Sunday, June 26, 2005

Religion, Politics, and Football

While the football (soccer) national teams of Mexico and Argentina were playing a delightful semifinal of the Confederations Cup at Hanover, Germany, the newspapers of both countries were reporting, among many other things, of a couple of messages released by the Catholic bishops of both countries.

Both messages deal with politics in their countries and, more important, both put forward severe critiques of the performance of the political parties in both Argentina and Mexico.

In Argentina, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, the archbishop-cardinal of Buenos Aires, one of the few Latin American members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuitas, promoted by John Paul II to become bishops and, even more, to become archbishop and cardinal during his long pontificate, issued a lengthy message (28 pages) in which he criticizes the performance of political leaders in his country stressing the negative role that political struggles have had for the development of democracy in Argentina.

The cardinal stresses the negative role of political struggles within the context of the forthcoming primary elections in Argentina. La Nación, a distant equivalent of The New York Times in Argentine journalism, endorsed Bergoglio’s critique of the politicos’ performance with extensive front page coverage. Moreover, La Nación quotes Bergoglio’s as saying that “political struggles are the great illness of Argentina.”

The second paragraph of La Nación’s note is a full quote of Bergoglio’s message stressing how: “while various interests play their game, afar from the needs of all, it is possible to see in the horizon the shadow of a cloud of social disarray.”

However, and this is relevant to understand the role and the aims of the Church in Latin American countries, Bergoglio’s document displays a broad and sound diagnosis of the situation in contemporary Argentina, the sources of the conflicts, and—more important—it offers a enlightening interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan as an image to try build a solution for the conundrum of contemporary Argentinean politics.

Interestingly enough, La Nación—a newspaper that can hardly be identified as Catholic—provides a link to download the full message from Cardinal Bergoglio.

As far as Mexico is concerned, Terra, a pan-Latin American web-based service quotes the auxiliary bishop of Mexico City Felipe Tejeda who criticized the primary elections of the presidential candidates saying that the “expenses associated (with such elections) are scandalous and useless.” Here is necessary to stress that the ruling National Action Party (Christian democrat right-to-center) alone has authorized expenses of 350 million pesos (34 million U.S. dollars) for each of its four presidential hopefuls. It is not clear yet how much will the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI, social democrat) will authorize its pre-candidates to spend.

The “leftist” Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has not set a limit, but one of its most likely candidates, Mexico City’s mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador benefits from the huge budgets of the public relations and media areas of the City’s local government.

Moreover, once the candidates are nominated by the parties, the Electoral Federal Institute (IFE) will allocate federal public monies, plus time in the national, and regional TV and radio networks, plus the monies that the parties will get from the local governments in states (like Nuevo León or the Federal District) where on top of the federal election, local elections happen simultaneously, plus marginal private contributions that the parties and candidates could raise for up to a ten percent of the total public contributions to their campaigns.

These sums will be pre-set by the IFE by September 2005. Then the Secretary of the Treasury (Hacienda) will incorporate such request in the National Budgets that will present some time between the end of September and the end of October 2006, waiting for approval by Mexico’s lower chamber (Cámara de Diputados).

The Church is not the first, and will hardly be the last to criticize how much money the Mexican parties get from the Treasury. In Argentina, the Church’s criticism of the politicos’ behavior is a concern shared by many other political actors in that country. What is relevant, however, is the fact that the Church enjoys in both countries and all over Latin America great levels of trust and public support. However, it is not clear what will the Church make out of such trust when confronting increasingly complex, impoverished, and fractured societies.

Criticizing the expenditure in political struggles is a rather easy task. What is necessary now is to confront the challenge to become an efficient political actor to promote agreements and reforms in countries in great need of them. It could be possible for the Church to perform that important role, although it is clear that it will be necessary to improve its ability to facilitate the dialogue without seeking to push forward its own institutional agenda.

That is easier in Mexico, where the Church does not receive and is not asking for public subsidies. In Argentina, because of the agreements signed during the 1960s (civil governments), ratified by the military rulers of the 1970s and Mr. Menem's democratically elected governments is harder. Mostly, because for the Church there is always the risk of opening a debate that could make them loose more than they could get, especially in the topic of religious education.

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