Valor and Betrayal – The Historical Background and Story of the Cristeros
Apart from its having actually come to power nearly everywhere in the world two centuries after first exploding in France in 1789, the ever-unfolding Revolution 1 has succeeded in other ways. Perhaps its greatest success is the extent to which it has persuaded the great mass of mankind that it is their movement, a struggle of the majority for freedom and opportunity against elites who formerly oppressed them and will do so again unless they remain vigilant.
Though its power does extend nearly everywhere, what matters most to the Revolution itself is that its power is first of all coextensive with those lands that once constituted Christendom. It came into existence, after all, to overthrow the beliefs, laws, customs and practices which distinguished Christendom from the rest of the world. As for that “rest,” most of it was colonized or otherwise taking its lead from the lands of Christendom by the time the Revolution supplanted the teachings of the Faith with its own false philosophy. Thus, Christendom’s transformation into the liberal West inevitably resulted in the Revolution’s hegemony over the other lands, ones in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, and their peoples.
That the Revolution always aimed to supplant the teachings of the Faith with its own principles has led many Christian commentators to identify this or that non-Christian group or organization as the “real” force or power “behind” the movement. No reasonable man can doubt that the “forces of organized naturalism,” as the redoubtable Fr. Denis Fahey called them, have had their role in the history of the past two centuries. However, it is the point of view here — as we believe it was Fr. Fahey’s, if we read him correctly —that the nearly universal sway of the Revolution today is owed more to our own fallen nature than to anything else. That is, men have been inclined ever since the Fall to live according to their own will instead of God’s. Starting two centuries ago, they finally began to overthrow the political and social institutions that curbed their inclination. For a time the Church was able to prevent this development from becoming nearly complete, as earlier she was able to prevent it altogether. At Vatican II, however, it was disavowed that her teachings had a special role or influence in the conduct of political affairs. (We are speaking of politics in the sense of their being the means by which the life of society is regulated.) Since then, there has been little standing in the way.
To say there has been little standing in the way is not to say there is nothing. Here and there individuals and groups strive to keep alive the idea of Christian social order. Their very existence keeps the nearly universal sway of the Revolution from becoming total. That is on the one hand. On the other, by keeping the idea alive now, they also make it possible for Christian social order to be revived when God decides the time for that is come.
The work of these individuals and groups is taxing, for it is not easy to seem always to be on history’s losing side. Things can be even more discouraging for those not directly engaged in the work, but who support it. Will a brighter day ever come? they wonder.
An Encouraging Example
The story that follows may be of some encouragement. It is the story — told far too briefly — of Mexico’s Cristeros, Catholic peasants who did not accept that the Revolution was their movement. They rose in arms against it in their country, and by their very fighting and dying in the number they did, gave the lie — like the Vendeens in France and the Carlists of Spain — to the notion that the enemy owed its past and present success to “the people.”
The story of the Cristeros, alas, is not one of victory. That does not make it less than inspiring, however, for if they finally laid down their arms, they did not really surrender to the Revolution against which they fought. Militarily they had brilliant successes, and that they could ultimately have prevailed in the field is possible. In May, 1929, it even looked likely. However, they lacked the support they deserved. This is not to speak of popular support, for theirs was already genuinely a popular rising. What was missing, except at the very beginning (and which was not of a practical nature even then) was the support of the bishops of the Church in Mexico. Missing too was the support of the Holy See, which had once thundered against the regime in Mexico City, but that was before a deal was reached with it, a deal fatal to the Cristeros. Insofar as the bishops and Holy See went the route they did, instead of supporting the Cristeros, it could be said the peasant-warriors were betrayed by the very men for whom they fought.
Betrayed they were. Ultimately, however, they fought for themselves, for their families, for their way of life, for what they believed . If they were compelled to stop fighting short of victory, their cause was not defeated, and certainly not “lost.” It remains alive in the minds and hearts of many Mexicans who still believe as did the Cristeros. It remains alive in much the way that, to many Americans, the Southern cause (the cause of a hierarchically-ordered society rooted in the land, faithful to custom and tradition, clinging to honor, and contemptuous of political expediency) is not “lost” even if the armed struggle for an independent nation to embody it ceased in 1865.
As with anything on as epic a scale as the story of La Cristiada , the story cannot be understood without some grasp of the historical background. (The Cristeros, the men who fought La Cristiada , did not call themselves Cristeros or their fight the Cristero rebellion. The word “Cristero” was coined and applied to them by their enemies, the Masonic-Socialists who ruled Mexico, on account of their slogan and veritable battle-cry, Viva Cristo Rey! — “Long live Christ the King!”)
Before we look at the historical background, a word is in order concerning sources. Reliable accounts of La Cristiada , or Cristero rebellion, exist in English. The most complete — indeed, the definitive one — is The Cristero Rebellion; The Mexican People Between Church and State, 1926-1929 , by Jean A. Meyer (Cambridge University Press, 1976). Another work that can be recommended is Viva Cristo Rey! The Cristero Rebellion and the Church-State Conflict in Mexico , by David C. Bailey (University of Texas Press, 1974).
Those two books and other things, though mainly those two books, are the source for most of the facts here related, though the interpretation of many facts arises from our own unabashed Catholic point of view and the personal convictions springing from it. It must be said of Bailey’s work, however, that he attributes to two organizations far more of the direction or command of the Cristero rebellion than they actually exercised. (Memoirs by some veterans of the fighting, as well as Meyer’s book, make that clear.) The organizations were the ACJM (Asociacion Catolica de la Juventud Mexicana; Catholic Association of Mexican Youth) and, especially, the LNDLR (Liga Nacional Defensora de la Libertad Religiosa; National League for the Defense of Religious Lib erty).
It is true that in 1926 the men at the core of the LNDLR decided, other means having been exhausted, that there was no way to end the Revolution’s oppression of the Church in Mexico except armed insurrection against the government, with the ultimate aim of replacing it with a Catholic one. However, by the time the decision was taken there had been peasant risings against the government in numerous locales, and peasant leaders, here and there, had begun to emerge and were starting to combine their efforts. In other words, a parade was already on the march. The middle-class lawyers, doctors, engineers, small businessmen and intellectuals of the LNDLR had to run like mad to get to the front of it. Further, once arrived, they were simply out there. Some would pay a high price for their “leadership” of the Cristeros, including the ultimate one, but few ever saw action in the field. The Cristeros were very much their own men. They would have marched on with or without the LNDLR. In fact, they did. The last Cristero warrior to fall in battle did so in 1941, twelve years after betrayal rendered the LNDLR and ACJM utterly impotent. (The LNDLR soon fell apart. The ACJM was folded into the episcopacy’s official youth organization.)
Who They Were
The real nature of the rebellion is shown by the men who finally became its true leaders. As the peasants of the Vendee in France were led mainly by other peasants and artisans who demonstrated a surprising gift for military command, especially in guerrilla-type actions, the Cristeros found their most brilliant general in a man who was an itinerant salesman of pharmaceutical products before the rebellion. His name, still honored by Mexico’s Catholic patriots, was Jesus Degollado Guizar. Two other top generals were simple priests (both ethnic Indians) from rural parishes, Fathers Aristeo Pedroza and Jose Reyes. Other men with no military experience rose to command positions in an army that numbered 50,000 when it seemed on the brink of victory.
A few professional soldiers would fight with the Cristeros. The most illustrious, an artilleryman who became a general in the regular Mexican army at age 40, was Enrique Gorostieta. Incredibly, he was an agnostic, even a Freemason. Why exactly he had quit the army before the Cristero rebellion, and then joined the revolt, is not clear. He was an ambitious man and may have dreamed of a successful military career leading to political power. Did he leave the regular army because his career there was not leading him in that direction after all? Did he imagine Cristero victory might? It hardly matters. What does matter is that his service with the Cristeros led to his becoming Catholic and dying heroically.
It was the comportment of his men off the battlefield, but especially under fire, that converted the military professional. That is, the commander was filled with admiration for the men he commanded. This can be gleaned from numerous remarks he made over time to subordinates and fellow officers. What made the Cristeros the men they were? he asked himself. It was their Faith, he concluded. So he embraced it.
We shall let Jean Meyer describe what Gorostieta witnessed when he beheld the Cristeros in action: “Soldiers in sandals and dressed in white linen, still filled with the communal spirit of their village, of their field, of their private undertakings, of their family, [who] held steady under fire, did not hesitate to respond to supreme demands, and before his eyes crossed that line beyond which one no longer loves oneself, beyond which one no longer thinks of preserving one’s life. He saw them stand up and march calmly to the battle, hurl themselves machete in hand on the Federal machine-guns, and scale heights at the summit of which simple peasants begin to appear to us as great warriors.”
On June 2, 1929, at a hacienda in Michoacan, cut off from his men, wounded, aware that the bishops were selling out the cause, trapped in a house surrounded by government troops but refusing to surrender, Gorostieta burst out the door and died with guns blazing from both hands, evidently determined to take with him as many federales as possible.
Although the LNDLR had bestowed on him the title of “Supreme Chief” of what it styled the Guardia Nacional, it must be emphasized that Gorostieta, no more than Jesus Degollado, Fr. Pedroza, Fr. Reyes, or anybody else, ever was seen by the Cristeros themselves as their overall supreme commander or leader. The rebellion had no Pancho Villa, no Emiliano Zapata, no caudillo . In the context of Mexico’s history, this was so unusual that the military attachE9 at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Col. Gordon Johnston, reported to the War Department in Washington that it was the most remarkable feature of the rebellion.
Could it even have occurred to Johnston, who almost certainly was Protestant (and probably a Freemason if he made colonel in the U.S. Army in those days), that men with Christ the King at their head had no need of a single human leader to whom to rally?
Bl. Miguel Pro
To say that the rebellion was not truly headed by the LNDLR or ACJM is not to disparage the men of those organizations. We have already said that some of them paid, even with their lives, for their fidelity to the Faith — and so did others because they were connected to them by blood or friendship. Consider the martyrdom of Bl. Fr. Miguel Pro, shot — many readers will have seen photos of it — by a firing squad at police headquarters in Mexico City on November 23, 1927.
Though he was not active with the LNDLR, both Fr. Pro’s brothers, Humberto and Roberto, were. (During the months he spent underground in Mexico City, Bl. Fr. Pro did run a sort of speakers’ bureau for the League.) On November 13, 1927, there was an attempt to assassinate Gen. Alvaro Obregon. (He and the incumbent President, Plutarco Elias Calles, were the two men who dominated Mexican political life in the 1920s, alternating power between them in a diarchy somewhat resembling the rule of co-emperors that developed in the Roman Empire.) The shots fired at Obregon came from a borrowed car whose ownership was easily traced to the LNDLR. One of the would-be assassins was a 24-year-old electrical engineer named Luis Segura Vilchis, an active member of the ACJM. Leaders of both the LNDLR and ACJM were totally in the dark as to what Vilchis and his companions were up to, but when he was eventually arrested, the police threw out a net for other ACJM and LNDLR members. Caught in the net when the house where they lived together was raided: Humberto Pro and his priest-brother. Neither is believed to have had anything to do with the assassination attempt. As already related, Bl. Fr. Miguel was not even a member of the LNDLR. It did not matter to the tyrannical Calles. Such was the depth of his anti-Catholicism that he was sure Bl. Fr. Miguel had to be the mastermind of the assassination attempt on Obregon. So he ordered the execution without trial of Vilchis, the two Pro brothers, and a fourth man, Juan Tirado. The police had been looking for Bl. Fr. Miguel for months, but had they found him before November 13, expulsion from the country would probably have been his worst fate. It was the assassination attempt on Obregon and Bl. Fr. Miguel’s link to the LNDLR, through his brother, that got him killed.
We have shown that the men of the LNDLR ran real risks even if they were not out in the hills with the Cristeros. It must also be said — it ought to be obvious — that had the Catholic peasant-warriors prevailed militarily, neither their valor as fighters nor the purity of their hearts as Catholic men would necessarily have equipped them to form and lead a national government.
Who among them would even have been interested in trying? A clear conscience, not backing down in a fight, the love of their wives and children, getting in their crops and maybe having a little something to drink and a satisfying smoke at the end of the day — such would be the interests of the Cristeros when they were not warriors. Men like that, serious men, know their limitations. These peasants were not like so many of today’s Americans taught from childhood that “You can be anything you want” and who become bitterly resentful and often a menace when they learn the truth.
When, during the course of their rebellion, the Cristeros took over towns, then wider areas and eventually almost the entirety of several states, they did not attempt themselves to provide the government needed to maintain basic services for the inhabitants, like keeping the schools open, food available, transportation running or anything of that kind. Others were enlisted to administer things: sympathetic priests, friendly low-level officials, small proprietors, school teachers, clerks — those men and others like them — men of some education or professional training. Formation of a national government would have required men like those of the LNDLR.
There is one more point to register before we turn to the historical background of La Cristiada.
Reference was made a few paragraphs ago to the depth of the anti-Catholicism of President Calles. The anti-Catholicism of which we speak is not the kind against which most readers brush in their everyday lives. It is the anti-Catholicism revealed by the Revolution (or “democracy”) as inherent in it when it insists that men should live according to their own will instead of God’s, as if He did not exist. Everyday anti-Catholicism merely views the Faith as wrong or as too controlling in the lives of us who adhere to it. The Revolution does not see the Faith as merely wrong, but as positively inimical to itself. It is inimical to the Revolution, but that is irrelevant to the point now being made. The revolutionary, when he is truest to himself, does not simply reject the Faith, he hates it, he wishes to destroy it. “ Ecrasez l’infame! ” cried Voltaire. “Crush the Infamous One!” — the “Infamous One” being the Church.
To gauge the depth of the Revolution’s hatred, to behold what it was the Cristeros fought against, here are a few lines extracted from a speech delivered during the rebellion by one of the government’s generals, J.B. Vargas, to the people of Valparaiso in the state of Zacatecas:
“The evil clergy, composed of traitors to the country, and taking its orders from a foreign leader who is always conspiring to provoke foreign interventions in Mexico in order to ensure his domination and privileges, is harmful because its mission is to brutalize the ignorant people so as to exploit it and make it fanatical to the point of idiocy, and deceive it by making out that the clergy are representatives of God, so as to live off the indolent and illiterate masses, which is where the Friar holds sway. It is enough to have some idea of the terrible history of the Inquisition for one to realize that priests and cassocks reek of prostitution and crime.”
As for Calles himself, it is useful to have a precise idea of what motivated him since he was the very incarnation of the Revolution in Mexico. (Indeed, after Obregon was gone, official reference to Calles became “Supreme Chief of the Revolution.”) The man was summed up by Ernest Lagarde, charge d’affaires at the French Legation in Mexico City at the time of La Cristiada . According to David Bailey, U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow “considered Lagarde to be the best-informed man on the subject [of Church-state relations] in Mexico.” Lagarde wrote of the President of the Republic:
“Calles was a violent and passionate adversary of the Roman Church, not because he wished to prevent the latter from extending its influence and power, but because he had decided to extirpate the Catholic Faith from the soil of Mexico. What was so fundamental in his character, was that he was a man of principle, possessed of an energy which did not stop short of obstinacy and cruelty, and he was prepared to attack not only persons but also principles and even the institution itself, and that the system of government which, as a result of his philosophical convictions, he supported, condemned as economically and politically disastrous the very existence of the Church.”
Now for the promised historical background.
Americans unfamiliar with the history of Europe and their own Hemisphere, except in very broad terms, will suppose that when Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519 with his small band of fellow conquistadors, it was under the aegis of the Spanish crown. That was so, but there was more to it. That the feather cloak of Montezuma is on display today at a museum in Vienna, not Madrid, gives the complete picture. Cortes’s sovereign was Emperor Charles V. Charles was ruler of Spain since that land was part of the Empire, but it was only in 1556 that the country came to stand alone and as we know her today. It was in 1556, that is, that Charles, desiring to spend his last years in a monastery, divided the Empire when resigning the imperial dignity. His brother Ferdinand took up that dignity. Spain and the new dominions in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico, were assigned to Charles’s son Philip, known to history as Philip II, a very great monarch in his own right.
The theory of the Empire was that Church and state, Pope and Emperor, would work together harmoniously for its peace and prosperity toward the end that its subjects might stay as close to God as possible. Writers have tried in various ways to depict this harmony. For instance, the Empire has been likened to a train on its tracks, the tracks being the Church and her teachings, which guided the train. I prefer to see the Empire as a ship. The Emperor was at the helm. The Pope was in the crow’s nest 2 looking out for reefs and ready to cry a warning if he spied one. In all history, a more ideal government has not been attempted.
Unfortunately, several times over the centuries the Emperor or Pope, one or the other, wanted to act as both helmsman and look-out, creating tension between Church and state. On occasion the tension became conflict. Such a point was reached in 1527 when troops of Charles V sacked Rome. (Charles did not intend the pillage, and his generals were powerless to stop it.)
Philip II and the Kings of Spain who followed him would know times of tension, and outright conflict, between Church and state, as had and would various Emperors. Ultimately, the state would prevail in Spain, though never to as extreme a degree as in some other nations. Spain was not like France, with the disaster of Gallicanism, or the Empire under Joseph II. Much less did it resemble England, where a monarch, Henry VIII, simply declared himself Head of the Church in that kingdom.
All this is of interest to us because, as a result of it, during the three centuries that Mexico was Spanish, the Church in Mexico was generally subservient to the crown, although her position was not cast in those terms. Rather, it was presented that the Church enjoyed the protection or “royal patronage” (the term that was actually used) of the crown. It must be said that, on her side, the Church did not find her position very objectionable since the Real Patronato (the term in Spanish) guaranteed to her rights that she enjoys nowhere in the world today. The King could name bishops, true, but no sect would be allowed to exercise in public what it is the Church’s exclusive right to do, objectively speaking: declare when religious teaching is Christian and when it is not. The time would come when the Revolution in Mexico, aware of past history and ignoring the immense difference between a Catholic crown and the purely secular and anti-religious state it was setting up, would endeavor, first, to make the Church subservient to that state, and then to eliminate her altogether.
The endeavor did not begin immediately upon the country’s attaining independence from Spain in 1821. That is because revolutionaries were not then in command. In fact, the men who first led independent Mexico were quite conservative and, almost every one of them, monarchist. It was in Spain herself that liberals had come to power. The Mexicans, with the support of the country’s bishops, sought independence precisely because of that. Achieving it, when they found no foreign prince to reign over them, they turned to a man in their own ranks, Agustin de Iturbide, proclaiming him emperor. Thus, the very first ruler of independent Mexico was a Catholic monarch. (History books that mention this episode at all usually speak of Agustin I — the name he took — as declaring himself emperor, like another Bonaparte. To the contrary, he was canonically anointed by the Archbishop of Guadalajara.)
It wants to be remembered at this juncture that Mexico at the time was twice the size of the nation that has existed since 1848. Texas, California, and all of the rest of the U.S. that we call the Southwest — all that was part of Mexico. Having a Catholic monarchy occupying so much of their own North America made the Protestants who dominated the U.S., a liberal republic, mighty uncomfortable. Even an independent Mexico born as a republic, but one that was Catholic in character instead of liberal, would have been unacceptable to them. The Catholic vision of what a society should be was too different from their own. In time, they would act to eliminate the perceived threat of Catholic power challenging their own by taking over half of Mexico by force of arms and then by buttressing the Revolution once it was installed in what remained of the country. For now, engineering Emperor Agustin’s downfall was the first order of business.
This was not difficult, given the fragility that always characterizes the institutions of a nation — Mexico’s no less than others’ — when it first comes into existence. In 1823 Agustin I sailed into exile in Italy, and a republic was proclaimed. (The next year, believing he could still be of service to his country and ignorant that he had been sentenced to death, Agustin returned. He was arrested upon arrival and shot.) Now is when Mexico’s northern neighbor could set to work in earnest. If the object was to undermine the nation as a Catholic one, the old Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) explains succinctly how the accomplishment of it was begun:
“Freemasonry, so actively promoted in Mexico by the first minister from the United States, Joel R. Poinsset, began gradually to lessen the loyalty both the rulers and the governed had manifested towards the Church. Little by little laws were enacted against the Church, curtailing her rights, as, for example, in 1833, the exclusion of the clergy from the public schools, notwithstanding the fact that at the time the president, D. Valentin Gomez Farias, claimed for the Republican Government all the privileges of the royal patronage, with the power of filling vacant sees and other ecclesiastical benefices.”
Though it risks too much space being given to this outline of the historical background of La Cristiada , the encyclopedia’s reference to Freemasonry suggests the necessity of some comment on the role in Mexico of this particular force of organized naturalism, especially since the reference makes it clear that role has been central.
To concede its centrality would appear to contradict the thought expressed at our beginning: that the success of the Revolution is owed more to our own fallen nature than to the doings of this or that group or organization. However, we allowed that the forces of organized naturalism, including Freemasonry, have had an important part to play in advancing the “progress” of the Revolution. That has been nowhere more conspicuously the case than in Mexico. Usually, Freemasonry can be glimpsed behind the scene: in France in 1789, at the foundation of our own liberal republic, in Russia in 1917. In Mexico it has been front and center.
To give one example: As recently as 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Mexico on his first foreign trip anywhere as supreme pontiff, various lodges around the country took out full-page ads in Mexico City newspapers, all in their own name, protesting the visit and forecasting dire consequences.
Whatever the extent of their power and influence in the U.S., the Masons in this country have never been that open in displaying either themselves or what they are about.
(From the Masonic point of view, developments since the Pope’s first visit to Mexico have been dire. Not merely is it now legal for priests to wear the collar in public, they have been given the right to vote. Still worse, the nation now has a practicing Catholic, Vicente Fox, for President. Moreover, he has said on the record that in his youth he was inspired by stories of Cristero valor.)
If Freemasonry began to be a force in the political life of Mexico as soon as the first U.S. envoy arrived in the country, by the 1920s it was much more. This was acknowledged by Emilio Portes Gil, handpicked by Calles, when he became President in 1929 and declared: “In Mexico the State and Freemasonry have become one and the same in recent years.”
If that was the case with the Mexican state, it was inevitably much the same with the Mexican army. Typical of its officers was Gen. Joaquin Amaro, Minister of War at the time of La Cristiada . There was an infamous occasion during his years as minister when fellow officers and Masons gave him a party in the Church of San Joaquin in Mexico City on the feast day of that saint. The party included the performance of a sacrilegious parody of Holy Mass, complete with champagne drunk from chalices.
(Not so typically, Gen. Amaro converted to the Faith before the end of his life. Some would probably say today that it was highly appropriate that he willed his very extensive library of anti-Catholic literature to the Jesuits.)
Apart from Freemasonry, though never by much, another force that actively sought to undermine Mexico as a Catholic nation was Protestantism. It had considerable success, especially in the north — the part of the country bordering the U.S.
The north is what some Americans imagine all of Mexico to be: largely desert and hot. Before the advent of air-conditioning made it possible for some of its towns, like Monterrey, to grow into major cities and manufacturing centers, it was sparsely populated. Not coincidentally, Mexicans commonly refer to the historical leaders of the Revolution in their country as “the Men of the North” because that is where most of them came from, including both Obregon and Calles. These were men who grew up outside the Hispanic and Indian heartland of Mexico. Their formative years were spent literally and figuratively closer to the U.S. than to that heartland. As a consequence, they often attributed the “backwardness” of their country to her Catholicism. They saw the Protestantism just across the frontier as accounting for the wealth and progressiveness of the U.S.
Doubtless there is something to that notion. Catholics do believe, or should, that some things are more important than acquiring wealth. Acquiring virtue is one. Protestants, especially if they are of a Calvinist stripe, see wealth as a reward from God Himself for their abstemiousness and work ethic, which they fancy as constituting all the virtue that matters. This difference in outlook of Catholics and Protestants produces different lifestyles. “Time is money” is an American dictum with roots as old as Benjamin Franklin’s injunction that “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Time is not to be wasted. In Catholic countries, especially Latin ones in Europe and the Western Hemisphere, men are given to “wasting” it by spending hours on cafE9 terraces or in cantinas or in long siestas. The Protestant will observe that is not the way to make money or otherwise “get ahead.” We have an observation of our own: It is remarkable how many rich Protestants choose to vacation and even retire in places like Provence or Tuscany or Cuernavaca to taste a little of the life always enjoyed by the despised Catholic. You never hear of one of them hiring an architect to renovate an old farm house in Kansas.
In any event, when the Men of the North came to power early in the 20th century, they opened up the country, as a matter of policy, to Protestant penetration. That being the case, American Protestants generally supported the Revolution in Mexico wholeheartedly. As one of them, S.G. Inman of the Committee of the League of Free Nations, would testify to a U.S. Senate committee in 1919: “When the Mexican Revolution began, the Protestant Churches threw themselves into it almost unanimously because they believed that the progress of the Revolution represented what these churches had been preaching through the years and that the triumph of the Revolution meant the triumph of the Gospel. There were some entire congregations who, led by their pastors, volunteered for service in the Revolutionary Army85 Many Protestant preachers are now prominent in the Mexican government.”
By 1922 there were 261 American missionaries working with 773 Mexican Protestant pastors in 703 places of worship whose combined congregations numbered 22,000. By 1926 the Methodists were running 200 schools in Mexico. The YMCA was all over the place. The Episcopalian Bishop of Mexico, Moises Saenz, was the brother of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aaron Saenz. That connection by itself guaranteed that the Protestant missions would enjoy government cooperation. Protestants also controlled the Ministry of Education.
Jean Meyer relates the Protestant penetration to the growing Catholic resistance to the Revolution, a resistance that finally produced the Cristero rebellion: “Proselytism, always based on the twin themes of the immorality of the celibate priests and the rapacity of the higher clergy85was quite effective in the North and in the pioneering areas of the hot lands, but elsewhere it produced reactions which were often violent, and which became increasingly frequent after 1926 as Protestantism grew in strength. To the Catholics, it was obvious that the Government was collaborating closely with the Yankee missions and that it was working for the great ‘decatholization’ hoped for by Theodore Roosevelt as a prelude to annexation. The Catholic politicians would have given much to have been able to publish this telegram sent by the Episcopalian churches of Toledo, Ohio, and Taylor, Pennsylvania, to President Obregon: ‘Millions of Americans feel for you and pray for you while you struggle to unloose the grip of the Roman Catholic Church upon your great country.’ ”
Actually opening the country to Protestant penetration and promoting the sects as a matter of policy began with the rise to power of the Men of the North, but they were not the first to wish the “decatholization” of Mexico. That was no more the case than that the Revolution in Mexico began with them, though it was with them that it openly called itself the Revolution. We have already heard that the loyalty of both rulers and governed towards the Church began to lessen — that it was made to do so — as soon as the first U.S. envoy arrived in the country soon after Mexico attained independence.
The pace of the Revolution’s advance, and with it the “de-catholization” that is the very definition of what it is about, accelerated in the 1850s. Between 1855 and 1857, when a new constitution was adopted, a series of anti-Catholic measures were enacted by the government. One required the Church to divest herself of all her real estate except churches. Another required the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages. Still another put cemeteries under the control of the state. A revolt against the new constitution, supported by Catholic leaders, broke out. Fighting between the rebels and government forces lasted three years.
The government at the time was headed by Benito Juarez. He was so highly regarded in the U.S. that he remains probably the only Mexican president that many Americans can name. From Veracruz, the Gulf Coast city where he set up a temporary capital during the fighting of 1858-60, he issued numerous edicts which are collectively known in Mexican history as the Laws of Reform. The first decreed the absolute separation of Church and state. Others nationalized all Church-owned land; prohibited public officials from attending religious services; made tithing illegal; abolished male monastic orders; 3 prohibited female orders from accepting new members; made civil marriage obligatory and legalized divorce.
His army abundantly supplied with arms by the U.S., Juarez finally prevailed in the field and re-established the capital in Mexico City at the beginning of 1861. Conservative leaders refused to accept defeat, however, and looked to Europe for help. Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, was ready to provide it.
The conservatives wished to revive the form of government Mexico enjoyed when she first became independent: monarchy. They sought a prince to reign over them. They found one in a descendant of Charles V. He was the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, whose ambitious wife, Charlotte, was a daughter of Leopold, King of the Belgians.
Reluctant at first to accept the proffered crown of Mexico, since acceptance entailed the surrender of all his rights in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but pressed by Charlotte and, above all, Napoleon, Maximilian finally agreed. So much sentimental nonsense has been written about him that a few lines on the blunt reality of this interlude in Mexican history would be salutary.
Explaining why Napoleon III chose to become involved is beyond our scope. (In part, Mexico owed a great deal of money to France; in part, the French have always been fascinated by the country.) However, the effort to reestablish monarchy in Mexico 45 years after the first attempt would not have been possible except that he garrisoned the country with a very large expeditionary force of thousands of men. It was, in effect, under its protection that Maximilian and Charlotte arrived in Mexico in May, 1864, to reign as Emperor Maximiliano and Empress Carlota.
If the safeguard of the rights of Christ as King of Society ought to be the paramount concern of government, those rights certainly were more likely not to be entirely ignored under Maximilian than Benito Juarez (or anyone who followed him as President). Thus it would unquestionably have been better for Mexico and even the world had Napoleon and Maximilian’s venture succeeded. However, it was doomed from the start. That is because Maxmilian simply was not up to it. The man was a romantic, a dreamer. He may have meant well, but did almost nothing right, except die manfully when the time for that came. The single worst thing he did was refuse restitution to the Church and other great landowners of any of the property Juarez had seized from them with the Laws of Reform. It is a fact that the Church had come to own perhaps as much as 50 percent of the country’s arable land, and that may have been too much, but setting aside the question of justice, by his refusal Maximilian alienated the very parties who should have constituted his natural power base. It was insane to decide against any restitution at all, and there was no reason for it except that Maximilian imagined it would somehow win him “the love of the people,” for which he longed.
Meantime, Juarez had never left the country. He was in the north, still calling himself President, still recognized as such by the U.S. Further, after fighting in the War Between the States ended in April, 1865, Washington could once again provide him with arms while making it known diplomatically to France and other European powers that it was no happier in the 1860s than four decades before at the prospect of a Catholic monarchy next door.
The outcome was virtually inevitable. When Napoleon, feeling heat from the U.S. and foreseeing war with Prussia, pulled his troops out of Mexico, Maximilian was left alone to contend with the republicans, who had begun to move south. With no solid base on which to stabilize it, thanks to his own short-sightedness, his throne was bound to topple. He dispatched Charlotte to Europe to try to drum up support in its courts, but that mission proved as futile as his own when he rode into the field to take personal command of the dwindling number of men still loyal to him and fighting the U.S.-equipped Juaristas.
He was captured at the town of Queretaro on May 15, 1867, and shot by a firing squad the following June 19. Like Bl. Fr. Miguel Pro 60 years later, he faced his shooters without a blindfold or the slightest visible trace of fear. (We said his death, if nothing else, became him. As for Charlotte, she lived on at one of her family’s chateaux in Belgium, sunk in madness, still believing herself to be a sitting empress, until 1927.)
As our war of 1861-65 decided once-and-for-all whether the U.S. would continue as the federation of sovereign states intended by a majority of the Founding Fathers or as a unitary nation with political power centralized in Washington, D.C., so the fall of Maximilian decided once-and-for-all whether Mexico would exist as a monarchy or republic. There was, however, still some question as to what sort of republic it would be.
That was not entirely settled during the years of Juarez’s presidency or even when, in 1873, his successor, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, incorporated the Laws of Reform into the constitution. That year and several times during the next four, peasants in a half-dozen states, encouraged by local clergy, rebelled against the government. Then, in 1877, Gen. Porfirio Diaz seized power. He would brook disorder from no quarter, not in 1877 or anytime during the coming 34 years that he ruled Mexico with an iron fist.
Diaz was another Freemason, and the anti-Catholic restrictions now incorporated into the constitution remained. Still, he was a leader worthy of being called a statesman. More to the point, for the sake of maintaining stability and order, he consistently pursued a policy of conciliation toward the Church. That meant that many of the constitutional restrictions on her simply were not enforced. By the 1890s new dioceses could be established and there were even Catholic schools operating in many parts of the country. Further, after Pope Leo XIII in 1891 published to the world his great social encyclical Rerum Novarum , perhaps the single most influential papal document of the past two centuries, Catholic leaders in Mexico, as in many other places, began to promote social reform. Porfirio Diaz allowed them the freedom to do so, and in ever-increasing measure.
This is not the place for a survey of Mexican Catholicism at the turn of the 20th century, but in 1903 a congress of the Mexican faithful was convened in Puebla. It was followed by other congresses held in other cities in 1904, 1905 and 1908. Trade union organization, establishment of schools of agriculture and the arts, the improvement of public health, a campaign against unjust and fraudulent labor contracts, the living conditions of Mexico’s vast Indian population — all these and many other topics were discussed and debated at the congresses.
Again, Diaz tolerated it. What he would not allow was Catholics becoming active in politics as Catholics . There could be no Catholic political party (or party of any other coloration). Then, in 1910, a revolt against him was launched by Francisco I. Madero, best described as a sort of Mexican Kerensky. In 1911, a few weeks before Diaz was finally ousted from power and sent into exile, the Archbishop of Mexico City, fearing that the old authoritarian might rally Catholics to the defense of his regime, convened a gathering of lay leaders who thereupon founded a National Catholic Party.
The new party soon began to flourish. In two states, Jalisco and Zacatecas, it even won control of legislatures. They passed laws that provided for worker accident insurance, that exempted credit cooperatives from state and local taxes, and that required employers to give workers a day off on Sunday.
An Ugly Turn
Madero was a liberal, but was personally decent. Given all that would follow, it was unfortunate that he was overthrown and murdered, along with hi s Vice President, by Gen. Victoriano Huerta in February, 1913. This was when the Revolution, as the Revolution, truly began in Mexico.
Huerta was soon successfully opposed by another faction of revolutionaries calling themselves the Constitutionalists. Their head, a state governor named Venustiano Carranza, was prepared to allow the Church some rights, like maintaining her school system, but he was outnumbered in his group’s leadership by men determined not simply to eliminate Catholic influence in Mexico’s public life, but to “liberate” Mexicans from even the private practice of the religion. By mid-1914 the radical elements were seizing church buildings and jailing or exiling bishops, priests and nuns. Their activities culminated in 1917 with the promulgation of still another constitution.
Numerous of its provisions were designed to eliminate the Church as a force in the life of the nation and, ultimately, altogether. Article 3 required all elementary education, public or private, to be secular; clergy were prohibited from establishing or directing elementary schools. Monastic vows as well as monastic orders were outlawed by Article 5. Article 24 barred public worship or any other religious event (like processions) outside churches. Those churches and all other Church-owned buildings (bishops’ residences, seminaries, convents, hospitals, orphanages, etc.) were declared to be property of the state by Article 27. All that was bad enough, but it was Article 130 that mattered most. It empowered the federal government to “exercise in matters of religious worship and external discipline such intervention as by law authorized.” (What did that mean exactly? Whatever the government cared for it to mean.)
The same article forbade all publications deemed religious by title, policy or “merely by their general tendencies” to comment on public affairs; declared the clergy to be members of a profession and therefore subject to civil regulation (state legislatures were given the power to determine the number of clergy allowed to function in their states); and much else, including denial of trial by jury in cases arising from violations of Article 130.
The new constitution was promulgated on February 5, 1917. Most of the country’s bishops were in exile in the U.S. at the time. From there they issued a protest in April, but not much of one. Pleading that they, too, wanted democracy established in Mexico, they appealed for toleration so that the Church could exert her moral authority to assist the government “in its task of promoting the national welfare.”
If Their Excellencies’ protest was not exactly a summons to resistance, the following years right up to the mid-twenties saw, in the words of David Bailey, “a steady growth of Catholic opposition to the Revolution.” That cannot here be chronicled, but it was during this period that both the ACJM and LNDLR were founded. By the outbreak of the Cristero rebellion, the LNDLR would have a membership of 800,000, which sounds very impressive until it is learned that most of it was middle-class and, indeed, female. These members felt they had too much to lose and melted away as an “opposition” as soon as the rebellion began and the LNDLR leadership had to go underground.
A National Church
The next date that is important to us is February 21, 1925. It was a Saturday. Shortly before eight o’clock that morning a hundred armed men calling themselves “Knights of the Order of Guadalupe” entered the Church of La Soledad in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City. They promptly ejected the pastor, his two assistants and the worshippers who had gathered for Mass at that hour. A few minutes later, a 73-year-old priest named Joaquin Perez arrived under the escort of another armed group and proclaimed himself “Patriarch of the Mexican Catholic Church.” Perez was a former Freemason who had once suspended himself from the priesthood to serve in the Revolutionary Army. He was soon joined by another priest, Manuel Monge, who had a police record in his native Spain and was just then living with a woman.
All was quiet at La Soledad on Sunday, but when Monge appeared in the church to say Mass at eleven o’clock Monday morning, parishioners rushed him. He fled to the sacristy and a general riot involving at least a thousand persons broke out. It took mounted police and firemen using high-pressure hoses to break it up. Many parishioners were injured and one killed.
Who was really behind the “Knights” became obvious when the government issued a statement: “The members of the Mexican Church [i.e., the Perez grouplet] must not resort to censurable methods to obtain what the authorities are prepared to grant them provided they seek it peacefully and comply with the requirements of the law.” Further, after Perez and Monge were driven out of La Soledad, Calles ordered the church closed and converted into a public library. Perez was given the use of another, more centrally-located church, one that had been vacant for a number of years.
Even in his day, Benito Juarez had corresponded with Episcopalian bishops in the U.S., sounding them out on their willingness to set up a National Church in Mexico. A couple of other times there had been actual attempts to establish such a schismatic entity, comparable to the so-called Patriotic Church that exists in the Communist People’s Republic of China today. So the incident at La Soledad did not represent a new development, but it was the immediate background against which Mexico’s Catholics viewed events in the following months. For instance, Catholic worship was effectively ended in Tabasco when the state’s governor ordered enforcement of a law requiring all priests to be married and over 40 in order to exercise their ministry. In Hidalgo the legislature limited the number of priests in the state to sixty. Officials closed all seminaries and other Catholic schools in Jalisco and Colima. At the end of February, 1926, Calles sent a message to all state governors urging them to take immediate steps to enforce the constitutional articles on religion. In a speech a few days later he declared: “As long as I am President of the Republic, the Constitution of 1917 will be obeyed.” In April, Pope Pius XI ordered public prayers for Mexico in the churches of Rome. In June he addressed a letter to the Mexican hierarchy urging patience but also firmness. Then came July 2, 1926.
The Last Straw
That was when the government published a decree of 33 articles which would become known as the “Calles Law.” Its effect was to require uniform enforcement on a nationwide basis of all of the constitution’s anti-Catholic provisions, and it spelled out penalties for infractions by officials who failed to enforce the law, as well as by private citizens. Most troubling to the bishops was a provision which required all pastors to register with the government. Clearly, episcopal control of the Church in Mexico was now threatened. The government was moving to arrogate to itself the power to appoint and dismiss priests.
What to do? Simply defy the government and order pastors not to register? The bishops lacked the stomach for that. Pending Vatican approval, which was soon forthcoming, they decided on an action that was without precedent in any land in the entire history of the Church. It was announced in a pastoral letter on July 24: priests were to be withdrawn from all the nation’s churches, there would be no public worship for an indefinite period. The letter emphasized that the country was not being placed under interdict. Still, the moment could not be more dramatic. As David Bailey writes of Sunday, August 1, 1926, the day the action began: “For the first time in more than four centuries, no priest mounted the altar of a Mexican church for morning Mass.”
Some government ministers were sure that the Revolution had won a great victory. Because they did not believe, they supposed that Catholics, with the Sacraments no longer readily available, would stop believing. Various of them offered differing predictions as to how many Catholics would fall away from the Faith each month that Mass was not celebrated in any Church.
The ministers were mistaken. To be sure, the great majority of Mexico’s Catholics, like the great majority in every country, might not be exactly zealous. As long as they were not personally affected, they might even look upon the government’s doings with a certain indifference. For many, however, the situation became different when, as at La Soledad, it was a matter of their church being closed, their priest not being available to hear confession, to baptize an infant, to bury the dead or, most of all, to say Mass. In the cities and big towns a faithful Catholic might find Mass somewhere (usually a private home). It was not like that in the villages and hamlets of the countryside, and as the parishioners of La Soledad rioted when their Mass was directly threatened, so the Cristero rebellion began, and would be fought, in the countryside.