e-mail us
Bishop’s transfer protects interests of powerful

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cuernavaca, Mexico

Siding with the poor in Chiapas, Mexico, always demands a heavy price. But when late last year the wealthy landowners of Chiapas successfully conspired with the Mexican government and others to have the Vatican remove Chiapas coadjutor Bishop Raúl Vera López, the local power brokers had significant historic precedent.

Four centuries earlier, their predecessors, equally wealthy landowners and powerful military men, forced Chiapas Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas to depart for Europe. De Las Casas, the 16th century advocate for the indigenous people, was, among other things, instructing his priests to withhold absolution in confession from slaveholders or from Spaniards who refused to return land or goods they had stolen from the Indians.

Vera López, who was to succeed retiring Bishop Samuel Ruiz García as bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas -- once Pope John Paul II formally accepts Ruiz’s resignation -- was instead named by the Vatican to the Saltillo diocese in northeastern Mexico.

The Mexican pressure on the Vatican, according to accounts in the Mexican press, has come from several sources, including visits to Rome by conservative senior Catholic hierarchs and Mexican government officials, often speaking sotto voce for Mexican business interests.

In Rome, Mexicans such as Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iñiguez, and Yucatán Archbishop Emilio Berlié Belaunzarán and Bishop Onésimo Cepeda Silva of Ecatepec, known for publicly blessing soldiers’ weapons, reportedly all spoke into the receptive ears of Archbishop Girolamo Prigione. Until his 1998 retirement, Prigione was papal nuncio in Mexico and a major Ruiz opponent. They also reportedly spoke to Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano.

In addition, the Mexican government’s case against appointing a successor to Ruiz with the same commitment to indigenous issues was taken to the Vatican last July by Mexico’s Secretary of External Relations (Secretary of State) Rosario Green.

With coadjutor Vera López’s transfer now public, some of these same hierarchs have come to the Vatican’s defense, mainly by highlighting the earlier armed rebellion of Subcommandante Marcos and the indigenous protests against oppression -- even though Marcos in recent years has sought a peaceful solution to the oppression in Chiapas

Mexico City’s Rivera Carerra has said Marcos “and others don’t care about the good of the indigenous and only promote a violent situation because it furthers their own ends. They are ideologues not patriots.” He said the pope would not accept Ruiz’s resignation and appoint a replacement “until he has time to study the necessities of the region.”

Meanwhile in Morelos province, 21 priests in a joint statement asked the Holy See to be sure that whoever follows Ruiz carries out the same policies. And in Cuernavaca, one pastor, Fr. Conrado Ramirez Osorio, objecting to the coadjutor’s unprecedented transfer, listed some of the reasons Vera Lopez was transferred.

It was done, Ramirez Osorio said, because the interests of those who own the land must be protected; the governing PRI (Partido Revolutionaria Institutional) party of Chiapas must preserve its power in the region; the hotel owners must continue to get money from tourists; the autenticos coletos (right-wing merchants) must preserve their economic power; the federal government must eliminate quality witnesses, like bishops, priests and religious so they can militarily defeat the EZLN, the largely Mayan Indian Zapatista National Liberation army; because worldwide business interests want to drain the region of its riches (namely oil).

The indigenous people, meanwhile, see the Vera Lopez move as a Vatican betrayal, the Holy See going back on its words. The “terrible blow,” as some describe it, has left the indigenous people frightened about the future.

The enslaved indigenous people may have felt the same four centuries ago when, in 1545, De Las Casas returned to Rome. Two years later, he resigned as bishop. Until Ruiz arrived more than 40 years ago, they had been without a protector for 400 years. The signals are that, without Vera López to succeed Ruiz, the indigenous will be without a protector again.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000