Fr Juan Miguel Contreras Garcia was reportedly hearing Confession in his office last Friday when a gunman burst in and shot him dead. The 33-year-old was the fourth priest to be murdered in Mexico this year. Just two days earlier Fr Ruben Alcantara Diaz was stabbed to death in his church on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Mexico is regarded as the world’s most dangerous nation to be a priest. That is, on the face of it, surprising. Mexico has the world’s second-largest population of Catholics after Brazil. Unlike other South American countries, it has avoided a steep drop in Catholic affiliation. Only one in ten Mexican adults raised as Catholics abandon the faith, compared to a quarter in Nicaragua. Admittedly, many Mexican Catholics dissent from the Church’s moral teaching – just 45 per cent, for example, say that sex outside marriage is wrong – and many believe in superstitions such as the “evil eye”. Nevertheless, the country has a profound Catholic culture which includes a deep respect for priests.
Mexico has seen virulent outbursts of anti-clericalism in the past. But this does not seem to be the prime motive for the latest killings. Mexico is becoming more dangerous for everybody. Last year was the most murderous on record, with 25,339 homicides, a 23 per cent increase on 2016. Earlier this month in Cancún, Mexico’s most popular holiday destination, 14 people were murdered in 36 hours.
The violence is chiefly caused by cartels competing for control of the lucrative drugs market. Organised criminals have, in some places, successfully infiltrated politics and corrupted the judiciary, meaning that they can act with impunity.
The Church is sometimes the only institution preventing total subjugation of the local population. Clergy are routinely intimidated. According to World Watch Monitor, which reports on anti-Christian persecution around the world, it is “very common” for cartels to demand “taxes” from Church leaders. Bishop Dagoberto Sosa Arriaga of Tlapa, for instance, is forced to pay criminals to leave his cathedral undisturbed.
Meanwhile, Mexico is preparing for a critical presidential election on July 1. President Enrique Peña Nieto is standing down due to term limits amid criticism of his handling of the cartels. All the candidates to replace him reject his legacy, including the current favourite, the left-wing firebrand Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as Amlo.
If drug cartels continue to operate unchecked, then Mexico will remain a deadly place for priests. Fr Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for Mexico City archdiocese, has summed up the situation poignantly: “If there is no respect for priests, who are generally highly respected in Mexico, then you can imagine the rest of the population. If they kill, extort and rob a priest, imagine what it’s like for the rest of the population, which is even more vulnerable, more unprotected than are we priests.”
As long as the cartels maintain their vice-like grip, Mexico’s priests won’t be safe – and neither will anyone else.
Holding the line
The Bishops of England and Wales, at their Low Week meeting last week, turned their thoughts to the question of gender ideology. Their statement on the matter represents a gentle but important reminder of why this question is so important.
First of all, the bishops state that the idea that the individual is free to define himself or herself as male or female runs contrary to human instinct. They assert, in keeping with human experience, that gender is not a social construct, but a biological reality. To hold anything at variance with this is to promote deep confusion about what it means to be male or female, and what it means to be human. It also undermines the idea of the family as constructed around a man and a woman, as well as undermining the way we understand the roles of fathers and mothers.
At the same time the bishops acknowledge that there are some people who do not accept their biological sex, but they make it clear that they are welcome in the Catholic Church, and that the Church, through her ministers, will continue to extend pastoral care to them and accompany them.
The bishops note that “We all have a duty to protect the most vulnerable.” People who feel conflicted about their biological sex are certainly vulnerable, and many may be facing difficult decisions which are not to be taken lightly.
Gender ideology is worrying, because, if it is left unchallenged, the prevailing but mistaken wisdom that one can choose one’s gender could lead many young people to make irreversible choices that they might later regret, and which might not be the fruit of autonomous choice.
Gender ideology certainly needs to be challenged; that some of its most outspoken advocates seem intolerant of challenge is surely cause for concern.
The bishops’ intervention is helpful not just for Catholics, but also for the population as a whole. Society must not sleepwalk towards an unthinking acceptance that gender is “fluid”; it isn’t. To maintain anything else is to call all natural structures into question, the consequences of which would be grave.