Valor and Betrayal – The Historical Background and Story of the Cristeros
Author’s Introduction to Part II: Independent Mexico, born in 1821 as a Catholic monarchy but soon subverted by the forces of organized naturalism supported from across the country’s northern frontier, would be governed for a century by a series of republican regimes increasingly inimical to the Faith that was the nation’s very soul. The regimes might come and go, often according to the dictates of the U.S., but the Mexican people, especially the majority living on the land, remained constant in their Catholicism, the chief feature of which was popular devotion to the Mother of God as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The faithfulness of the people began to be tested as never before after 1910 when the Revolution, the political embodiment of the false philosophy of liberalism, became established, no longer simply as a governing force, but as the government itself. In 1927 a new constitution was adopted. Many of its provisions were intended to end the influence of the Faith on the life of the nation, and then to eliminate the Church in Mexico altogether. In July, 1926, the government, headed by President Plutarco Elias Calles, moved to take control of the Church from the episcopacy — to make Catholicism in Mexico “national.” In reaction, the bishops ordered the end of all public worship for an indefinite period.
Deprived of Mass, many of the people — peasants living on the land — revolted. Their revolt against a government that had forced the bishops to act so drastically became la Cristiada , the Cristero Rebellion.
To watch it begin with an incident here and another there, to watch it grow as the incidents multiplied and the government reacted with three Catholics shot in one place and 30 in another, to see it finally become a full-blown religious war (What else call it?) — that would be interesting and even exciting, but is impossible to do here. It is as impossible as it will be to record the campaigns, the movements of troops, the battles — in a word, to describe the military action — of this war that lasted three years. Here we can speak only in general terms, to attempt to show the big picture, and for most of it we shall rely on Jean Meyer.
In fact, unless it is specifically said otherwise, the reader may take it that from here on out, anything he sees in quotation marks is drawn from Meyer. We are relying on him this way not simply because The Cristero Rebellion is the most complete history of La Cristiada . It is also because when he wrote the book ( La Cristiade in French) Meyer was a professor of sociology at the University of Perpignan in France. Moreover, by his own admission he was “hostile” (his word) to the Cristeros when he began his researches. After all, he had sympathized with the Reds during the Spanish Civil War. In other words, Meyer is no “right-wing nut.” Moreover, the English-language translation of his work was published by the Cambridge University Press, not exactly a hotbed of political reaction.
These facts about Meyer and his book matter when he tells us, for instance, that there were federal officers who “fell in their troops to the cry of ‘Long live Satan!’ ” or that with these troops: “No prisoners were taken; civilians taken as hostages were murdered. Torture was systematic, and was used not only to obtain information but also to prolong suffering, and to oblige Catholics to renounce their faith, since death was not sufficient to persuade them to do this. To be forced to walk on the flayed soles of the feet, to be flayed, burned, have their bones broken, to be quartered alive, hung up by their thumbs, garrotted, electrocuted, scorched by blowlamps, racked, subjected to the torture of the boot and the water-torture, stretched out, dragged behind a horse — such was the fate of those who fell into the hands of the Federals.”
Again, because Meyer is who he is, we know he is not making it up when he describes other actions of federales : “The acts of sacrilege were surrounded by an atmosphere of horror 85 Churches were desecrated by officers who rode into them on horseback, trampled the Host under the hoofs of their chargers, used the altars as dining-tables and turned the building into a stable. Statues of saints were used for target practice, and those of the Virgin were undressed and the soldiers danced with them. The soldiers dressed up in the ecclesiastical vestments, and ate the consecrated Hosts and drank cafE9 au lait from the chalice.”
Reflect on the ghastly pictures Meyer puts before our mind’s eye. Do not stop with the thought, “No wonder the Cristeros rebelled!” No, reflect also that many, if not nearly all, of the soldiers performing the acts would have been Catholic, would have been baptized, would have been First Communicants as young boys. Can we imagine the guilt that many must have felt? No doubt some were driven to committing further bestial acts in a desperate effort to obliterate the feeling. On the other hand, we may find here an explanation of why an army that stood at 70,000 men on paper actually suffered 20,000 desertions a year during the three years the war lasted.
We shall soon turn to considering the Cristeros, the manner of men they were, why they fought and for what, but as long as we are here speaking of numbers, this is probably a good place to deal with certain questions the reader is bound to ask, like what was the scope of the fighting?
We have already said that in May, 1929, just when victory seemed likely and just when the bishops and Holy See made it impossible, there were 50,000 Cristeros in the field. Large as was that number, it does not mean that was the total of those who fought. We know that because 100,000 combatants were killed in the war. Of that total, 40,000 were Cristeros — not that much fewer in three years than the number of Americans lost in Vietnam during an entire decade of fighting.
That still more federales than Cristeros were killed despite their machine-guns, artillery and airplanes, all of which the Cristeros lacked, tells us something about the latter’s fighting skills, but we shall speak of that a little later.
Where did the fighting take place? There were peasant risings most everywhere but the north and, except in a few places, the tropical south. The actual war, however, raged mostly in states in the center and west of the country: Zacatecas, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Colima and, above all, Jalisco.
What about civilian casualties? It is impossible to say. Apart from the government’s strategy of “reconcentrating” populations, there were also epidemics and famine affecting civilians. We do know that the population of the small coastal state of Colima fell from 85,000 to 60,000 during the three years of fighting. There was also produced a large number of refugees, permanent ones. A half-million Mexicans moved from the countryside and settled in cities, especially the capital. Another half-million made their way across the border into the U.S. (This was when modern Mexican communities in cities like Los Angeles got their real start.)
What about the U.S. and La Cristiada ? There is an old saying: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so near the United States.” Translated it means that after 1821 particular regimes would rise or fall according to whether or not the U.S. supported them, but the Revolution, as such, has always been backed by us.
At the time of La Cristiada , that policy was personified by our ambassador Dwight W. Morrow. Small in stature and compact of build, he was an archetypical WASP, spiritually speaking. During the period of his ambassadorship his daughter Anne married the biggest celebrity of the day, aviator Charles Lindbergh. Two months after he left Mexico in September, 1930, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, but died less than a year after winning his seat.
As a gentleman (according to the WASP understanding), Morrow would have been shocked if accused of anything as crude as anti-Catholicism (“Some of my best friends are Catholic,” he might honestly say). His real attitude was revealed in a memo he sent the State Department in May, 1929 (emphasis in the document):
“The commercial and financial situation is now at its worst; there is virtually a moratorium as far as the payment of debts are concerned85 It is the general opinion among the better class of Mexicans here that unless the Mexican government is able to exterminate the marauding bands of ‘Cristeros’ which infest the surrounding country, or come to some agreement with the Church whereby religious services may be resumed, the possibility of a return to normal conditions is very remote.”
Apart from what is emphasized and the casualness with which the ambassador speaks of “extermination,” the reference to the “better class of Mexicans,” especially contrasted to the “marauding bands,” speaks volumes. As for the emphasis, it explains why the “arrangements” — the terms agreed by Church and state that allowed the resumption of public worship — would be published a month later. They were already in the works in May. The final wording would be Morrow’s. He personally dictated to a secretary the documents signed by President Portes Gil and Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, Archbishop of Morelia and Apostolic Delegate.
He was able to do that on account of the close personal bond he formed with Calles. For details on Morrow’s role in arranging the “arrangements” and the whole period of his ambasssadorship, consult David Bailey. For the present article, we shall let Jean Meyer sum up everything we need to know about Morrow in one paragraph:
“The personal friendship that existed between the remarkable Ambassador Morrow and President Calles was accompanied by close political collaboration. Morrow, in his diplomatic capacity, played an essential role in the settlement of the religious conflict, and, as a financier, he assisted his Mexican colleague. Thanks to his good offices, the Government was able to purchase directly from United States arsenals ten thousand Enfield rifles, ten million rounds of ammunition, and aircraft which took part in the battle of Jimenez with American pilots [emphasis added].”
For “the People”?
Morrow’s reference to the “better class of Mexicans” brings us to another general matter. The Revolution always pretends it is on the side of the great mass of mankind — including, above all, the poor — against the rich. In Mexico it has been pretending for 75 years that the Cristeros were the tools, witting or unwitting, of the rich of that country; that these rich were at the heart of Catholic resistance. The idea is preposterous. How many of the rich have ever clung closely, really clung, to the Faith? Princes and nobles, yes, but the rich? Even in Our Lord’s day, which rich man, besides St. Joseph of Arimathea, was His friend? (No wonder, according to Him, it can be so difficult for one of them to get into Heaven.)
And when, really, has the Revolution ever been against the rich? (Princes and nobles, yes, but the rich? Think of the career of Armand Hammer.)
In Mexico during 1926-29 “The rich sided with the Government and denounced the Cristeros as ‘shirtless ones, sandal-wearers, cattle-eaters, down-and-outs.’ ”
Foremost among those rich were the nation’s bankers, who were certainly among the “better class of Mexicans” usually invited to dine at a U.S. ambassador’s residence.
What about the nation’s bishops? Some of what wants to be said about them will be reserved for later, but a few things ought to be noted at this juncture.
There were 38 of them at the time of La Cristiada . No more than seven ever supported it. One, Jose de Jesus Manriquez y Zarate of Huejutla, even dreamed of going into the countryside to fight with the Cristeros. (After the “arrangements,” Rome removed him from his see and he passed the rest of his life totally withdrawn from ecclesiastical affairs, dying quietly in Mexico City in 1951.)
Twelve bishops were adamantly opposed to the rebellion. The 19 others did as most bishops always seem to do in every historical situation. They took no firm position. They kept a finger to the wind to see which way it would blow. All were ordered deported by President Calles in April, 1927. Thirty-five complied with the order. Three remained in the country, two of them in hiding in their own dioceses, the third moving around among private homes in the capital. Those in exile sent a message of congratulations to President Portes Gil when he survived the explosion of a bomb in Guanajuato on February 10, 1929.
The date is significant because the preceding day a young Catholic named Jose de Leon Toral — he belonged to the LNDLR — was shot by a firing squad for having successfully assassinated Gen. Obregon the previous July. (Sentenced to life in prison for her involvement was a remarkable religious, Sister Concepcion Acevedo de la Llata. A cloistered Capuchin nun before the Calles Law closed the nation’s convents and known as “Madre Conchita,” she was the superior of a small group of religious living underground in Mexico City, where she also inspired many of the young firebrands of the ACJM with her spiritual zeal. She was released from prison at the end of 1940.)
Divided as it was and with most of its membership sitting on the proverbial fence, it is not surprising that the Mexican hierarchy took the tack it did after the Cristero rebellion began. It adopted its position, such as it was, following two meetings in Mexico City between Archbishop Ruiz y Flores, a few other bishops, and representatives of the LNDLR, which, by then, was claiming for itself the “leadership” of the rebellion. The first meeting took place on November 26, 1926.
The League representatives began their presentation by pointing out the obvious: the rebellion was already begun, the die was cast. They argued that if the bishops condemned it, they would generate a popular feeling against themselves, but they also went further. They asked that the bishops form the consciences of the faithful, insofar as possible, “in the sense that it [the rebellion] is a matter of a lawful, laudable, meritorious act of legitimate armed defense.” Additionally, they asked the hierarchy to provide field chaplains for the Cristeros and, finally, to sponsor an appeal to wealthy Catholics for funds so that “at least once in their lives they will understand their obligation to contribute.”
Archbishop Ruiz y Flores answered that he and his brother bishops would consider the points raised by the LNDLR, and four days later the second meeting took place. On this occasion, the Archbishop allowed that Church doctrine did hold that it is lawful to resort to force when peaceful attempts to combat tyranny have failed. However, in terms of practical support, it was stated that the bishops lacked canonical faculties for assigning chaplains, though they would grant permission to priests to minister to men in the field. As regards a financial appeal to the wealthy, Their Excellencies deemed that would be “dangerous, difficult, and in practice impossible.” They could not themselves provide any funds, of course.
In sum, the bishops’ position was one that left them technically above the resort to arms while at the same time not simply did they not condemn the rebellion. They could even be said, depending on how the fighting went, to wish it well.
Since we have spoken of money, this is the logical place to report that it remained a problem for the Cristeros until the very end. (It was needed, after all, to buy rifles and ammunition.) After the bishops refused to help, the LNDLR, remembering how successful Eamon de Valera had been in raising money among American Catholics for the fight against Ireland’s oppressors, sent a representative, Rene Capistran Garza, to the U.S. to raise funds. A few rich Catholics, including William F. Buckley, Sr., a man whose fortune was based on oil-holdings in Mexico, seemed at first inclined to help, but never came through. The Knights of Columbus did raise $1 million, but not to contribute to the fight. All of the money was spent on an advertising campaign to promote religious freedom and tolerance in the U.S. as well as Mexico. As for the bishops of the U.S., none was as sympathetic to the Mexicans as all had been to de Valera. Pretty typical was Cardinal O’Connell of Boston. He listened to Capistran Garza, and then urged him to suffer patiently the trials God was sending. Speaking in a very fatherly voice, the prelate additionally advised the young Mexican to forget what he was doing and find a job. He said he would be happy to provide him a letter of introduction to the Massachusetts Knights of Columbus, who might be able to help in that respect. One U.S. bishop, of many solicited, did contribute $100.
What money the Cristeros ever had would not be raised by the LNDLR, but by themselves in three main ways: from a very light tax levied in territories they controlled and that was often waived if it threatened to be a hardship, light as it was; from the robbery of federal government funds, notably from trains carrying the money between cities; and from kidnappings, often of Americans working for U.S.-owned mines. No one kidnapped by them was ever murdered. When one mining company refused to pay the ransom for a kidnapped engineer, the Cristeros were stuck with him for months, handing him around from unit to unit. This young American did earn his keep, however, by teaching his captors how to maintain and use the Thompson submachine-gun.
There is another aspect of La Cristiada that wants to be discussed, especially after our mention of Madre Conchita and also the perpetual problem the Cristeros had in finding ammunition and the money to buy it. This is to speak of the role women played in the rebellion, especially those of the Women’s Brigades. These amazing and courageous women — 25,000 of them, most unmarried and between the ages of 15 and 25 and commanded by “generals” none of whom was over 30, and nearly all of them peasant girls or working-class ones from the cities — deserve far more than the lines we shall give them. In truth, they deserve a book. It does not exist, and now probably never will. There are few records for an author to draw from since the women were too busy with their work to keep them, and there is no one to interview since all of the principals passed away years ago. There may be granddaughters with stories to tell, but how find them?
As the reader will glean from their very title, Women’s Brigades, these virtual female auxiliaries of the Cristeros organized themselves along military lines. Each brigade of 650 women was commanded by a colonel who was assisted by a lieutenant-colonel and five majors, each having under her captains, lieutenants and sergeants, with five soldiers under each sergeant. The main service they performed was providing ammunition to the fighters. Indeed, after the Cristeros twice gave money to the LNDLR to buy cartridges, only to see every centavo spent by the League to meet expenses of its own, they relied exclusively on the Women’s Brigades (except for what they captured from the enemy). What is extraordinary is that the women were able to operate in such complete secrecy that none were arrested until March, 1929, by which time they had existed nearly two years. One supposes the secrecy could be maintained, in part, because not a single defection from the Brigades’ ranks is known to have taken place.
Jean Meyer describes some of the women’s activities, starting with their provision of ammunition: “It was nothing more nor less than an organization which for two years mobilized thousands of women day and night to run the shuttle service between the cities and the battlefields, for, from the state capitals, the Women’s Brigades conveyed the ammunition right to the Cristeros: they went out of the towns, hiding the ammunition in coal, cement, or maize lorries. Then, when the Cristeros could not get into the village concerned, it was necessary to go out to meet them, with pack animals, baskets, or the famous vests [undergarments the women designed and made for the transport of cartridges]. Towards the end of the war, the brigades were working on a big scale, sending cases of ammunition from Mexico City by train, with the complicity of certain of the railway employees, disguising the shipments as heavy freight85.
“Besides conveying material, the girls of the brigades also conveyed the Cristeros themselves: they ensured the safety and the movements of the senior officers obliged to come into towns or to travel85 In addition, some of them who possessed considerably more scientific knowledge than the peasants worked as artificers and instructors, teaching the Cristeros to manufacture explosives, blow-up trains, and handle batteries and detonators.
“The brigades took their military mission extremely seriously, and did not hesitate to have recourse to violence, kidnapping, and executions in order to obtain ransoms, protect the combatants, and deal with spies. Using every means at their disposal, they even organized dances in the villages so as to win the confidence of the [Federal] officers, allay their suspicions, and obtain information. These latter-day Judiths led by Josefina de Alba organized, with the help of Andres Nuno, the Direct Action group of the Women’s Brigades, and distinguished themselves by killing with a knife a schismatic priest, Felipe Perez, who was a Government spy.
“The care of the wounded hidden in the villages or towns was the responsibility of the brigades, working under the direction, in this sphere, of Dr. Rigoberto Rincon Fregoso, and they also managed the rudimentary field hospitals in the Altos, Colima and south Jalisco, and the underground hospital in Guadalajara.
“The brigades also concerned themselves with the food supplies of the Cristeros, but in this sphere they were merely assisting, and at times coordinating, the efforts of all the peasants who were relatives and friends of the Cristeros, who supplied the food directly, without the intervention of the brigades85. They published propaganda and ran the underground press set up near Zapopan, and later Tlaquepaque [a weekly newspaper, Gladium, was printed]85 They partially ensured the political and military courier system of the Cristeros, and assisted with their intelligence network.
“A woman was never left for long working in the same place and the same branch of activity, once she achieved a certain degree of responsibility; the senior officers continually changed their identity and residence85. All the women were filled with passionate fervour for the cause.”
Meyer quotes one of the women officers who was still alive in 1967 and whom he was able to interview: “I was overcome with joy. That willingness with which everybody worked! That silence that they all kept!”
We should like much more to be told about the Women’s Brigades, but we still have three other subjects to discuss: the Cristeros themselves, the manner of men they were and what they saw themselves fighting for; their betrayal; and the ghastly aftermath of the betrayal.
What They Were Like
As for the manner of men they were, the first thing to make perfectly clear is that they were Catholic, yes, and for the most part moral to a very impressive degree, but they were not monks and much less angels.
To begin, drink is a pleasure of poor men everywhere, and the Cristeros were no exception. They liked their drink to the point that most of their commanders limited the sale of alcohol whenever a town was taken over, and sometimes banned it entirely. Even music was sometimes banned. The reason for these prohibitions is easy to understand. As one old veteran told Jean Meyer in 1967: “Where there was music, there was wine, and the enemy might surprise us when we were drunk.”
Meyer writes of Gen. Manuel Michel and his relationship with his men: “Michel took swift and severe action against wrong-doers. This severity, which contributed to his popularity, extended to social behavior and economic matters. He did not tolerate drinking, gambling, or prostitution, and insisted on his troops saying the Rosary every day. It was unnecessary to insist on the Rosary, which was so dear to those soldiers, but it was more difficult to put a stop to the habit of drinking.”
Then there is the matter of the Cristeros and women other than their wives. With the federales , the practice of rape was “systematic” (Meyer’s word). Among the Cristeros, the punishment for rape — and theft — was summary execution, and apparently it had to be inflicted two or three times during the war. Such was the general religious fervor of the men, however, that when they took over a town local prostitutes often would get caught up in it and voluntarily stop selling themselves. Further, most Cristeros were married. Still, it happened that some would stray, especially when they were away from their wives for a long stretch of time. Commanders tried to prevent this, if only because of the friction it could cause with local populations, but they were realistic. When community leaders in one town complained to a commander about the amorous adventures of some of his men, the commander replied with a degree of exasperation, “I am bringing you men, not pansies.”
These men were capable of exchanging very earthy battlefield insults with the enemy, something easy to do in a civil war where the combatants all speak the same language. In his book, Meyer illustrates what these exchanges were like, but we need not shock our readers with them. It suffices to say that in response to the diabolical blasphemies of the federales , the Cristeros were capable of a colorful rejoinder.
Given their machismo , it is striking how docile Cristeros could be when it came to taking orders from their women, especially their mothers. Meyer reports instances of these ladies telling sons to cut short a furlough and get back to the fight, and of others sending their teenagers (and in one instance a 12-year-old) into battle after older brothers had fallen. Wives took pride in their Cristero husbands’ reported battlefield exploits, and woe unto the husband whose wife never heard of him being valorous. Beyond their docility, the point here is that most Cristeros fought fairly close to home. Reports of their behavior would get back.
That they usually fought close to home is one of the things that gave the Cristeros a certain advantage in the war. They knew the country. On the other hand, there was the problem of ammunition, which has already been mentioned. Another problem for the Cristeros was that they had no artillery except for pieces of their own amateur manufacture. This mattered greatly in towns where there was always a church and the churches always had bell towers. Federales could occupy the tops of those towers and hold out until reinforcements arrived. A few cannon shots could knock down a tower, but the Cristeros lacked the guns. They could sometimes smoke out federales by lighting brush fires at the base of a tower, but that tended to be costly in lives. His comrades would try to cover him, but a Cristero trying to get one of these fires going was still likely to be shot by the federales up above.
There was a positive side to the Cristeros’ inferiority in firepower. Not simply did they learn to make every shot count, they became extremely adept at close-quarter fighting, especially with the knife. As a result, there could have been few federales who did not fear being caught up close by a Cristero. In an age when our military inflicts most casualties, including “collateral damage,” from aircraft miles high in the sky, the idea of a Christian warrior plunging a knife into an enemy soldier whose eyes he can actually see may be repugnant. Let us remember, however, that though 40,000 Cristeros died defending the Faith, many of the 60,000 federal dead were killed by such primitive means.
Men of Faith
But what about the Cristeros’ Faith? How real was it? That they fought and died for it in the number they did ought to be answer enough, but much more can be said. To do that, we will soon give the floor once more to Jean Meyer.
To understand him fully, it needs to be known that after the government expelled 400 foreign priests in 1926, 3,600 clerics remained in Mexico. That was as of January, 1927. Ninety of them would be executed before the “arrangements” ended the war. Most of the remaining clergy who did not already live in cities moved into them. In the states where the war was fought, there were no more than about 100 priests in all the countryside. Fifteen of them defied the bishops in order to serve as Cristero chaplains. Five priests took up arms, two of them becoming generals, as we have heard. Another 25 actively assisted the rebellion anyway they could. We mention these numbers so that it is clear, considering how many fighters there were and the extent of the territory in which they operated, that the frequency of Mass and regular sacramental life we can take for granted were not available to most Cristeros most of the time.
Here is Meyer:
“The language of the Cristeros was that of the old Spain of St. John of the Cross and of Cervantes; their religion was the same. Neither the imprisonment nor the exile of the clergy prevented the conduct of worship, at least in simplified form85. Often there were no longer any priests, and a layman undertook the direction of liturgical life, as did Cecilio E. Valtierra at Jalpa de Canovas; every morning he read the Church’s office in the presence of the faithful; these ‘white Masses’ were accompaned by other innovations, under the pressure of circumstances85. Singing hymns and saying the Rosary were an accompaniment to daily life on the march and in camp; the Cristeros prayed and sang far into the night, and their commanders urged them to make a true act of contrition before the battle, and they charged the enemy singing psalms and crying out, ‘Long live Christ the King! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!’ It could not be otherwise with these men, who had sworn before God to conquer or die. The nickname Cristo-Reyes or Cristeros, applied to them by the Government, which has come down in posterity, emphasises the most essential element of all — Christ, living in the Trinity, and accessible through the Sacraments.”
It was said elsewhere in this essay that the Cristeros were not the men who could form and lead a national government. That does not mean they lacked social vision. They were, after all, Catholic. Meyer speaks of their vision:
“During this period of crisis and economic, social and religious disarray, the Cristeros were struggling against the degradation of social mores which had taken place since 1910 — against wine, gambling, and ‘scandals involving women,’ because they always meant conflict, violence, and the death of someone within a camp that should be united against the real enemy, for these were the traditional scourges of the rural world, and their eradication meant a step towards perfection, the preparation of the Kingdom. When Acevedo [a Cristero general] protested against the adjective ‘revolutionary’ being applied to him, and asserted that the movement was the exact ‘opposite of a revolution,’ he was expressing that desire for the reconstruction of a society which would be better than the previous one and incomparably superior to the prevailing chaos. The difficulties of day-to-day existence, which had multiplied since 1910, the unleashing of official and private violence, the disappearance of peace and of that minimum of justice which made the age of Porfirio Diaz seem, in retrospect, like a Golden Age, the decay of certain institutions, banditry, insecurity, and the economic crisis — all these factors had given the peasants a very definite experience of social disintegration; and in consequence the Cristeros were trying to re-establish the relations of neighborliness, and to restore to their honored place the ancient social values85. The system of government adopted by the Cristeros was dictated, on the one hand, by the fact that theirs was a popular army living at union with the people, and still less capable of ill-treating it because it was building the Kingdom of Christ, and, on the other hand, it was a reaction against the social lawlessness which was becoming the rule. It was neither conservatism nor revolution but reform, at a time when the ancient traditional models of behavior were in crisis, without others having arisen to take their place. The Cristero solution consisted in solidly re-establishing the rural world on its family and religious bases, profiting from the mood of mystic exaltation which makes possible a new morality and a new perfection; it restored, among the peasants, the hope of a brilliant future for the country.”
Here is some more on the Cristero social vision:
“Although the victory of Christ the King, and His coming, were connected with the vague promise of a new profane world, they [the Cristeros] emphasised above all the idea of a contract between the Mexican people and God, who had twice conferred special favours on Mexico, who had twice made Mexico His Kingdom, by sending to it the Virgin of Guadalupe and by proclaiming there the Kingship of His Son [this had been done by the bishops in January, 1914]. In the context of this collective contract, the ills of Mexico, in its special position vis-a-vis the United States (which threatened to swallow it whole), derived from the faults of the Mexicans, and the recognition of this failing, which had developed in the people since the century before, was related to a very ancient tradition. To speak of the lack of obedience to the covenant concluded with God was to emphasize human res ponsibility for historical events85 The Cristeros were conscious of being the Christian nation, the Kingdom of Christ, for which they were shedding their blood.”
The Cristeros might not be revolutionaries, but they were in rebellion. This raises the question American Catholics have not had to face since 1861: When is it permissible to take up arms against a government? Is it ever? Meyer describes how the Cristeros faced the question:
“Recognising the legitimacy of established powers, because all authority comes from God, and without the will of God ‘not a leaf stirred,’ the Cristero was prepared to render unto Caesar the things that were his, as long as he did not make war on God. From the day when Caesar became Herod, threatening the salvation of men, he deprived himself of legitimacy, and, like Antiochus, he had to be fought by the new Maccabees85.
“In other words, government was a human affair, the sovereign was a sinful man like the rest of them, put there by God. As long as it does not conflict with one’s moral conscience and the honor of God, he is to be obeyed, for revolution will only bring to the top new masters as sinful and as mad as he. The state is nothing more than a human institution, without any charisma. This conviction, which may operate in a conservative sense, now operated in a revolutionary direction because Caesar had become evil, he had been struck by the folly of the great, he was the bad politician par excellence 85.
“Calles, regarded as the Rex iniquus , the tyrant spoken of by Daniel, St. Paul, St. John, and the prophets of Israel, simply had to be fought, ‘because [Meyer is quoting a Cristero] I think it is better to die fighting for Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe and all Their family, and not take a single step against the one true God, even if the Devil is angered.’
“The war was, therefore, just, and the Cristeros were ‘fighting the best of fights, in this deceitful world, some with arms, and the others helping in a thousand ways the defenders who, leaving everything, were venturing themselves for only three loves: their God, their country, their home.’ ”
(The reader may be struck that Cristero references to Our Lady of Guadalupe are almost as frequent as those to Christ the King. It is significant that the flag they adopted was the national one, but with the serpent-devouring eagle shown only on one side. Our Lady of Guadalupe was on the other. Also, lacking uniforms, they distinguished themselves from non-combatant peasants with an armband that was red and white — the colors of Our Lord.)
Finally, it seems desirable to compare the Faith of the Cristeros to that of some others.
“The Government made a splendid gesture in calling the rebels ‘Cristeros,’ thus placing Christ in the center of the insurrection, and giving it its sense and its significance. The persecution of the priest, a revered figure, loved as the dispenser of the Sacraments, who brought about the coming of Christ under the semblance of bread and wine, was resented as a diabolical war against Christ Himself; the persecutor was, therefore, the Devil himself. The Government’s interpretation hit the nail on the head and gave the real dimensions of the problem; it went a long way to proving that Mexican Christianity, far from being deformed or superficial [as Protestant missionaries claimed], was solidly and correctly based on Christ, showing devotion to the Virgin Mary because of Christ, and in consequence was sacramental and orientated towards salvation, eternal life, and the Kingdom. During the war, it was remarkable how the saints were relegated to their proper place, while the ardent desire for Heaven became openly manifest. The priest faded into the background when the great event of the insurrection took place . . . 4
“Without considering themselves to be the true Church, the Cristeros had the opportunity to meditate on the sacred texts; one of their favorite ones was that of the widow’s mite: ‘Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.’(Mark 12: 43-4.) They referred constantly to St. James against the rich men, to Daniel against the tyrant, and to the sayings in the Gospels against the scribes and Pharisees, whom they identified with the rich Catholics85.
“One can imagine the distance that separated the well-to-do classes (considered as a whole) from these peasants who had remained firmly rooted in the tradition, more or less obscured, of ancient Christianity. The latter group understood nothing of the societies for moralisation, the pious clubs, and the co-operatives for devotion organised by the former85 Private morality, which the rich man admitted did not apply to politics and business, and which he reproached the common people for not possessing, was alien to the peasants, who were capable only of living a great adventure which was both spiritual and temporal, a vast popular pilgrimage towards the Kingdom of the Beatitudes of the Gospels. At that time, there were cases of real intoxication among the faithful as a result of the contemplation of these ceremonies which were forbidden and were now celebrated with a new depth. When peace returned, it was in an atmosphere of delirium, of ecstasy, that they celebrated their deeply venerated ceremonies in the churches, which had been closed for too long.
“ ‘If I am going to die for Christ I have no need to make my confession,’ answered Aurelio Acevedo to Fr. Correa, who was giving him advice on the matter85. The people, cut off from their sources of the Sacraments, were administering to themselves the collective Sacrament, that of the bloody sacrifice. Humbly laying down their arms when the priests ordered them to, and having gained no temporal advantage, the Cristero people were perhaps the only people that has been able to distinguish between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s.”
The reference to the Cristeros laying down their arms brings us near our conclusion, but we still must deal with the matter of their betrayal and then the aftermath.
Betrayal of Valor
The reasons for the government and the bishops wanting to come to terms are readily enough understood. On the government’s side, there was the reason alluded to by Ambassador Morrow in his memo to Washington of May, 1929: try as the government might, and however deep its anti-Catholicism, it was not able to “exterminate” the Cristeros. Meantime, the longer the war continued, the more resources that it could ill afford (or be able to pay the U.S. towards the debts it owed there) would go into the effort .
On the bishops’ side, they could see disturbing signs beginning to emerge that the long closure of the churches was having a detrimental effect on the faithfulness of many Catholics, at least among the middle-class. Rome was also worried about this. Additionally, and perhaps most frightening to Their Excellencies, the Catholicism still being practiced in the country with real fervor was being practiced by men — armed ones at that — outside the official structures of the Church, which is to say beyond their control. Never mind that the Cristeros were “outside” because the bishops themselves dismantled the structures when they decided to withdraw their priests and close the churches. If these men were to prevail in the field, there was no telling what could result. There might even be a government of Catholics not taking directions from them, however reverent they were toward their persons. Would that not be like the old days of the Real Patronato ?
The Holy See shared the anxieties of the Mexican episcopacy. Accordingly, it did all it could to facilitate the negotiations between Church and state in Mexico (or, more precisely, the bishops in exile in the U.S. and the government) once Ambassador Morrow, the architect of the “arrangements,” got them going. Again, the reader interested in the details of the negotiations and Morrow’s role in them should turn to David Bailey, as also for the texts of the documents dictated by Morrow and that spelled out the “arrangements.”
As for the Holy See, one of its first moves was made when L’Osservatore Romano reminded its readers on June 8, 1928, that Pope Pius XI had never given his blessing to the Cristeros. Indeed he had not, but the newspaper failed to recall that neither did he condemn them when they began their fight. How could he when the bishops took the position they had in November, 1926? All during the next year following the Osservatore editorial, the Vatican would be in constant touch with Archbishop Ruiz y Flores and sometimes, through intermediaries, with Ambassador Morrow himself. Nothing was done without its knowledge and final approval.
In respect to the actual terms of the “arrangements,” we need only know that on their side the bishops agreed to the resumption of public worship. On its side, the government averred, though only verbally, that the Constitution of 1917, the supreme law of the land, would stand, but its anti-Catholic provisions would no longer be enforced. That is what the government promised. (Again, only verbally.)
Out in the field, poor Enrique Gorostieta could tell what was going on as the U.S.-driven negotiations between Church and state moved forward. On the morning of the day he died, he told a companion, “They are selling us out, Manuelito.”
The question must arise, if the Cristeros understood the nature of the Revolution against which they fought, did not the bishops? Could they really believe the government’s promise?
The documents embodying the “arrangements” were signed in Mexico City on June 21, 1929. The poor leadership of the LNDLR, having already protested against the deal when it impended, now faced the task of dissolving what remained of its organization. As for the Cristeros, Gen. Jesus Degollado had sent a last-minute, desperate telegram to the Pope: “In grief we approach Your Holiness humbly imploring words guide us present situation and not for get faithful sons.” [ Sic. This “tele-gramese” is accurate to our sources. -Ed.] The telegram was never answered.
But let us not mince words. The unvarnished truth is that the Vatican and Mexican bishops, even the ones sitting on the fence or who were opposed to the armed rebellion, saw value in the existence of the Cristeros, saw that they were useful. As Archbishop Ruiz y Flores wrote to a friend in Washington in February, 1929: “Armed defense has had the glory of being a live and effective protest, of keeping the religious question alive, and of, we hope, obliging the Government to look for a solution.”
Now the Cristeros were of no further use, and the bishops could not be more callous toward them. In the words of Archbishop Pascual Diaz to Gen. Degollado in a meeting of the two men (Diaz was named Archbishop of Mexico City and Primate of the nation as soon as the “arrangements” were signed): “I don’t know, and I’m not interested in knowing, in what condition you are going to be left. The only thing I must tell you is that you must lay down your arms. The banner for which you were fighting has ceased to exist now that the arrangements have been made.” (Those words are not as Degollado ever reported them. That is how they were recorded by the Archbishop’s own secretary, Fr. Jose Romero Vargas.)
In January, 1968, Jean Meyer interviewed the aged Cardinal Davila Garibi. As a young priest, His Eminence had served as secretary to the Archbishop of Guadalajara, one of the two Mexican prelates to remain in hiding in their own dioceses during the war. What the Cardinal had to say went beyond callous. “Cynical” might not even do it justice.
“The Cristeros were worse than the Government men. What disorder! And to think that they nearly became the government! At least the Federation is made up of people on the side of order. It was providential that there were Cristeros, and providential that the Cristeros ceased to exist.”
Defeat Through Obedience
How did they cease to exist? Signing the “arrangements” was betrayal enough. The real treason came when Archbishop Ruiz y Flores, in his capacity as Apostolic Delegate, formalized what Archbishop Diaz communicated to Gen. Degollado by ordering the Cristeros to lay down their arms as a matter of religious obedience.
There seems to have been no thought among the fighters to ignore or defy the order. As a document in the archives of one Jalisco parish testifies, they complied “with the promptitude of an Angel and the simplicity of a child.” What was the cost to them of their obedience?
On July 3, less than two weeks after the “arrangements” were signed, Fr. Gen. Pedroza was shot by a government firing-squad. He was simply the very first of 5,000 Cristeros hunted down and murdered by the government in the next few years. With a handful of exceptions, no officers, from general down to lieutenant, would survive apart from those who managed to flee into the U.S.
By 1935 the Mexican government’s persecution of the Church was more severe than it had ever been in the past. Most of the country was without priests. (This is the period depicted by Graham Greene in his justly-celebrated novel, The Power and the Glory .) At the height of the persecution the government announced a program of “Socialist Education” designed to inculcate all citizens, not simply school children, with the principles of the Revolution. The school children were to get a special treat as part of their socialist formation: sex education.
For once, the government had gone too far. Its middle-class supporters in the cities bridled at the prospect of their children being exposed to the kind of materials that are commonplace in U.S. schools today (Catholic as well as public). The government backed off (up to a point), but not before a Second Cristero Rebellion began in the countryside.
Though a few fighters (including some veterans of the first rebellion) would carry on for six long years, it had no chance of success. For starters, the bishops were not ambiguous this time. They announced the excommunication of anyone taking up arms. The announcement did not deter 7,500 new Cristeros, who, apart from other actions, assassinated about 100 of the school teachers trying to corrupt their children.
Still, they were no match for new machines of war. Men on horses and armed with nothing but rifles and knives stood a chance, even of victory, ten years before. Against armored vehicles and new communications systems and heavy bombardment from airplanes, what chance was there now? None.
There are Mexican families today, especially middle-class ones with right-thinking members, that are as divided because of the events of 1926-29 as there are Americans still ready to quarrel, and correctly so, over what happened among us between 1861 and 1865. But the memory is more recent among the Mexicans.
Below the middle-class and outside the ranks of the workers who man all the foreign-owned factories, the peasant farmers’ white linen and sandals have been replaced by blue jeans and boots, and the men drive pick-ups instead of riding horses. But the visitor to Mexico — granted that he may be a casual one — can see no divisions among them. They constitute the clear majority making pilgrimages, sometimes in the tens of thousands, to the numerous Marian shrines besides Guadalupe that dot the countryside, and also to one dedicated to Christ the King that stands on a mountaintop never reached by the path of the typical U.S. tourist.
Very many of these men have been moving themselves and their families into the U.S. in recent years. (The rich and middle-class have no reason to do it.) This migration is not viewed as a good thing by many, and in some respects it is not. It remains, as long as our native population of Catholics is intent on aborting and contracepting itself out of existence at the same or greater pace as Protestants, that the only future the Church may have in America may lie with these arrivals and other immigrants from Latin America.
That some of them will be the grandsons of Cristeros suggests, to echo Cardinal Gabini, that Providence possibly is at work once again.
1 It is important to note here that, by “the Revolution,” we mean the political embodiment of the false philosophy of liberalism.
2 This metaphor describes the Pope’s role in the Empire only. In his greater dignity — that of Roman Pontiff — he is the sovereign monarch of the Church Militant.
3 An irony, given the fact that, in Spanish, Benito literally means a Benedictine Monk.
4 It should be recalled that the Cristeros asked for priests and had some in their number. Meyer’s rhetorical flight regarding the “collective Sacrament,” at the expense of the Catholic priesthood, does an injustice to the Cristeros.