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Is there a God? The Vatican invites Mexicans to discuss.

The Vatican's first Courtyard of the Gentiles event outside Europe takes place in Mexico this week. The number of Mexicans who say they are 'nonreligious' jumped by 56 percent between 2000 and 2010.

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Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi arrives for an afternoon meeting, at the Vatican, in March. This week, Cardinal Ravasi will host a series of debates on secularism that will bring together believers and nonbelievers – the Vatican's first 'Courtyard of the Gentiles' event outside Europe.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP/File

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A Vatican envoy has arrived in Mexico with a message: God is not dead.

This week, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi will host a series of debates on secularism that will bring together believers and nonbelievers – the Vatican’s first “Courtyard of the Gentiles” event outside Europe.

Cardinal Ravasi’s visit, and the conversation it’s meant to ignite, comes at a time of spiritual transition in Mexico. The number of non-Roman Catholics in the still predominantly Catholic nation of 112 million has been rising since the 1970s, while the ranks of those who consider themselves expressly nonreligious have jumped significantly, by 56 percent, between 2000 and 2010.

More than 10 million Mexicans practice a religion other than Catholicism today; another 5.3 million say they are not part of any religion, according to the national statistics agency INEGI.

“We warned [organizers] that we suspected the dialogue would be more difficult in Mexico than in Europe,” says Guillermo Hurtado, a professor of philosophy at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, who will participate in the debates. “In a country like Mexico, there is a great divide that separates believers and nonbelievers. There’s a latent antagonism.”

'The God question'

The Vatican’s “courtyard” series began under former Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down in February. In an increasingly secular world, Mexico included, religion and religious considerations have taken a back seat in public life, and the dialogue aims to counterbalance that. That the series is making its first stop outside of Europe in Latin America is one indication that Pope Francis of Argentina wants to raise the region’s profile in the church, say observers.

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In describing the series for a Spanish publication last year, Ravasi wrote, “Even though they declare themselves atheists, the God question remains present in many men and women.” The courtyard is an opportunity to have a dialogue about faith and reason, he said.

The debates “aim to go beyond the controversy” of atheism versus religion in Mexico, to talk about pressing social and political themes without one side trying to convince the other, says Mr. Hurtado, a self-described agnostic.

In Mexico those themes will likely include the violence that has battered many regions, as well as the role of religion in culture and society ­– an especially touchy topic in a country that has historically taken the separation of church and state to extremes.

Separation of church and state

The Mexican government divorced itself from the Catholic Church in 1862 by banning its participation in political life and establishing secular public education – a reversal of the church's powerful, central role in Mexico dating to the Spanish conquest. A 1992 law loosened some restrictions on religious institutions, including giving priests and ministers the right to vote, but reiterated others such as a prohibition on owning broadcast media. 

Concerns about the power of the Catholic Church in Mexico still have force here even as the numbers of faithful dwindle, says Eduardo Gonzáles di Pierro, another philosopher – and self-declared believer – who will debate the cardinal this week.

Felipe Monroy, who runs the Catholic magazine Vida Nueva, notes, “there has been an immense loss of the faithful” in the country, a trend he chalks up to globalization.

“For us, what’s important is that Mexico is increasingly global, increasingly plural in that all religions can coexist in this country,” Mr. Monroy says. “This means that surely in the future there will be fewer Catholics and more religious expressions.”

“I don’t think that’s bad,” he adds. “It requires adapting to new times.”

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