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Mexico: Confrontation Between Church and State

The beginning and the end of the Cristero Rebellion

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: February 2, 2010


Mexico: Confrontation Between Church and State


The Constitution of 1917-
One major consequence of the Mexican Revolution was the Constitution of 1917 and its strong anti-church and anti-religious provisions. These provisions were a strong reaction to the privileged position that the Catholic Church had enjoyed in Mexico for many centuries. The new Constitution outlawed religious teaching by the Church and put Church property at the disposal of the Mexican Government. In addition, Catholic priests were deprived of the right to vote or hold office and could not wear their clerical gowns outside of their churches. Article 24, which forbade public worship outside the confines of church property, caused great concern for many Mexican citizens.

For most of the next decade, the anti-clerical, anti-religious articles of the Constitution were not implemented or enforced. The relationship between President Álvaro Obregón (1920-1924) and the Catholic Church was not good, but Obregón chose not to implement the articles. However, when Plutarco Elías Calles became the President of Mexico in 1924, he had other plans. When Calles decided to implement the selected articles, it drew world-wide attention. Having witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath – the virtual annihilation of Christianity in Russia – Americans of all creeds become concerned, and American newspapers carefully followed the developments. And Mexican Americans with family members still in Mexico became concerned about how their kin would fare in this tense environment.

Plutarco Elías Calles-
A morose, stubborn man, Calles was very openly anti-Catholic, but was also very dedicated to bringing prosperity to Mexico. In the first years of his term, Calles received a great deal of praise for his comprehensive reforms to the Mexican economy. American economists and Mexican residents in the United States all took an interest in Calles' activities. Praising Calles' achievements after six months in office, Benjamin F. Johnston, President of the United Sugar Companies with considerable holdings in Sinaloa and a leading industrial figure, stated his belief that Calles had brought Mexico "back toward stable and economic life." Quoted by the Los Angeles Times (June 18, 1925), Johnston reported that Calles had instituted and made effective reforms which in themselves constitute a greater progress toward the ultimate rehabilitation of the republic."

Calles Takes Action-
Calles waited two years before making significant moves on the churches in Mexico. Early in 1926, however, the Los Angeles Times began reporting on government moves against the churches in Mexico. Of special interest to many Mexican Americans was the contentious dialog that took place between church officials and the Federal Government. On February 28, 1926, the Times reported that all schools of the Mormon Church had been ordered closed by the Mexican Government. Another article in the Times – published on the same day and page – noted that Mormons living in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, were "threatening to return to the United States" because of this order. Two months later, however, the schools were reopened.

The L.A. Times of May 4, 1926, in an article entitled "Catholics Ask Change in Law," noted that Mexicans from many states were sending petitions to President Calles to complain about impending amendments to the Constitution affecting their religious practice. Clashes had taken place in Colima where police had removed the Knights of Columbus from their clubroom. In the State of Puebla, one petition to the Government had received 10,000 signatures. To many Mexican Americans, it appeared that the battle lines were being drawn.

But actions against the churches and their representatives grew even more intense. On May 14, 1926, Arthur Brisbane, writing in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, lamented that Callas seemed to pay "no attention to protests." This comment had come in response to seven Catholic churches that had been closed in the State of Tabasco. President Calles, explaining that the clergymen had abandoned the buildings and "thus forfeited their right to the property," made the churches into public schools.

The Calles Law-
On June 14, 1926, Calles signed a decree known officially as "The Law Reforming the Penal Code" (also known as the "Calles Law"). The provisions of this law stated that priests were to be fined 500 pesos (about $250 at the time) for wearing clerical garb. In addition, a priest could be imprisoned five years for criticizing the government. The new provisions were scheduled to become effective on July 31, 1926. Former President Felipe Adolfo de la Huerta Marcor watched these developments with concern. On June 19, the San Antonio Express quoted Huerta who had stated that Callas "is enforcing the will of only a minority of people" and that he was following the example of the Soviet Union, where all religious practice had been forcibly eliminated.

On July 5, 1926, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pope Pius had sent a circular letter to Catholics throughout the world, "urging all Catholics to unite in special prayers on August 1, next, for the cessation of the Mexican government's persecution of Catholics." He referred to Mexico's anti-clerical moves as "illegal, unjust and inhuman."

Two days later, on July 7, the Times reported that Catholic and Protestant church leaders in Mexico were keeping quiet about plans for resistance to the Government because such utterances would violate the Constitution and lead to deportation or other forms of punishment. The Mexican Government, for its part, contended that the regulations contained "nothing new" and that it was simply enforcing amendments that had been on the books for awhile.

The Resistance Takes Shape-
On July 11, 1926, Mexico's Catholic bishops voted to suspend all public worship in Mexico in response to the Calles Law. This suspension was to take place on August 1. As the effective date of the regulations drew near, Calles made clear his intent to enforce the regulations. An L.A. Times article of July 21 quoted Calles as saying that "no foreign or interior influence, including the Pope's grumblings, will make my government change its attitude." The Times also reported that 37 priests has been cited by the Mayor of Mexico City on a charge of failure to comply with a law requiring all priests to register with municipio authorities.

Preparing for the deadline date, the Secretary of War in the Calles Cabinet ordered all Federal troops in the republic "to be under arms and ready for instant action on August 1." On that day, the L.A. Times reported, Catholic churches throughout Mexico would be closed under orders from Church ecclesiastical officials. By July 23, more than 40 priests had filed petitions with the Government for passports to obtain free passage out of the country.

Flocking to the Churches-
On July 23rd, the LA Times reported that large crowds of Mexicans – fearing that all church functions would cease on the 31st – were gathering each day at churches around the country in order to have their children confirmed. On the same day, Calles proclaimed new regulations that prohibited the teaching of religion in private schools. The regulations – intended to supplement the earlier regulations – proclaimed that "no minister of any religious cult may act as the director of or teacher in a private school." Chapels and oratories were also outlawed within any private schools.

On July 25, in a pastoral letter issued by the Mexican episcopacy, the Catholic Church charged that the Mexican Government was making it impossible for the Church to continue its religious functions. The letter announced that Catholic priests would be removed from the churches and religious ceremonies would cease because the new regulations would make the exercise of Catholic faith nearly impossible in Mexico.

In the meantime, Mexican Catholics throughout the country – fearing that their right to worship and receive sacraments was nearing an end – continued to flock to the churches. On July 29, in an article entitled, "Catholics Jam Churches As Day of Closing Nears," the L.A. Times reported that Roman Catholics "swept in countless multitudes to their places of worship" in the belief that their faith was endangered. While the faithful flocked to their churches, the Government also continued "its preparation for inflexible enforcement of the regulations."

Religious Services Suspended-
On July 31, 1926, the offices of Catholic priests throughout Mexico were suspended by order of the pastoral letter signed by the Archbishop of Mexico and the Catholic episcopate. On the following day (August 1), the San Antonio Express (page 17) reported that "Religious services were suspended in approximately 12,000 Catholic Churches" throughout the country. In effect, the newspaper commented that "between 20,000 and 25,000 priests stationed in these churches have been forced to lay aside their vestments of office." The newspaper reported Calles' determination in this matter and his charge that the Church was an "insidious factor" in Mexican politics and that some of its members were manifesting "revolutionary tendencies."

The Mexican Charge d'Affairs of the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., Dr. Antonio Castro, asserted that the Catholic Church "never represented… a constructive power for the people." He commented that it was natural for the American people to judge the church in Mexico by the standards of the church in the United States, but that view did not take into consideration "historical and political conditions" in Mexico. Castro said that the Church had exercised "complete dominion over the country during three centuries." Castro also pointed out that the Revolution of 1910 had initiated "a creative period" and that current regulations would create a better condition for the Mexican people.

The Rebellious Attitude-
In a statement made on August 1 – published in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times –Calles denounced "the rebellious attitude" of the Roman Catholic leaders in Mexico in response to the pastoral letter issued by the Mexican episcopacy on July 25. The President denied that he planned to interfere with religious functions and said that his actions were not discriminatory, but that the actions of some clergy would be considered rebellious.

On August 1, members of the Regional Confederation of Labor – including government employees – paraded through the streets of Mexico City and other important cities to show their support for the government's religious regulations. President Calles and Secretary of Labor Morones reviewed the parade from the balcony of the Municipal Palace.

The Rejection of Compromise-
In the days to follow, attempts were made to offer a truce to Callas, but the President remained adamant. The Riverdale Point, on August 8, reported that six had been killed and 100 wounded in demonstrations throughout the country. In spite of this violence, the newspaper indicated that Calles continued to reject proposals for a truce and said that he would "act with the required energy to enforce the laws of the county."

On August 10, 1926, the Appleton Post-Crescent reported on the strange irony that Calles and his ministers had all been raised as Catholics, except his Minister of State who was Presbyterian. Furthermore, Calles wife was "known for her devoutness and adherence to the practices of the Church" and one daughter was studying in a convent in Los Angeles. While pointing out that most of Calles family was devoutly religious, the article explained that Callas had a mission in enforcing the laws of the Mexican Republic.

In Guadalajara, Jalisco, on August 3, 1926, there were reports that several hundred armed Catholics had shut themselves up in the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. After a battle with federal troops, U.S consular sources revealed that 18 people had died and 40 were injured in this confrontation. Similar outbreaks in other parts of Jalisco and in Zacatecas and Michoacán took place over the next few weeks. But many of the incidents did not reach the ears of the media and were not reported to the public. Although Government forces made their presence felt in Guadalajara, the L.A. Times reported on October 7, 1926 that Guadalajara was at "the heart of the anti-government feeling" and predicted that any revolution would begin there.

Viva Cristo Rey-
On January 1, 1927, the formal rebellion began in earnest. Under the rallying crying of "Viva Cristo Rey" (Long Live Christ the King), outbreaks took place throughout the country. On January 13, 1927, the L.A. Times reported that the Mexican Government was battling rebels in six regions of Mexico. Details of the insurrection in Jalisco, Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Chihuahua and the Distrito Federal were described. As a result of these skirmishes, 125 insurrectionists and 24 federal troops had been killed. The Government went on to claim that the Catholic episcopate had incited Catholics throughout the country.

From early 1927 to June 1929, outbreaks of violence and popular defiance of the government became commonplace in certain parts of Mexico. The insurrection eventually became known as the Cristero Rebellion as President Calles held fast to his goal of enforcing the Constitution. Most observers came to understand that only the departure of Calles would lead to any hope of compromise.

Calles Exits the Presidency-
On July 1, 1928, Alvaro Obregón was elected President of Mexico. The President-Elect was scheduled to take over the office from Calles on December 1, but two weeks after his election Obregón was murdered by a young Catholic fanatic, which dashed hopes of peace between the Church and the Federal Government. Congress named Emilio Portes Gil as Interim President in September 1928, with an election scheduled to be held in November 1929.

The Los Angeles Times took an immediate interest in the President-Elect, publishing a series of articles that described Portes Gil as "a prohibitionist, baseball fan and friend of the United States." But, as the Times reported on September 21, 1928, Portes Gil was also described as "a close friend of President Calles." And another Times article published on December 1, reported that, upon taking office, Portes Gil had pledged to continue the policies of his predecessor, President Calles.

Peace on the Horizon-
A mere eight days after Portes Gil took office, the L.A. Times reported that American Ambassador Dwight Morrow had arranged for the Archbishop of Michoacán, Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, to return from exile to Mexico in order to begin direct negotiations with the government. It was reported that Ruiz y Flores carried credentials directly from the Pope.

The peace process was slow but steady. On February 19, 1929, Acting Secretary of the Interior Canales, speaking to Mexico's Catholics, said that the Church authorities had the power to restore peace simply by complying with the legal regulations that had been based on the provisions of the Constitution. Canales said that the regulations enforced in 1926 were not meant to affect the religion itself and were similar to the regulations "that Roman Catholic clergy meet in other countries without objection." Canales also publicly acknowledged the armed rebellion taking place in Jalisco, Guanajuato and Michoacán at that time.

Portes Gil Declares Willingness-
Many political analysts had suspected that Señor Portes would be more open to negotiations with the Church than Calles had been. This was confirmed by the L.A. Times, which reported on May 8, 1929 that President Emilio Portes Gil had expressed his willingness to discuss cooperation "for the benefit of the Mexican people" with Monsignor Leopold Ruiz y Flores, Archbishop of Michoacán. The President was pleased with an earlier statement by the Archbishop, which indicated a desire to settle the long-running dispute. Although Mexico had severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican more than fifty years earlier, the President said that the Government still hoped to exchange ideas with the ministers of the Catholic Church.

Negotiations Begin-
The L.A. Times reported on May 29, 1929 that Mexican Catholic prelates in the United States had voted unanimously to enter into direct negotiations with President Portes Gil to reconstruct the church organization in that country. It was believed that the Pope had approved the negotiations. And, on June 1, the newspaper reported that "the controversy between the Mexican government and the Vatican is on the verge of settlement."

Two days later, the Times reported the news that all Catholic archbishops and bishops who had been banished from Mexico two years earlier would return to their homeland immediately. They were expected to return by July 1, in time to celebrate the impending ratification of a new agreement between the Catholic Church and the Mexican Government. It was pointed out that 21 of the 28 members of the Episcopate had gone into exile in April 1927, and now President Portes Gil had made arrangements for all of them to return.

On June 19, 1929, the Times reported that "a basis for settlement of the Mexican religious controversy…has been agreed on and cabled to the Pope at Rome for his approval." It was also noted that American Ambassador Morrow had "acted as intermediary between the President and the bishops."

Agreement Reached-
The agreement was finally reached June 21, 1929. Under this pact, which came to be known as the arreglos ("arrangements"), normal means of worship were resumed in Mexico and some minor concessions were granted to the Catholics. The Times of June 23 reported that the Catholics of Mexico were preparing for a nation-wide lay demonstration at Catholic shrines to celebrate the imminent return of the clergy to their churches. While church bells of the cathedrals rang, "crowds streamed toward the churches throughout the day to offer prayers of gratitude." The demonstration – scheduled for July 6 – was intended to show President Portes Gil "the public appreciation of his broadmindedness in dealing with the representatives of the Catholic church."

The First Mass Since 1926-
On June 25, 1929, the Times reported that the first public mass in Mexico since August 1, 1926, was to be held at the church of Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe in Mexico City on the next Saturday. It was also announced that churches around the country would be reopened by priests "as quickly as the government surrender processes can be completed and priests can be sent back to them."

Post Script-
Complete peace did not arrive until 1934, but the agreement between the Mexican Government and the Catholic Church ensured that eventually the hostilities would come to an end. The anti-clerical regulations stayed on the books but were not enforced as rigorously as they had been. And the Catholics authorities, for their part, followed the letter of the law. Archbishop Ruiz y Flores issued a pastoral letter to Mexican Catholics on June 25, 1929, in which he recommended that all Mexican Catholics obey the law and avoid making trouble.

Twelve years later, on February 14, 1941, the Los Angeles Times reported that "the administration of President Avila Camacho, a devout Catholic, today, indicated anew that Mexico's long and bitter conflict between government and church is drawing slowly to its close." It was announced that the Mexican Tourist Department would permit the celebration of Mardi Gras, a festival which had been discarded as a result of the church and government struggle. The article noted that Avila Camacho was the first President of Mexico "in many years to declare publicly and categorically he is Catholic."

From 1926 to 1929, the American press carefully followed the evolution of the Cristero conflict in Mexico. And with the apparent end of the conflict in June and July of 1929, the Los Angeles Times reported the happiness of the Mexican people in ending a conflict between two of the most important institutions in Mexico at this time.

Sources of Information:

Jean A. Meyer, "The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People Between Church and State 1926-1929" (Cambridge Latin American Studies, 2008)

Jim Tuck, "The Holy War in Los Altos: A Regional Analysis of Mexico's Cristero Rebellion" (University of Arizona, 1983).

Newspaper Articles:

"Calles, Reared as Catholic, Opposes Confessional, But Family is Devout," Appleton Post-Crescent, August 10, 1926 (Appleton, Wisconsin).

"Calles Turns down Offers for Truce: President Insists Laws Must Be Obeyed in Religious Matter," The Pointer, August 6, 1926 (Riverdale, Illinois).

"Conopians Give Huerta: Former President Says Calles Patterns After Russia," San Antonio Express, June 19, 1926.

"Murmur of Mass Stilled in Churches for Centuries Famed," San Antonio Express, August 1, 1920.

Los Angeles Times Articles:

"Says Calles Has Put Mexico on her Feet: Leading American in Mexico Tells President's Achievements in Six Months in Office," June 18, 1925.

"Mexico May Revise Rule on Clerics," May 10, 1926.

"Mormon May Leave Mexico: Institutions Ordered Closed in Chihuahua: Church Official Threatens to Quit County: Manifestation Against Calles to be Held," February 28, 1926.

"Mormon Schools Are Ordered Closed," February 28, 1926.

"Catholics Ask Change in Law: Mexican Congress Flooded with Petitions: Protest by Society States Basic Right Denied: Clashes Continue as Hall of Knights Seized," May 4, 1926.

"Mexico May Revise Rule on Clerics," May 10, 1926

"Threatens Catholics; Mexican Prelate Reprimanded Calles Warns Punishment Without Consideration If Laws Disobeyed Archbishop's Protest Against Deporting Papal Envoy Evokes Statement," June 4, 1926.

"Pope Asks Prayer to End Persecution in Mexico: Letter Sent Throughout the World Urges All Catholics to Unite in Special Pleas on August 1," July 6, 1926.

"Mexico Church Rules Stir Ire: Religious Leaders Forced to be Silent, However: New Regulations Considered as Evil as Former: Paper Guardedly Ask More Tolerant Action," July 7, 1926.

"Calles Firm in Religious Issue: Religious Regulations to be Strictly Enforced: Extreme Measures Will be Used if Necessary: Mexican Catholics Meet to Formulate Defense," July 21, 1926.

"Mexico Tense as Crisis on Religious Law Nears: Order Reported Issued to Troops to Guard Against Disorders; Throngs Jam Cathedrals," July 24, 1926.

"Catholics Jam Churches as Day of Closing Nears: Mexico's Maimed, Crippled Make Pilgrimages as Priests Prepare to Retaliate Against Law," July 29, 1926.

"Church Sway in Mexico Branded as Evil Force: Charge d'Affaires in United States Says Catholics Always Have Been Reactionary Force," August 1, 1926.

"Calles Replies to Clergy: Attitude of Catholic Chiefs Called Rebellious: Oppression Charge Denied," August 2, 1926.

"Gigantic Parade Conducted in Mexico City as Catholics Pray in Priestless Churches," August 2, 1926.

"Vatican Strikes Back at Charges by Calles: Paper Organ Denies Domination by Church and Lays Troubles of Mexico to Radicals," August 8, 1926.

"Mexico Church Fight Daily Grows Bitterer: Army Has Control of Situation at Guadalajara but Catholics Make Disapproval Felt," October 7, 1926.

"Portes Gil Described as Dry and Friendly," September 21, 1928.

"Portes Gil Takes Office as Mexico's President: Provisional Chief to Continue Callas Policies, and Friendship with United States Pledged," December 1, 1928.

"Mexico May Try to End Church Row," December 10, 1928.

Mexico Denies Clergy Baiting: Secretary Points Way to Peace for Catholics: Regulations Compared With Those Elsewhere: Recent Attack on Train of Portes Gil Cited," February 20, 1929.

"Mexico May Meet Church: Portes Gil Declares Willingness to Discuss With Catholics Co-operation Question," May 8, 1929.

"Mexico Sights Church Peace: Negotiations Believed to be on Road to Success: Portes Gil's Offer Results in Flood of Comment: Archbishop Believed to be Backed by Vatican," May 12, 1929.

"Peace Plan of Church Approved: Pope Reported in Favor of Program for Ending Strife in Mexico," May 29, 1929.

"Church War Nears End: Mexico-Vatican Peace Looms: Southern Republic Official and Catholic Circles Bear Out Reports: Early Settlements Indicated by Appointment Given Exiled Archbishop," June 1, 1929.

"Ban Lifted on Church: Mexico Prelates Returning: Portes Gil Orders Passport Visas for Catholic Dignitaries; Masses to be Resumed on Ratification of Peace Agreement," June 3, 1929.

"Catholics Meet with Portes Gil: Church Heads and High Officials of State at Parley in Mexico," June 11, 1929.

"Church Pact Made: Mexico Factions in Agreement: Portes Gil and Bishops Bury Hatchet and Ask Pope to Approve: Religious Rules Unchanged, But New Basis Found on Interpretation," June 19, 1929.

"Bells Acclaims Mexican Peace: Catholics Celebrate Return of Clergymen: Capital Churches Filled Throughout Day; Demonstration Planned to Honor President," June 23, 1929.

"Mexico's First Mass Saturday: Services to be Inaugurated in Shrine Church: Capital Cathedral to Stay Closed Some Time; Insurgents Surrendering Because of Pact," June 25, 1929.

"Shun Politics' Catholics Told: Mexican Apostolic Delegate Issues Pastoral: Obey Law and Avoid Trouble Faithful Abjured," June 26, 1929.

"Mass Said in Mexico After Three-Year Ban," June 28, 1929.

"Mexico Plans Church Fetes: Pageants to Lure Tourists Seen as New Sign of Greater Religious Liberty," February 14, 1941.

About John P. Schmal:
John Schmal specializes in Mexican genealogical research (with a special focus on Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and Sonora).
Author's website




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