Outspoken Bishop Backed by Civil Society

By Diego Cevallos
December 11, 2007

MEXICO CITY — Former members of the Catholic Church hierarchy and over 100 social organisations closed ranks behind Monsignor Raúl Vera, the only Catholic bishop in Mexico who still adheres to liberation theology, and whose unorthodox stances and confrontational style are disturbing conservative sectors.

"The Vatican is wary of Vera, and there are rumours that proceedings may have been initiated against him. But we want to state that the bishop is not alone, and that we will defend him," the head of the non-governmental Ecclesiastical Observatory (OE), José Guadalupe Sánchez, told IPS.

In an open letter published Monday by several newspapers, social organisations in Mexico and abroad, and bishops like Pedro Casaldáliga of Spain and Samuel Ruiz of Mexico, who are adherents of liberation theology, a progressive theological current in Latin America, declared an "alert" because of the accusations against Vera, whom they call "a pastor and prophet for our time."

Vera, 62, was ordained bishop in 1988. He originally served in the impoverished southern state of Guerrero and then in nearby Chiapas where he was auxiliary bishop to Ruiz in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

From 2000, Vera has been the bishop in the city of Saltillo, the capital of the state of Coahuila, in northwestern Mexico.

In November a judge in Coahuila formally complained to the Vatican, in his personal capacity as a Catholic churchgoer, that Vera had abused his ecclesiastical powers under canon law.

Vera had called Judge Hiradier Huerta a "ruffian" from the pulpit, in criticism for sentences he passed against army troops accused of raping local women. Huerta accused Vera of slander and asked the Vatican to impose the maximum penalty, which is removal from office.

The bishop criticised and even insulted Huerta for the sentences of between 21 and 41 years in prison he handed down to a group of soldiers who gangraped several prostitutes in Coahuila in July 2006. Vera considered the sentences to be too lenient.

According to Huerta, the bishop seriously damaged his (Huerta's) personal reputation and that of his family.

Vera is known for his outspoken criticism of government leaders and members of the business community, as well as for his demands for justice for the poor, especially indigenous people, and for the views he shares with the left.

Those he criticises, in turn, say that he is more of an activist than a man of God.

The Mexican Church has made no official comment, at least in public, about Vera, who is the only active bishop among its numbers who openly adheres to the principles of liberation theology, which grew out of the Second Vatican Council but which was soon frowned on by the Vatican.

During the nearly 27 years of the papacy of John Paul II, who died in 2005, this progressive current in the Latin American Church was combated by the retirement or transfer of nearly all the bishops that supported it, and the silencing of several of its theological writers. No change is expected under the conservative Benedict XVI.

Vera wrote the foreword to a book about the Church and pederasty, recently published in Mexico, which may have upset his peers. In it, the bishop appears to give credence to reports that archbishop Norberto Rivera, primate of Mexico, might have covered up for a paedophile priest.

"We certainly haven't seen a public reprimand from the Vatican against Bishop Vera, but it would not surprise us if proceedings are being taken against him, as rumour has it," said Sánchez. His group, the OE, was created nine years ago by avowedly progressive Catholic organisations.

When Vera worked in San Cristóbal de las Casas with Bishop Ruiz, who retired in 2000, the Vatican was openly critical of their diocese, which it viewed as "irregular" for ordaining too many indigenous deacons, and teaching unorthodox doctrines.

Vera has not specifically mentioned the accusations made against him by Judge Huerta, nor any hypothetical trouble he may have caused the Vatican. But in early November he said he was accustomed to adversity and accusations.

A member of the Dominican order, Vera is critical of the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón, a devout Catholic who, in Vera's view, is not living up to his promise to fight poverty, and is mistakenly following free-market economic strategies.

When Calderón referred to the supposed achievements of his administration on its first anniversary, Dec. 1, Vera's comment was that either his advisers were pulling the wool over the president's eyes, or Calderón was a liar. "The truth is, it makes me see red; forgive me, you know what I'm like," he said.

Those who signed their names to the letter of support for Vera state that he is a good man, and that "his commitment to defending the cause of the most excluded and defenceless has resulted in innumerable threats and accusations raining down on him, intended to discredit him."

Last week, activists held a small march through the streets of Saltillo in support of Vera, and they are holding a rally in his honour in Mexico City on Tuesday.

"Let the Vatican know that we will stand firm in our support of Don Raúl," said the OE spokesman. (END/2007)


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