But his comments so far, about violence in Mexico and Communism in Cuba, make clear that the pope does not intend to ignore his potential political influence. Especially here in Mexico, political observers have been arguing for months that the timing of his arrival — 14 weeks before the presidential election — makes the visit a political endeavor with a partisan goal: to bolster President Calderón’s conservative National Action Party, known as the PAN, as campaign season kicks into high gear.
“It’s not a pastoral visit, it’s an electoral visit for the PAN,” said Homero Aridjis, Mexico’s most famous poet and one of the country’s most astute analysts. “Benedict isn’t going to cities like Ciudad Juárez,” the gritty border city that has been traumatized by violence. “If it was a spiritual visit, he would go to the places that really need his presence and his ministry.”
It may not be quite that simple. Pope Benedict XVI is 84 years old, and no pope before him has traveled so far from Rome so late in life. The pope also addressed Mexico’s struggle against violence on the plane trip here from Rome, where he blamed the “idolatry of money” for drawing young people into lives of crime.
In a brief speech at the airport here, he also said he was praying for “those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence.”
And yet, the pope’s approach — framing Mexico’s violence as a personal moral failing — perfectly matches that of President Calderón, a devout Catholic. That message, experts say, will help shift the debate away from policy, and complaints about how the Calderón administration has managed the fight against drug cartels, which has lead to 50,000 deaths since late 2006.
President Calderón has done his part as well. In his speech introducing the pope at the airport on Friday, he distanced his government from responsibility for problems like corruption and impunity by stressing that Mexico was enduring “difficult and decisive moments,” and “moments of great tribulation” as organized crime and “evil” sought to ruin the country.
The result so far is that while all three presidential candidates have said they would attend the papal mass on Sunday in León, the pope’s timing, comments and choice of location — a conservative, Catholic stronghold — have made clear that the Vatican’s natural partner is the party of Mr. Calderón.
“The party closest to the Vatican, the Pope and Catholic religion, is the PAN,” said Gabriel Guerra, a political analyst and consultant whose clients have included all three of Mexico’s major political parties. “They would have the most to benefit.”
Experts say the church also has a vested interest in keeping the PAN in power. The party was founded by conservative Catholics, and ever since it won the presidency in 2000, ending 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PAN officials and Catholic leaders have come to rely on each other for conservative support on social issues. The church has also found the PAN to be helpful in its push for greater freedom to add religious education to public schools.
But that tightening bond also carries political risks. Mexicans are used to a strict separation of church and state; “don’t mess with politics” is a standard refrain even among the very religious. Perhaps conscious of those risks, Mr. Calderón did not kiss the pope’s ring when they met, the standard papal greeting for Catholics, choosing a less submissive bow. In the final days of the trip, the dance between the pope and the PAN will likely continue at arm’s length, with occasional steps in close alignment.
“If looks like the PAN is too close to the pope, especially given its history and where the pope is going, it can look like an overreach,” said the Rev. Joseph Palacios, a sociology professor at Georgetown University whose research has focused on the Mexican church. “That’s the irony, if the church looks like it’s really involved in politics, it loses a high degree of credibility and trust.”