MEXICO CITY—Banner Headline: The Church “not only can, but should” participate in politics, Archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City said in a recent Sunday homily at the Mexican capital's Metropolitan Cathedral. “When public authority abandons the legal framework from which it can and should govern, there is no obligation to uphold it.”

In Mexico, where the Church has been marginalized from public life by anti-clerical laws for nearly two centuries, the statement was a bombshell. The archbishop— who heads the largest archdiocese in the world, with more than 14 million Catholics—provoked a furious debate. It seemed everyone in Mexico, where 90 percent of the population is Catholic, had something to say—high government officials, lawyers, congressman, political parties, freemason organizations, Catholic associations, bishops, intellectuals and even the president himself.

The Ministry of the Interior set off a firestorm when it notified the archbishop through an official communiquÈ that he had violated the law. Should such an incident recur, the message warned, the government would impose severe penalties on the Church, including a fine equivalent to 20,000 days of the minimum wage, the closing of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Mexico City See's loss of legal status as a religious association.

The Church has plenty of critics of its emerging role in public, but most commentators agreed that the government's reaction was exaggerated. CuauhtÈmoc C·rdenas, leader of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, for example, said: “I want to know who would have the guts to go and close the Metropolitan Cathedral,” alluding to the public outcry such a move would provoke. Heberto Castillo, another left-of-center leader, called the government official responsible for the reprimand as a “mental dullard.” One commentator, Ernesto Julio Teissier, said that “the possibility of the Metropolitan Cathedral being closed as if it were a little candy shop on the street corner, and the legal registry of the archdiocese canceled as if it were a driver's license, seems foolish and reckless.”

Other observers insist that the prelate's comments were legitimate. “Archbishop Rivera not only did not violate the law in his homily, but his statements are in consonance with the constitutional precepts that oblige the Government to adhere its behavior to the juridical framework,” said Jose Luis Soberanes, director of the Institute of Juridical Research of the main national university, the UNAM.

The government's rebuke of Archbishop Rivera provoked bitter memories of the anti-Catholic persecutions that have marked the history of Mexico in the past two centuries. Jean Meyer, author of The Cristero War, a classic on the armed popular Catholic movement of the 1926-1929 period, said that the government response to the homily came “in an old fashioned language that takes us back to a past everyone thought had ended.” Alfredo Altamirano, head of the centrist PAN Party, spoke about the “return of the dinosaurs” to power in the Mexican government, as he referred to the political recovery of the old hard-liners (the duros) of the governing party (PRI), often associated with freemasonry.

The controversy over the prelate's statements died down as it became clear that he had been quoted out of context. Archbishop Rivera's sermon had also defended civil government's legitimate authority and autonomy. He said the Catholic Church's role in politics is “to remind Christians and the general public that they ought to obey and respect government … when it seeks the common good.” He also cited Jesus' mandate to “‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar's’ and to respect and obey just laws and legitimate authority. However, his suggestion that “the Church must remind the state that legislative authority is conditioned by the obligation to respect human rights, and that the state can never [legislate] in opposition to God's law”—was enough to unsettle a government already on edge as it is confronted with seemingly intractable political and economic problems.

But Church officials affirmed that the Church has always adhered to the right— and obligation—to enlighten the moral conscience of the Catholic faithful with respect to the temporal order. Pope John Paul II most recently reiterated that point in citing St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: “Human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law. But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence.”

In an Oct. 24 interview in the Mexico City daily La Prensa, Archbishop Rivera further clarified his views and noted that canon law explicitly prohibits members of the clergy from “participating in partisan politics. For no reason can the Church become involved in partisan politics,” he said, although “it can be active when being involved in politics means working for the common good.”

Public calm was restored thanks to the intervention of President Ernesto Zedillo and the retraction of the threat issued by the Interior Ministry. On Oct. 25 Rafael Rodriguez, assistant secretary for the government's bureau of legal affairs, simply said that “relations between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church are excellent.”

Ricardo Olvera is based in Tijuana, Mexico.