“A Shepherd Must Tend His Flock”: Examining the Complications between Cartels and Catholicism

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  • As the Catholic Church in Mexico has had to face accusations of receiving cartel donations, the line between priests’ loyalty to the faithful and the clergy ignoring criminal activity has blurred.
  • The Vatican’s vision and proclamations are far different from the reality its priests and bishops experience on the ground in Mexico.
  • Often motivated by concern for their direct constituents and the scare tactics imposed by drug cartels, priests’ and bishops’ concerns often relate more to local issues than merely to hierarchical positions.
  • In the tradition of religious champions of the poor like Oscar Romero, it is imperative that church leaders take actions that serve the best interests of their communities and denounce the violence and hatred spread by drug cartels.

In the 1970s, grassroots movements seeking to instill principles of social justice, freedom for the oppressed, and equity under law through dogma and spirituality spread among Catholic priests, bishops, and laity throughout Latin America. While corrupt governments subjugated their meanest citizens, Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, O.P. and other theologians developed the watershed movement known as Liberation Theology.[1] As the movement gained momentum, spiritual figures like Archbishop Óscar Romero in El Salvador and Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J., former Father General of the Society of Jesus, began to define the religious identity of the region around three key philosophical pillars: political emancipation, liberation of the poor, and freedom from sin.[2] Liberation Theology called on religious affiliation and spiritual justification to ignite political and social change.[3] This called for a radical departure from traditional interactions between church and state, unsettling the ruling elites of the region and alienating the hierarchy of the church. These authorities viewed Liberation Theology as a threat to their command over society, as it empowered the poor to seek justice and liberty.

Today, however, priests in Latin America face a philosophical dilemma when attempting to uphold social justice. In Mexico, where over three-quarters of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholic, drug violence runs rampant. The church’s official response to this bloodshed has been largely neutral. While it has denounced the conflict between the government and the cartels, it has failed to initiate a faith-based movement either in opposition to or in support of the “war on drugs.” The Holy See seems detached from the conflict, issuing statements and condemnations, but doing little to combat the ever-increasing drug-related crimes committed against the faithful.[4]

 The Vatican has supported the Mexican government’s efforts to protect its citizens despite being slightly out of touch with ground-level struggles. Accusations resulting from this disconnect are regularly aimed at the Catholic Church in regards to many social and political issues, often with good reason. The criminal activity in Mexico relies on the fierce loyalty of the citizenry, as the cartels ravage villages with unremitting violence. In contradictory actions, the cartels provide financial contributions, which end up funding church-sponsored public works and community assistance. This presents a dilemma for a regional church whose concerns have traditionally resided with the plight of the citizen—the cartels’ finances may help the congregation, but their violence is woefully damaging. The Mexican government, whose policies have failed to alleviate the struggles of the citizenry, insists on pursuing a policy of direct combat that has placed the populace—the “body of Christ”—in a political, social, and military crossfire.

Facing the Financial Facts

Officially, the clergy and directorate of the church have endorsed President Felipe Calderón’s anti-cartel policies. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, has voiced his support for the drug war, and has insisted that the church’s role in curbing violence is limited, considering that “excommunication is a punishment that touches only those who have some form of ecclesiastical conscience.”[5] The church’s unwillingness to take a proactive, constructive position of real action has certainly not helped to alleviate the harsh conditions imposed on Mexican Catholics by the drug war.

Displeasure with the established church’s significant lack of real action has been exacerbated by suspected connections to the finances of drug cartels. In 2008, the President of the Mexican Bishop’s Conference Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes “acknowledged that the drug trafficking organizations…provided money for churches and other public works.”[6] Damien Cave of the New York Times described the situation: “Long dependent on gifts, but often less than discriminating about where they come from, the church is grappling with its role as thousands die in turf wars among rich, and sometimes generous, criminals.”[7] In an interview with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) in September, Mexico Expert and Professor at the College of William and Mary, George Grayson, recalled an instance of church funds originating from a narco-trafficker: Heriberto Lazcano, leader of the drug cartel Los Zetas, constructed a chapel in his mother’s village of Pachuca, Hidalgo. The community hung a plaque on the church, honoring Lazcano’s generosity.

Though some say these interactions reflect a sinister connection between Catholicism and cartels in Mexico, the cartel members’ desire to financially support churches may derive simply from the traditional significance of the Catholic Church in Mexican history. Priests occupy a special social sphere in Mexico, and because “cartels thrive when their respect within and control over communities is complete,” their contributions to faith are the result of a deep-rooted tradition of respect for clergy, an omnipresent faith throughout society, and a desire to win the approval of the community, if not through charity, then threats against the disloyal.[8]

Disconnect and Discrepancy within the Church

While the hierarchy has issued sweeping statements of both criticism of cartel violence and strident support for government action, many local church officials encounter difficult quandaries, as villages are plagued by violence initiated by both the authorities and the criminals. Consequently, there is a disconnect between the hierarchy’s calculated, political statements about the drug trade and the position of priests on the ground needing to make quick decisions in the face of conflict. Earlier this year, President Felipe Calderón called on Pope Benedict XVI, commenting: “let me extend the invitation of [the] Mexican people who are suffering a lot from the violence…they need you so much, more than ever. We are suffering.”[9] This sentiment is indicative of a popular mentality within Mexico. The Catholic Church’s response to the drug war has constituted broad statements issued from the top, but a lack of concerted action and difficult moral and ethical dilemmas faced by clergy on the front lines. Burton Kirkwood, in his book The History of Mexico, points out:

With the violence surrounding the drug cartels reaching explosive levels within the last several years in Mexico, the Mexican Catholic Church has been outspoken in its criticism of the violence and the drug trade, but the Catholic Church has found itself in an awkward position of having accepted funds from suspected drug cartel leaders.[10]

Despite these accusations, clerical involvement in the drug trade has remained the exception. The National Catholic Reporter insists “the church’s role in the war on drugs, historically, has always been a largely apolitical one: Dioceses have offered comfort to their constituents; the hierarchy has issued statements on security; and the church has largely stayed out of the fray.”[11] This tepidity is exactly what leaves many Mexicans wondering why their church refuses to stand up for its congregation.

Local Religious Authorities Taking a Stand

The Catholic Church’s hollow position on drug violence in Mexico may have its roots in a tradition of uninvolved, apolitical Mexican religious that dates back to the turn of the twentieth century. In 1992, restrictions dating from the early 1900s on the Catholic Church’s involvement in the public sphere were lifted, but revealed a still hesitant church depleted of funding and support.[12] Though extended more freedom and given the liberty to speak against the actions of the government, the church in Mexico was reluctant to become as politically active as other Catholic authorities in Latin America as it has been in the past. The increased influence of wealthy interests inspired the church to adopt a policy that revolved around the phrase, “Don’t get into politics.”[13] In the years since, the local church has become disillusioned with such passivity among the higher-ups, watching endless drug violence plague communities.

This absence of action was not uniform; many priests, bishops, and local church officials have used their social authority to speak out against the raging violence. Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, a prominent leader of the Mexican Catholic Church, was known for hearing the confessions of several drug traffickers, an action he justified as “a matter of conscience.”[14] He continued, “My work as a priest is one thing, but to act as an authority is another.”[15] Catholic priests are bound by divine order to keep any information obtained during confession strictly confidential. Ocampo saw his stewardship as truly catholic in nature—universal and impartial. As an agent of the church, he believed it was his responsibility to work with all believers, including criminals, to help them live a better life. Had Ocampo reported crimes to the authorities based on information obtained during confession, both the church in Rome and his constituents in Mexico would have almost certainly chastised him as a violator of the faith.[16] Ocampo’s eventual assassination in 1993 further reveals the impact local religious officials have. Though it can be debated whether he was killed intentionally or accidentally, Ocampo’s relationships with killers in an attempt to resolve conflict placed him in the line of fire—a position many higher-ups are unwilling to take.[17] It is this sort of action and immersion in the everyday problems, working to fundamentally change the mindset of cartels, that the church sometimes could takes in order for it to become a positive force for good in a violent environment.

Many priests and bishops at the local level do not cooperate with the pressures and influence of drug cartels, nor do they acknowledge the government’s dislike of religious activism. Several hundred priests in Mexico have received multiple death threats for their involvement in organizations defending human rights and deploring the actions of drug cartels.[18] Religious leaders maintain a strong position against the drug-related violence. Bishop Benjamín Jiménez Hernández harkened to the era of Liberation Theology when he passionately expressed, “We must fight for our faith, we must fight for our future…This heat we’re living in today, we must use our faith to conquer it.”[19]

Professor George Grayson recounted to COHA that his book Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State was dedicated to “two courageous Church leaders [Bishop José Raúl Vera López, O.P., and Archbishop Héctor González Martínez] who have continuously denounced the violence of the cartels and the errors in Calderón’s ‘War on Drugs.’” Grayson applauds their “readiness to condemn supposedly ‘untouchable’ criminals and their enablers” and their “inspirational commitment to uplifting the downtrodden.”[20] Local church authorities have assumed political positions and openly criticized both the government and church hierarchy. Archbishop Hector Gonzalez criticized the government’s impotent pursuit of notorious cartel leader Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán Loera by publicly stating, “He lives in the hills…everyone knows it, except the authority…he’s omnipresent.”[21] Raúl Vera, Bishop of Torreón, vigorously advocated a tougher stance against governors and mayors with corrupt ties to drug cartels.[22]

Therefore, priests in Mexico face a significant moral struggle. Rev. Robert Coogan, a native of Brooklyn who preaches and works at a parish in Saltillo, has encountered these difficult decisions firsthand. Coogan has seen Mexican priests argue, “Hey, the guy who owns the factory, he’s a bastard, but we take his money, so why not the drug money?”[23] While donations from drug cartels are dubious at best, money is, well, money—the perception remains that financial support should not be refused, as there are greater community needs. Today, the Catholic Church faces unprecedentedly low vocations and donations from the faithful, and any source of revenue that helps priests in developing countries aid their congregations is fully utilized. Consider also, these same funds could go to increasing violence; instead, they go to church renovations and choir practice. The church takes money away from the cartels while deploring their behavior and, in theory, working to convince them to end the violence. The hope remains that cartel donations do not imply a silent agreement between priests and narcos. Though it is hard to know for sure, one would hope that it is not commitment to these funds and their origins that drives priests, rather an avoidance of more unnecessary violence and an attempt to live up to the responsibilities of their sacred offices. Grayson observes “the church justifies its relations with the narco-barons on the grounds that these contacts may change criminals’ behavior and lead them to the path of glory. If not, members of the flock emerge with a church building whose roof doesn’t leak and schools that have desks.”[24]

In other words, accepting donations becomes increasingly advantageous to ground-level priests. The funds detract resources from those who initiate the violence, improve the condition of impoverished Catholic parishioners, and provide priests with an opportunity to live Jesus’ message. In addition, priests avoid angering the cartels with ostracism from the religious community by refusing their donations and embarrassing them within the community. In return for alms, the church only provides that which it offers everyone: a chance to atone for sins and achieve spiritual redemption. By encouraging sinners to turn away from a life of violence, they adhere to the words of John’s gospel: “I will certainly not reject anyone who comes to me.”[25] Theologically, therefore, it is logical to forgive criminals and work with them to change their ways. In the process, why not redirect their funds away from murder and instead to the obedient, honest faithful?

This position, however, is not lightly supported or acknowledged by priests on the ground in Mexico. It is important to keep in mind that the main motivation in accepting donations from drug cartels revolves around intimidation. Drug cartels are composed of professional bullies: their influence and power extend largely from their ability to inspire loyalty through fear. Priests are civilians too, and accepting a donation may be preferable to extraneous martyrdom. Nevertheless, an ethical impasse remains, and many would answer the question of accepting narco-alms with disdain. As an institution dedicated to service to the community and preservation of peace, any tolerance of drug cartels can be offensive, seen as granting church approval to cartel operations. One way or another, it could be said that money in the collection basket is better than money in cartels’ hands. The issue becomes more about principle than anything else: can the church still be an institution of peace if it accepts blood money?

Establishing a Truly “Catholic” Church

Peace, however, is not always the modus operandi of the Catholic Church. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are darker examples of church-condoned violence. The idea of “just war” and sponsorship of the oppressed have been standards of Catholic precedent. The Liberation Theologians often accepted violence as a means to advance justice for the poor and oppressed. They spoke of a “preferential option for the poor,” the belief that it is the church’s responsibility to provide for and defend the downtrodden among its faithful. In his final sermon before his assassination in 1980, Archbishop Romero inspired the Catholic community of El Salvador to stand together, clergy and laity, in opposition to injustice. The situation in Mexico amounts to a similar injustice.  As Romero once called upon priests in El Salvador, “It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination.” As conflict between the government and the cartels continues to despoil daily life in Mexico, the Catholic Church must show support for and faith in those people government authorities continue to abandon. By heeding the words of Oscar Romero, exerting the powerful cultural influence of Catholicism in Mexico, and addressing the ethical problems on the ground-level, the church may be able to prevent further bloodshed by working to reconcile the cartels and the government, two entities that rely on her for justification, redemption, and salvation.

Source: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

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