Mexican cardinal is outspoken, uses media well

By Jason Lange
Catholic News Service

GUADALAJARA, Mexico (CNS) -- In a country in which church leaders hardly dared speak in public for generations because of harsh anti-clerical laws, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara has become one of Mexico's most outspoken men.

His media savvy is evident as evening news programs regularly broadcast his opinions on everything from AIDS to elections.

Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez leads the Archdiocese of Guadalajara. (CNS file photo)

With a pastoral vigor that leaves his colleagues and assistants breathless, the 72-year-old Mexican cardinal has emerged as a leading Latin American candidate for the church's next pope.

In a recent interview he said the greatest challenge facing the Catholic Church today is the advance of secularism, or "living as if God never existed."

"It brings to Catholic people a 'light' mentality of fun and money without moral commitment, which is very damaging to Christian life," he said.

A priest since 1957, Cardinal Sandoval became archbishop of Guadalajara in 1994 after his predecessor, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, was killed by drug-gang hit men at Guadalajara's airport. Cardinal Sandoval gained immediate international attention for his public campaign for justice in that case.

The son of a small farmer, he has made an indelible mark on the archdiocese of 7 million Catholics with his demanding style of administration. He founded a church-run media group whose newspaper now rivals the city's largest dailies.

"He says exactly what he thinks and doesn't pull any punches," said Deana Molina, the cardinal's personal assistant.

Those who surround the cardinal commonly describe him as friendly yet blunt, always with a smile on his face and up for a friendly chat, while at the same time never hesitant to give his honest -- and direct -- opinion when asked.

"I'm open to society," the cardinal said in an interview earlier this year. "Actually, people often seek me out. All types of people: businessmen, politicians, those from the media world."

Along the way, the cardinal has ruffled some feathers, particularly those of politicians.

"If elections are coming and I say that stealing votes is a sin, that deceiving the people is a sin," the cardinal said, "they (politicians) complain that I'm getting involved in politics."

That is a very sensitive issue in Mexico, where anti-clerical laws have limited the role of the church in public life since the 19th century. Constitutional reforms in the early 1990s allowed the clergy to lead more public lives but retained restrictions on their involvement in politics, education and the media.

Cardinal Sandoval, however, has been at the forefront of testing the law's boundaries. During the 2002 election campaign, he organized political discussion workshops in churches, where people were counseled to vote according to Catholic principles.

When he told voters not to choose candidates that supported legalizing abortion, a small leftist party filed charges against him, saying he broke laws on the separation of church and state. The cardinal responded that he never endorsed a particular party, and prosecutors eventually dropped the case.

Ildefonso Losa Marquez, a Guadalajara journalist who has covered politics and church affairs for more than 50 years, says the cardinal and his penchant for challenging the political establishment could not have come at a better time for Mexico and the church.

"Guadalajara and the country needed a cardinal with his character," Losa said.

Cardinal Sandoval became head of the archdiocese just as Mexico's political system was beginning to open up to democracy, near the end of seven decades of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

In 1995 the party was booted out of power in Sandoval's state of Jalisco for the first time in six decades. It was a major defeat and part of the chain of events that would lead to the party losing the presidency in 2000. A party document leaked to the press in 1996 said Cardinal Sandoval was a "determining factor of the evident electoral shift in the country."

He began making waves on his arrival in Guadalajara, launching a very vocal campaign for justice in the case of his predecessor's killing, which the authorities have maintained was an accident. Cardinal Sandoval maintains that Cardinal Posadas was killed because he knew about contacts between drug traffickers and high-level politicians.

"I knew from people who were very close (to the shooting) that this had been a murder," the cardinal said.

Many political commentators say a short-lived money-laundering investigation against him in 2003 was a political tactic to scare him into dropping his campaign. The money-laundering investigation was quickly dismissed for lack of evidence.

If Cardinal Sandoval has been blunt and aggressive in his dealings with politicians, the government and the media, he has been equally assertive in running the archdiocese.

"When there's a need to move priests around, most bishops might take a month to decide who goes where. Cardinal Sandoval does it in one day," said Auxiliary Bishop Jose Gonzalez Rodriguez.

Those who work with him say he is a stickler for punctuality.

"If I say it's going to be at a certain hour it will be that hour," the cardinal said. "And I demand the same from priests."

"Working in the seminary makes a man demanding because he is educating," the cardinal added, referring to his 17 years as a professor and rector at Guadalajara's seminary before he was made a bishop. He became coadjutor bishop of Ciudad Juarez in 1988 and bishop of that diocese in 1992, two years before his appointment to Guadalajara.

The cardinal is also known for his relentless work schedule, which he manages without a secretary.

"I never have a secretary at my side so that nobody is controlling me and doesn't limit who gets to talk to me and who doesn't," he said.

"I rest little," he added. "Normally just Thursdays, but usually that's only in the morning, as in the afternoon I always have some activity" to attend.

Cardinal Sandoval travels to the Vatican for about three weeks twice a year. He is a member of the Vatican congregations for religious and for Catholic education, a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See and the commission of cardinals overseeing the Vatican bank.

He says he got used to working hard early, as the oldest child in a large family on his parents' farm in Yahualica, a small town near Guadalajara. He still tries to get out to the countryside occasionally to have a hand at old chores like milking cows.

His Catholic Communications Center has been one of the cardinal's most ambitious projects. It includes a weekly newspaper, an Internet telephone service and Web design company, a publicity agency, a radio recording studio and a commercial printing press. He created the center to advance what he views as his chief mission, evangelization.

"I have to maintain the faith of this people," Cardinal Sandoval said. "For me that is the principal challenge; the rest are minor challenges," he said.

 

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