church and state. While Christmas and Easter and Good Friday are national holidays and schools take vacations for them, that's about it for government participation. In 1992, religions were offered more freedom to do certain things: own some property, have more priests, let priests have the right to vote. My first awareness of the sanctity of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, came while we lived in San Antonio. Rich Mexicans arrived in droves to shop in the fancy malls. After moving here to Mexico, we realized that for many, Semana Santa could loosely be translated as "time to head for the beach".
82.7% of Mexicans claim to be Roman Catholics. This is down from 96% in 1970.
About 9% of the population is Protestant. Major sects include Jehovah´s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Church of Latter Day Saints. The largest group are Pentecostals and Charismatics (Neo-Pentecostals). There are also Anglicans (of which I am sort of one -- a kind of half-hearted US Episcopalian).
Then there is La Luz del Mundo -- The Light of the World, a Mexican-born Charismatic Christian movement. There are churches here in Xalapa, Coatepec and Xico. They are recognizable by the sort of flamelike symbol atop the steeple. I find it interesting that women are definitely not equal to men in the heirarchy or roles of the church. Furthermore, they are not permitted to wear pants or makeup Men and women are separated during services, etc. It has a strict, not to say rigid, moral order on the one hand, and has been accused of exploiting and violating women on the other. It is apparently growing rapidly and claims more than a million members in Mexico. It is growing not only southward in Latin America, but also northward, with a large number of participants in Houston. http://houstonhistorymagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/la-luz.pdf gives a good description of the church in general and in Houston in particular. La Luz del Mundo claims more members than any church in Mexico outside the Catholic Church.
There are also Jews (since 1521), Muslims, Buddhists, and members of the Bahá'i faith.
As I've suggested before, Catholicism is woven in many ways into much of the culture and history of Mexico. However, according to the Wikipedia article, the number of irreligious and atheist citizens is growing faster than the number of Catholics: 5.2% a year vs. 1.7% a year. Many irreligious citizens are still counted as Catholic, and many still maintain ties of a cultural and spiritual sort with the faith, but church attendance is definitely down. Where attending daily mass used to be the norm, at least in some parts of Mexico, it is now down to about 3% (Wikipedia again) and only 44% attend church weekly, or claim to. Churches especially in cities can appear largely empty on ordinary Sundays, but huge numbers of people still participate in days like Los Dias de los Muertos and other religious festivals.
It appears that the spectrum of religious practice is broadening, with the extremes of protestant pentacostalism and atheism stretching it out. But it is extremely important to remember that there are always, always, elements of syncretism, especially in poorer and more rural areas. In fact, there are still areas where fairly pure indigenous religions are followed.
Next post, I will give a bit of background on Guanajuato, the city, and after that move into Las Buenas Consciencias.