"Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom?" –Marvin Martian

The coming collapse of the Catholic Church in Mexico should be interesting.

Mexican Catholicism is a bit closer to medieval Catholicism in its heavy reliance on folklore and myth. It also retains quite a bit of the old social structure Arturo Vasquez (whose blog is now private) used to write about, where the laity went about their daily lives, practiced their folk religion at home, and showed up at church for days of obligation and baptisms. In this structure, he wrote, the ordinary person hardly had time to be as devoted as doctrine said you had to be to get to heaven, so they basically paid the clergy and religious vocations to be religious on their behalf. The old term for this is “supererogatory merit.”

Now, the big difference between me and Vasquez is that he’s nostalgic for the good old days, and I think they represented a perversion of the Gospel.

Without a healthy Protestantism in Mexico to challenge the Catholic Church, shades of this old medieval structure can be seen. The problem is the younger generations, thanks to the increasing social mobility brought on by economic liberalization in the 80s and 90s, feel less and less social pressure to even be nominally part of the Catholic Church.

One issue seems to be the Virgin of Guadalupe. For those of you who don’t know, the legend is that Mary, taking the form of an Aztec princess, appeared to a poor indigenous farmer named Juan Diego, imprinted a miraculous image on his cloak, and told him she would be the mother and protector of the native people. The painting of Mary you see everywhere in Mexican restaurants is supposedly this miraculous image. Of course, not only is the painting indeed a painting, but it is likely that Juan Diego never existed. That didn’t stop John Paul II from canonizing him, of course.

What I’m discovering among many of the lapsed, younger Catholics I’ve talked to is that when they figure out that the whole Virgin of Guadalupe thing is an elaborate fiction knowingly perpetuated by the hierarchy, they discard the entire religion. The Catholic Church’s official position on legends is that if presenting them as truth “helps enhance the piety of the faithful,” they’re okay.

Meanwhile, as I’ve written before, the Catholic Church has stopped teaching that a vow of celibacy is the only reliable path to heaven, which has gutted the old orders and hollowed out the formal structure of the institution. The problem isn’t quite as acute in Mexico, but still, a surprising number of the priests I see are old (not as ancient as the Americans), and nuns definitely skew older. So they’ve got a demographic problem on their hands, too.

There’s virtually no pastoral care here, either. The typical priest seems to have no idea who’s in his church. I certainly could have communed at any church I’ve been to so far. No one asks who you are or if you’ve been to confession. This allows fissures to develop in the church that go unnoticed by the clergy, and will continue to do so until it’s too late.

I expect that within a generation or two, Mexico will be substantially less Catholic and more secular. It won’t be 3% practicing or anything like that, but the Church is going to notice a much greater difficulty recruiting priests, and much more sparsely attended services.