Our Lady of Guadalupe becomes point of contention in Mexican presidential debate

Claudia Sheinbaum Xóchitl Gálvez Mexico presidential candidates Claudia Sheinbaum (left) and Xóchitl Gálvez speak after the last presidential debate ahead the presidential election at Centro Cultural Tlatelolco on May 19, 2024, in Mexico City, Mexico. | Credit: Medios y Media/Getty Images

Our Lady of Guadalupe took center stage during the presidential debate in Mexico this week after candidate Xóchitl Gálvez accused her opponent, Claudia Sheinbaum, of “political opportunism” for wearing a skirt with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “even though you don’t believe in her or in God.”

Gálvez is running for president for the Fuerza y Corazón por México (Strength and Heart for Mexico) coalition — which brings together the political parties National Action Party (PAN), Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) — and Sheinbaum is running for the Sigamos Haciendo Historia (Let’s continue making history) alliance headed by Morena, the political party founded by the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Various surveys released in recent weeks in Mexico place Sheinbaum and Gálvez as the two leading candidates in the campaign for president. Trailing behind is Jorge Álvarez Máynez from the Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens’ Movement). The election will take place on June 2.

During the third presidential debate on May 19, when the topic of “Migration and Foreign Policy” was addressed, Gálvez made reference to a previous meeting that both candidates had at the Vatican with Pope Francis in February.

“We both had a meeting with the pope; did you tell His Holiness how you wore the Virgin of Guadalupe on a skirt, even though you do not believe in her or in God? Did you tell him that you destroyed a church when you were the Tlalpan borough president? You have every right to not believe in God, it’s a personal issue. What you do not have the right to do is use the faith of Mexicans as political opportunism. That’s hypocrisy,” Gálvez charged.

In response, Sheinbaum said Gálvez’s accusations were “an absolute provocation” to which she would not respond.

According to the Infobae portal, on May 5, 2022, Sheinbaum, then head of the Mexico City government, attended a popular celebration held in the Venustiano Carranza sector of the Mexican capital. During the event, she received gifts, including a skirt with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which she later wore during the celebrations in the streets.

As for tearing down a church, this accusation refers to the partial demolition of the Lord of Labor Chapel (a local devotion to Christ as the protector of workers and the unemployed) in the Mexico City sector of Tlalpan on April 29, 2016. Sheinbaum was then president of that neighborhood’s borough when, in what the authorities described as a “mistake,” government workers demolished part of the Catholic church.

What impact does faith have on elections?

Father Hugo Valdemar, who for 15 years was the communications director for the Primatial Archdiocese of Mexico, at the time led by Cardinal Norberto Rivera, spoke with ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, about the complex relationship between faith and politics in the context of the Mexican elections.

The priest explained that although “the element of faith is not a determining factor in the outcome of an election,” he noted that “it’s a sensitive issue, which can have negative effects on the candidates.”

“Public opinion does not approve of the Church intervening in politics and even less so in partisan politics, and the institutional Church is very careful not to cause division among the faithful due to partisan preferences,” Valdemar explained.

The priest attributed the “deep rupture between the people’s faith and political participation” to the religious persecution experienced in Mexico during the 1920s, which, in his words, turned the subject “into a real taboo.”

Conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Mexican state date back to the second half of the 19th century, but tensions reached a critical point with the promulgation of the 1917 Constitution, which was markedly anticlerical.

This constitution paved the way for the religious persecution that took place in Mexico in the 1920s under the regime of President Plutarco Elías Calles, which in turn sparked the Cristero War, with Catholics in various parts of the country taking up arms to defend themselves from government persecution. The conflict produced martyrs such as St. José Sánchez del Río, Jesuit Blessed Miguel Pro, Blessed Anacleto González, and St. Cristóbal Magallanes and Companions, among many more.

Although the Cristero War ended in mid-1929, the persecution lasted several more years. It would not be until 1992 that Mexico’s constitution was reformed and the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship was promulgated, which recognizes the legal status of the Catholic Church in the country.

The Mexican constitution allows Mexican priests to vote but prohibits ministers of worship from “proselytizing for or against any candidate, party, or political association.”

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Given this situation, Valdemar pointed out that “active and partisan” participation in politics is the responsibility of the laity and that it is through “formed laypeople” that “a positive influence can develop for politics that are more ethical and, why not, with Christian values.”

The Mexican priest said the country’s bishops “call for being aware of [the duty to] vote and participate. Likewise, the episcopate provides guidance from a moral perspective on values that are inalienable, such as the family, life from conception to its natural end, religious freedom, the right of parents to educate their children, and the common good, etc.”

“I think that in the dioceses that have organized workshops there can in fact be an influence on the vote,” he noted, although he lamented that “unfortunately there are few dioceses that have worked on” such initiatives.

Given the current political situation, Valdemar thinks that “the Church has failed miserably in the search for and formation of laypeople who will fight to make politics more decent, now so degraded and corrupted, and the formation of Catholic leaders who will make possible the integration of the social doctrine of the Church in public life.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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