Mexican presidential hopefuls meet Pope Francis

A demonstrator waves a flag in Mexico City, Feb. 18, 2024, as Mexican opposition groups march against the government of Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, calling him to "defend democracy." (OSV News photo/Reuters, Luis Cortes)

MEXICO CITY (OSV News) ─ Mexico's two main presidential candidates have met with Pope Francis in the prelude to the country's election campaigns, marking a further retreat from the country's previously strictly secular political culture as they court voters in the predominantly Catholic country.

Claudia Sheinbaum, candidate for the ruling party Morena (leftist National Regeneration Movement), and Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz, standard bearer for an opposition coalition of three parties, announced their audiences with Pope Francis on Feb. 15, though the meetings at the papal residence occurred on earlier dates.

Sheinbaum, who is of the Jewish faith, expressed "deep admiration" for the pope's "humanist thinking," along with his "simple style."

She also claimed to frequently paraphrase a quote from the Angelus prayer on Feb. 7, 2021: "Let us not forget that the only legitimate way to look at a person from the top down is when you stretch out a hand to help them get up."

Sheinbaum later posted passages from “Fratelli Tutti” on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

For her part, Gálvez Ruiz spoke less extensively of her visit to the Vatican. She said via X that she "reaffirmed my faith in God and the Catholic Church" in the meeting. Gálvez Ruiz added, "We had a cordial dialogue and exchanged views on the throwaway culture. … For me and my family, it was a very emotional experience as we have had deep Catholic convictions for generations."

After their audiences with Pope Francis, neither of the candidates spoke of church-state relations -- a priority for the Mexican bishops' conference since Mexico and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1992.

"The opposition candidate is once again putting her faith first, when she should be prioritizing church-state relations," Alejandro Díaz-Domínguez, political science professor at Tec de Monterrey, a Mexican university, told OSV News.

Sheinbaum, meanwhile, prioritized "an ideological issue first instead of church-state relations," he said.

The visits to the Vatican came as the candidates prepared for the start of campaigns March 1. Mexico elects a new president June 2 as current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is constitutionally prohibited from seeking reelection.

Sheinbaum, a former Mexico City mayor, leads all polls -- with the reputable survey from the newspaper El Financiero giving her a 16-point advantage.

Analysts attribute the lead to Sheinbaum promising continuity, while never contradicting López Obrador or voicing independent policy proposals.

Gálvez, who rose from the poverty of an Indigenous community to become a successful businesswoman and politician, has promised to continue popular López Obrador programs such as providing cash stipends for seniors. Analysts describe the country's opposition parties as unpopular after prior presidential administrations and unable to counter López Obrador's populist practices over the past five years.

The candidates visited the Vatican without representatives of the Mexican bishops' conference, which has had a somewhat subdued relationship with López Obrador. The president identifies as "Christian," and has met more frequently with evangelical pastors than Catholic prelates throughout his term in office.

But the visits to the Vatican reflected changes in Mexico’s politics over the past three decades.

Aspirants for public office used to shun meetings with priests and bishops -- the product of a secular political culture springing from the Cristero Rebellion, which left the Catholic Church without legal recognition and anti-clerical laws on the books. But now they routinely travel to the Vatican and pursue prelates' approval.

On Feb. 18, thousands of demonstrators walked through Mexican cities in what they called a "march for democracy," targeting the country’s ruling party before the June elections.

The demonstrations called by Mexico’s opposition parties advocated for free and fair elections and railed against corruption.

President López Obrador, while highly popular among voters who say he represents the working class, also has been accused of making moves that endanger the country’s democracy. In 2023, he slashed funding for the National Electoral Institute and weakened oversight of campaign spending. The agency's color, pink, has been used as a symbol by demonstrators.

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David Agren writes for OSV News from Mexico City.



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