For a sense of the new forces stirring inside Mexico today, consider the legion of Christ. The once obscure religious order, founded 62 years ago in the basement of a Mexico City town house, ranks as the world's fastest-growing branch of Roman Catholicism. It attracts more recruits to the church's aging priesthood than any other Catholic congregation on the planet, per capita. The legion's ultra-orthodox doctrine mirrors that of Pope John Paul II, and its influence reaches into the highest echelons of Mexico's business and political elites.
The leader of this sect - the octogenarian priest Marcial Maciel, based in Rome - hasn't lived in his native land for more than a half century. Maciel was just 20 years old, not yet ordained, when he established the legion in 1941 as a Catholic army of soldiers in soutanes, battling to "establish the kingdom of Christ throughout the world." In practice, that has translated into the courtship of Latin leaders across the hemisphere - and the order has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. No other religious figure wields more influence in Mexico than Maciel - not the ranking Catholic prelate, Cardinal Primate Norberto Rivera Carrera, nor any of his 110 bishops. Close friends and associates include Lorenzo and Roberto Servitje, the head of Mexico's multinational food giant Bimbo, and the country's First Lady, Marta Sahagun de Fox.
The Legion of Christ is no ordinary religious order. Instead of running neighborhood parishes, its followers concentrate on missionary work and educating children of the faithful, the list of whom read like a Who's Who of the Mexican private sector. The legion owns an impressive network of 10 universities and 154 mostly upmarket private schools - prompting some wags in the Mexico City press corps to dub the order the Millionaires of Christ. Its conservative teachings and strict discipline have struck a chord with millions of Latin American parents - and not just affluent ones. The legion also runs 17 Mano Amiga (Spanish for "friendly hand") schools dedicated to the education of indigent kids - nearly 11,000 in total, scattered across Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and Venezuela.
There is a darker, even somewhat medieval side to the Legion of Christ. Former members of the order say that young seminarians to this day are required to practice self-flagellation as a way of atoning for their sins; many wear an uncomfortable device around their thighs to discourage so-called impure thoughts. Legion officials have reportedly hired private detectives to snoop on some of their own priests. In a 1997 investigative report in a U.S newspaper, nine ex-legionnaires accused Maciel himself of sexual abuse, a charge he has indignantly denied. That same article revealed the Vatican had absolved Maciel of similar charges in an investigation in the 1950s.
None of this has dimmed the legion's influence. If anything, it looks set to grow under the country's center-right president, Vicente Fox. The former Coca-Cola executive's triumph in the 2000 election toppled the Institutional Revolutionary Party and seemed to threaten many of the overtly anticlerical laws and policies adopted by the party during its 71-year reign. In Fox, the country's first openly devout Catholic president in nearly 100 years, many conservative Mexicans see their best hope yet for restoring the church to its rightful place of social authority.
Fox is by no means in thrall to the Catholic establishment. Only two weeks ago the government announced that five unnamed clerics could face steep fines for allegedly telling Catholics how to vote in next month's congressional elections. Still, even as many of his political reforms have stalled in Congress, the Mexican president has pushed through measures that please the church. Two years ago he abolished a longstanding ban on clerical visits to prisons and public hospitals - a measure enacted by the PRI with a view toward separating church and state. His administration has also slashed the annual budget of the Health Ministry's highly successful Planned Parenthood program, and a number of openly right-wing Catholics have been named to key government posts. Among them is Labor Minister Carlos Abascal, a prominent businessman who has criticized school syllabi as too liberal. The Interior Ministry official in charge of religious affairs, meanwhile, favors a constitutional amendment allowing religious "associations" to acquire radio and television stations. "The [Catholic] right wing is thriving," says Edgar Gonzalez Ruiz, a Mexican academic and author.
Many political analysts see in this the hidden hand of the First Lady, whose association with the legion goes back nearly 20 years. Sahagun first came to national prominence as the press secretary in Fox's presidential campaign. But in his home state of Guanajuato, where Fox previously served as governor, the divorced mother of three had another identity. In the mid-1980s, when Sahagun was still married to her first husband and living in the city of Celaya, she was appointed treasurer of the local branch of the legion's lay movement. Perhaps that's no surprise; her father comes from the same small town in Michoacan state where Marcial Maciel was born.
Vatican sources say that Maciel is working to bolster those ties. The priest was instrumental in organizing separate papal audiences for Fox and Sahagun during their visit to Rome in October 2001. He is also, according to Mexican press reports, lobbying the Holy See to annul their previous marriages, paving the way for a religious wedding in the not too distant future. At least two of Fox's children, from a previous marriage, have studied at legion schools.
In a rare interview with NEWSWEEK, Maciel's deputy Luis Garza Medina denied reports that the legion is actively seeking an annulment of the First Couple's earlier marriages. (Fox and Sahagun were married in a civil ceremony two years ago.) The 45-year-old priest, a younger brother of the Monterrey industrialist Dionisio Garza Medina, also dismissed talk that the order exerts any undue influence over the president through his wife. "Fox had a relationship with us when he was governor, and there have been gestures of appreciation," he says. "But he is a president for all Mexicans, and no favoritism has been shown toward us." Father Luis also notes that the legion does not adopt public-policy positions of its own. The Conference of Mexican Catholic Bishops is the proper channel for that, he argues, and he bristles at suggestions that the order cultivates relations with the rich more than the poor. "We make no such distinctions," he says. "For us, everyone is in need of hearing the Gospel of Christ."
Perhaps. But while some Catholic orders such as the Jesuits have distinguished themselves by helping the poor, the legion under Marcial Maciel has demonstrated a marked talent for cultivating the more privileged constituencies of Roman Catholicism at the same time. And in a country with the second largest Catholic flock worldwide, that ensures the Legion will continue to exert influence far beyond its numbers for many years to come.