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Mexican Anticlerics, Bishops, Cristeros, and the Devout during the 1920s: A Scholarly Debate

Donald J. Mabry, "Mexican Anticlerics, Bishops, Cristeros, and the Devout during the 1920s: A Scholarly Debate," Journal of Church and State Vol. 20, No. 1, (1978), 81-92.

Every society has at least one episode in its history that attracts international attention because it illustrates common problems or because it generates emotional excitement. Scholars enjoy the drama of war, ideological conflict, and intrigue. The conflict between the revolutionary Mexican state and Catholics during the 1920s provides all these elements. Thus it is not surprising that scholars from the Soviet Union, Mexico, France, and the United States have turned their attention to it. The subject is vast in scope, complex in its development, controversial in its meaning, and relevant to other societies. Mexicans themselves have been debating the conflict for five decades with the passion and partisanship that characterizes the true believer. Politically, the government's interpretation of events --that the Mexican Revolution defended itself against a reactionary clergy allied with prerevolutionary elites, both of which were trying to block progress and justice and were willing to invoke foreign intervention--has assumed greater importance as the Revolution became institutionalized and less revolutionary. [1] The scholars who have stepped into the fray have not escaped the effects of this heated debate. It is the purpose of this article to examine the nature of the scholarly argument and to suggest possible effects of nationality upon the perception of historical reality.

The advent of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 decisively influenced the history of the twentieth-century Mexican Roman Catholic Church and the development of Catholic thought in that country. Virulent anticlericalism, an anticlericalism that has seldom been surpassed in any other country, was one of the most important progeny of that struggle. By 1940, the church legally had no corporate existence, no real estate, no schools, no monasteries or convents, no foreign priests, no right to defend itself publicly or in the courts, and no hope that its legal and actual situations would improve. Its clergy were forbidden to wear clerical garb, to vote, to celebrate public religious ceremonies, and to engage in politics. Although in practice many of these prohibitions were ignored by both church and state, their existence was a constant threat. The unity of the hierarchy had been sundered by the internecine strife fostered by the government. Thousands of the faithful had died in struggles against a government which tended to view the faith as subversive. Its modest prerevolutionary social reform movement, advanced in the days of its origins and incorporated in part by "socialistic" secular governments, was held to be reactionary, proto-fascist, and obscurantist.

All the charges leveled against the nineteenth-century church were added to a new and similar list of charges. The church was said to be guilty of antiscientism, fanaticism, paternalism, and conservatism and was charged with appealing to foreign powers for intervention, aiding usurpers and murderers, and refusing to give financial aid to revolutionary leaders while supporting their enemies. The victory of the revolutionary government by 1929, confirmed by anticlerical persecution during the early 1930s, placed the church firmly under the control of the state. Although complete separation of church and state was the oft-stated goal of anticlericals, the post-1929 relationship was in fact more akin to the Hapsburg corporatism of the colonial period.

The social doctrine of the Catholic Church was under fire as much as was its putative political, economic, and educational power. To the revolutionaries, church doctrine and their own scientific, enlightened, and progressive views were mutually exclusive. Whereas the church stressed the worth of every person in society and the necessity of class cooperation, the revolutionaries stressed the conflict between the middle classes and the oppressed masses on the one hand and the old, possessing oligarchy on the other. In particular, the revival of Thomistic doctrine that accompanied the spread of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, demonstrated in the writings of Trinidad Sánchez Santos and in the works of the Catholic congresses of prerevolutionary days, threatened the revolutionaries by offering social change in a corporate form reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

This is the position taken by Robert E. Quirk in his dissertation [2] and its revised form as a book.[3] Quirk sees the church as a threat to the revolutionary ideal because it offered a romanticized version of medieval corporatism (which, he asserts, is inherently unjust and unrealistic), including a social reform program which did not speak to the needs and desires of the masses and which could not be enacted, except in Jalisco, because Catholics had no real hope of power while decisions were coming from the mouth of a gun. Although Quirk sees much value in church social doctrine (land redistribution, minimum wages, profit sharing, organization of labor, labor laws for women and children), he states that the church was doomed to lose because the masses, personified by Pancho Villa, saw Catholicism as an irrelevant European doctrine and its servants as exploiters of the masses. Both clerics and laymen never understood the Mexican people and failed to reverse the tide of anticlericalism, even when they tried cessation of religious services, economic boycott, insurrection, and appeals to foreign forces, principally American Catholics and the United States government.

The revolutionaries won the church-state conflict, brought the church to its heels, and prevented the introduction of corporatist practice in Mexico because they represented the true will of the masses. Quirk grants that the revolutionaries were ruthless, fanatical, and enemies of religious freedom because they sought to impose their own secular view of the world on Mexico. Implicitly and subtly he argues that such a policy was inevitable and just. Quirk, a brilliant student of Mexican history, an excellent writer, and a competent researcher, has accepted as valid the revolutionaries' own interpretation. In short, the book lacks balance.

Missing are lengthy discussions of ideologies and of cristeros, the people who did the fighting. A grasp of Mexican Catholic ideology and of revolutionary ideology is necessary before the struggle can be fully understood. The work of Mexican Catholic Action is skimmed over and dismissed as ineffectual without an examination of what was accomplished within the limited confines of the period. The cristero rebellion, one of the central events of the story, is inadequately treated. No information is given as to who they were, how they were recruited, and why they fought. The concession by Portes Gil that there were fourteen thousand armed cristeros in the field when the fighting ended is indicative of the significance of their action.[4]

Examination of the author's sources indicates reasons why this book is not totally satisfactory. Quirk makes excellent use of the Canon García Gutiérrez collection, the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty archives, writings of league members, published government accounts, and United States State Department records, but he ignores the works of other scholars on the subject as well as cristero material. The significance of these omissions will be subsequently revealed when the present author examines these writers and their use of these sources.

An even less adequate study of the subject has been presented by Nicolas Larin, a Russian scholar. Larin forces his study into a Marxist-Leninist framework, thus making his conclusions predictable before the book is opened. His sources are limited to those that support his thesis, and he ignores ideas contrary to his position. His research does not include United States or Mexican archives.

Larin's book begins with an obligatory statement of Marxism-Leninism and thereafter looks at the church-state relationship and the role of the United States in the affair. Simply put, Larin sees the church as a reactionary, fanatical force tied to the Porfirian elites, the hacendados, the new Mexican capitalists and the imperialist interests of the United States. Although he is more sympathetic toward the Mexican government, Larin denies that it was anything more than a bourgeois government. He asserts that the fight was between bourgeois elements represented by the government and quasi-feudal elements backed by an imperialist foreign power intent on exploiting Mexico.

Alicia Olivera Sedano,[6] writing between Quirk's two works and after Larin, has taken a more moderate and limited view of the subject. Her work does not pretend to be comprehensive, and she wisely makes limited claims for it. She was the first scholar to gain access to the league archives, thus making her study more thorough than those of her predecessors. She argues that the Catholic Church was counterrevolutionary and opposed to much of the secular revolution taking place. Unlike Quirk and Larin, however, she argues that the Catholic elements that resisted the government were progressive Catholics and that the church of 1926 was an institution concerned for much of the social reform which interested the revolutionaries. She recognizes that the Catholic group was not monolithic, and she divides the leadership into an urban-based group directed by the league and a rural-based group composed of campesinos. In a later work [7] she asserts that the divisions were even more complex. Discussing the military aspects of the conflict, she concludes that the cristeros could not have won. The study is limited by the absence of foreign sources, a considerable omission in view of the importance of the American role throughout the conflict.

David C. Bailey entered the fray first with his doctoral dissertation [8] and later with a book [9] based on that research. His interpretation, like Quirk's, is based on newspapers, league archives, memoirs and tracts of league members, accounts and interpretations of government officials, United States State Department records, and, unlike Quirk, employs the work of Olivera Sedano and portions of a dissertation by Jean Meyer. [10] Bailey reaches conclusions similar to Quirk's--the conflict was the result of a century-old struggle; the rebellion was doomed to failure; only a small minority of the population backed the rebellion; the cristeros most apparently were not from the landless bottom of the social pyramid; the cristeros did not understand the complexities of the church-state conflict; Mexican Catholics were divided over the struggle, especially in the way it was terminated; the laymen who led the rebellion at both the political and the military levels were a homogeneous group and almost without exception belonged to the small Mexican middle class; the Vatican sought more to preserve the opportunity for priestly functions than to preserve the position of the Mexican church; the attitude and the intervention of the United States through Dwight Morrow were decisive; and the government won the conflict. Bailey goes on to argue that this was a reformed church committed to social justice, not a reactionary institution. Further, he points out that the hacendado class and the old Catholic upper class supported the government. Finally, he gives some attention to the cristeros themselves and points to the aftermath of the conflict and the number of participants who were later murdered. Of the two English-language books, this is the stronger.

What promises to be the definitive study of the subject began appearing in print in 1973 as Jean Meyer started publishing his doctoral thesis in Spanish. Meyer, unlike his predecessors, long recognized the enormous size of the topic and the necessity of a lengthy and comprehensive pursuit of sources. He utilized all of the sources of the scholars before him but went further by exploiting state and municipal archives, interviews with participants in the conflict, questionnaires, and a plethora of published studies and documents; his research was exhaustive. The seven years which he spent on the subject are reflected not only in his excellent citations and bibliography but also in the sophistication of his analysis.

In order to treat the subject in a manageable form, he divided the story into three major headings. Volume one of the work focuses on the war, [11] volume two focuses on church-state relations, including the Morrow intervention, [12] and volume three focuses on the cristeros--who they were, how they were recruited, why they fought, and how they should be compared with other peasant revolutionaries. [13] In short, Meyer examines every aspect of the conflict in these three volumes.

The work is so vast and so complex that it would be impossible to recapitulate all of it in this space. However, it is important to make note of some of the new and different data offered by Meyer. In fact, scholars interested in similar subjects or in the history of modern Mexico will find it obligatory to read Meyer and to be prepared to yield some of their most cherished assumptions about Mexican peasants, the Catholic Church, and the Revolution.

Full recognition of the multiplicity of the groups that were involved hallmarks Meyer's work. What has traditionally been seen as the church side was in fact five different groups, each with a different perception of the problem and reaction to it and each with somewhat different goals.

The church hierarchy sought to preserve the church in Mexico against a Jacobin anticlericalism which at best wanted to make the church a tool of its dominance and at worst wanted to erase the institution from the Mexican landscape. This hierarchy was split into two groups--one which sought to alter or evade the anticlerical provisions of the Constitution of 1917, and the other which was willing to accommodate itself to the Revolution if there were complete separation of church and state. Outside of Mexico was the Vatican, which accepted the Revolution and was willing to deal with the Mexican government in hope of preserving the opportunity for Catholicism to proselytize. It sold out the other Catholic groups when an accommodation with the government could be reached. It never supported the intransigent groups.

Lay leadership was also divided. There were middle-class Catholics organized into the National Defense League of Religious Liberty who sought to control the Catholic side of the controversy and who asserted that they were the spokesmen for all laymen and often for the hierarchy itself. In fact, they represented themselves, and only when convenient to the hierarchy were they allowed to represent it. Their importance in the conflict has been overstated by other students of the subject, in large part because league members have claimed in their prolific writings more importance than they deserve. Moreover, league archives were the first large collection of church primary sources available to scholars.

The people who did the fighting, the cristeros, were neither supported nor directed by the league or by the church. They were on their own. Although middle-class Catholics initially tried to direct the movement, the cristeros developed their own leadership and programs. They did not so much lose the fight as the Vatican and the hierarchy abandoned them. They were essentially peasants fighting a peasant war for their faith and in opposition to the domination of the middle and upper classes, regardless of their geographical location or religious attitudes.

The opposing side was also composed of different groups. Among the revolutionaries there were rabid anticlericalists, such as Plutarco Elías Calles, and leaders, such as Alvaro Obregon, who were desirous of avoiding unnecessary conflict. Government employees, including military forces, aided the cristeros at times either out of conviction or for material profit. Former revolutionaries, including zapatistas, joined the cristero rebellion. Morrow, representing the United States government, without which neither side could win, supported the Mexican government. The Vatican recognized the critical importance of U.S. support and, once it recognized Morrow's attitude and probable role, sought accommodation.

The conflict was fought on different levels. The Mexican state attacked the Catholic Church not because the latter was counter-revolutionary (it was less so than many "revolutionaries"), but because Mexican political leaders, as representatives of a nascent Hispanic middle class, sought a strongly nationalistic bourgeois state. It could not tolerate any rivals, whether foreign economic interests, political parties, or an independent organization which claimed the allegiance of the bulk of the population. Since there were no opposition parties of any note in Mexico during the 1920s, the organizational network of the church and its Catholic Action and Christian socialism were seen as the most immediate domestic threat by the government. Therefore, the church-state conflict was more of a power struggle than an ideological conflict between the forces of reaction and of progress. The state refused to recognize that the church of 1920 was different from the church of the nineteenth century because it was necessary to label the church as reactionary in order to garner support both inside and outside Mexico. Hence, this level of the struggle was national and international.

The fight on the local level was different. The cristeros were not as concerned about the ideological questions involved as they were about preserving what they believed to be their rights. They wanted to preserve their religion. They were not worshippers within a Catholicism which acted as a veneer for more primitive and ancient religious practices but were Mexican Catholics who understood and valued the beliefs which played a central role in their lives. Further, they sought to be free of a state which threatened not only their beliefs but also their way of life. They were traditionalist but not counterrevolutionary. The tension between the average rural dweller and the agrarian, who had received land from the government in return for obedience, was an important reason for the revolt. The men beholden to government--the agrarians and the caciques--were few in number, tools of the government, and disliked by the cristeros. The cristero army was a popular army. Sixty percent of its members lived by selling their labor. Another 14 percent were small proprietors, and still another 15 percent were renters or sharecroppers. The cristero uprising was as much a peasant or popular uprising as was zapatismo, hallowed in revolutionary mythology. The cristeros were resisting the onslaught of the modern bourgeois state, of the Mexican Revolution, of the city elites, of the northerners running Mexico, and of the rich.

The Catholics lost because the United States government decided that Mexico needed peace and that peace was best obtained from the existing revolutionary government. The Vatican and finally the hierarchy recognized reality and agreed to the compromises arranged by the apostolic delegate, Morrow, and Calles. The league and the cristeros were ignored. They were told to accept the decision of the elites. The government agreed to the compromise (the arreglos) because it appeared to be the best way out of an increasingly difficult situation.

Before the arreglos of June 1929, the cristeros had forty thousand men in the field even though the Mexican army had been fighting them for two years with supplies obtained from the United States. The Escobar rebellion earlier that year as well as a small Communist rebellion had been defeated, but at a price. University students were striking over autonomy. Jose Vasconcelos was threatening continued revolutionary control with his presidential campaign. The United States government was pressing for settlement of issues emerging from the Revolution. The existing government of Portes Gil was an interim government created after the popular Obregon had been assassinated the year before, an act which threatened to split the revolutionary ranks and lead to civil war. The creation of the National Revolutionary party had forestalled this, but the party was being tested in the elections of that summer. Therefore the Mexican government was in trouble when the badly needed arreglos were arranged.

As Meyer alone points out, the cristero rebellion and church-state conflict had important consequences for Mexican history. The campesinos remained definitively crushed; this was the last mass upheaval in Mexican history. The campesinos resigned themselves to the violent and negative integration to the regime at the time; they would only be positively incorporated into Mexican society with the reforms of Lázaro Cárdenas. Opposition groups learned that violence would not work, and the process of political modernization was accelerated as was the government's policy of geographical and moral integration. The experience confirmed to all participants that support of the United States government was the sine qua non of success. The church became a supporter of the Revolution, the victory of which came not with the Constitution of 1911 or the beginning of the Sonoran dynasty in 1920, but with the arreglos of 1929. The Mexican bourgeoisie had gained control of the country, a control which it still maintains.

Meyer's work is important because it not only vastly expands our understanding of an episode in Mexican history but also suggests some important considerations in the writing of history. As already noted, Meyer's success with the topic evolved from his diligent research into sources ignored or unknown to other writers; part of his success was the result of his recognition of the dimensions of the subject and his willingness to treat it fully. Beyond that, Meyer saw the subject from a different perspective. He did not try to mold the subject to fit the most common preconceived idea, namely, that the church was reactionary and monolithic. Instead, he recognized through his research that he was dealing with many different groups. He did not automatically accept the modern middle-class liberal view that Mexico had a revolution similar to the French, Russian, or other revolutions (the position taken by the Mexican government). He did not automatically accept the view that what the state did in the 1920s was laudable because it was done by men who had destroyed much of the Porfirian past, a past condemned by Mexican revolutionaries and American academicians alike. Further, he did not automatically assume that peasant uprisings are not uprisings unless they favor social change or "progress." In short, he did not automatically adopt the "revolutionary line" on the subject.

Five historians from four different countries have written lengthy studies on the same topic, [l4] but they have followed different research procedures and arrived at different conclusions, thus allowing this author the opportunity to make some observations about nationality and history.

The Mexican historian used Mexican sources to write a master's thesis, but she disavowed any intention of writing a definitive study, seeing her thesis instead as a starting point for a program of continuing research. Subsequently she has modified her conclusions and stated her intention to research the subject along the lines which Meyer, unbeknown to her, had pursued.

The Russian was so intent on making the story fit a preconceived mold that he apparently believed it unnecessary to dig into all possible sources. Because of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. rivalry in the world, he devoted a large amount of the space to an effort to prove that the U.S. government and U.S. capitalists had nefarious designs on Mexico.

The two Americans also devoted considerable space to the role of the United States in the affair but at the expense of other parts of the story. No one, including this author, questions the importance of the intervention by Morrow in bringing the conflict to a halt. It is an important topic which deserves attention, but after all, it is only one element in a larger story and not necessarily the most important one. [15] One plausible explanation as to why the Americans have devoted so much attention to the American side of the story is that they are Americans. They have a natural interest in what their government and countrymen did. However, more important is the fact that they had easy access to American sources (e.g., the Morrow papers, State Department records) and thus could do much of the research in the United States. Combining these sources with government, league, church hierarchy and Mexican newspaper sources produces the kinds of books they wrote, books which are valuable and scientifically based, but misleading because they capture only part of the reality.

The Frenchman had no special affection for the United States or obligation to fit the story into a predetermined ideological mold; instead he had the desire and the time to uncover all of the story. He chased it down avenues and across mountains on foot, burro, automobile, train, and plane. He sought out the cristeros and their accounts as well as those sources preserved in written form. As a Frenchman, he had an historical consciousness of a truly revolutionary revolution and was not seduced by the charms of the Mexican experience. Coming from a Latin Catholic country which also had an anticlerical tradition enabled Meyer to categorize and understand Mexican Catholicism.

Leopoldo Zea, Mexican philosopher and historian of ideas, has written that United States scholars cannot be fully objective about Latin American history because the history of the two areas is intertwined. [16] In particular, the histories of Mexico and the United States crisscross. In studying Mexico, Americans are also studying themselves. For this article, Zea's controversial argument is suggestive. The bounds of nationality must be broken if one is to uncover the full reality and its meaning.


1. See, for example, Emilio Portes Gil, Autobiografía de la Revolución Méxicana (México: Instituto Mexicano de Cultura, 1964) and The Conflict between the Civil Power and the Clergy: Historical and Legal Essay (Mexico: Press of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1935); Alfonso Toro, La iglesia y el estado en México (Mexico: Talleres Gráficos de la Nación. 1927).

2. "The Mexican Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1910-1929 An Ideological Study" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1950).

3. The Mexican Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1910-1929 (Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press, 1973).

4. Portes Gil, Autobiografiá , p. 574.

5. La rebelión de los cristeros (1926-1929), trans. Angel C. Tomas (Mexico: Ediciones Era, 1968); originally published as _Borba tserkvi s gosudarstvom v Meksike (Moscow, 1965).

6. Aspectos del conflicto religioso de 1926 a 1929: sus antecedentes y consecuencias (Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropologiá e Historia, 1966).

7. "La iglesia en Mexico, 1926-1970: revisión y comentarios" (Paper delivered at the Fourth International Congress on Mexican Studies, Santa Monica, California, 17-21 October 1973), subsequently published as "La iglesia en Mexico, 1926-1970" in James W. Wilkie, Michael C. Meyer, and Edna Monzón de Wilkie, eds., Contemporary Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 295-316

8. "The Cristero Rebellion and the Religious Conflict in Mexico, 1926-1929" (Ph.D. diss. Michigan State University, 1969).

9. !Viva Cristo Rey! The Cristero Rebellion and the Church-State Conflict in Mexico (Austin, London: University of Texas Press, 1974).

10. Jean A. Meyer, "La Cristiade: societe et ideologie dans le Mexique contemporain, 1926-1929" (Ph.D. diss., Paris-Nanterre, 1971).

11. La Cristiada, Vol. 1: la guerra de los cristeros (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1973). Meyer has subsequently published revised versions of the three Spanish volumes. The English version is The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People between Church and State, 1926-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); the French version is La Christiade: l'Eglise, l'Etat et le Peuple dans la Revolution Mexicaine (Paris: Payot, 1975). Meyer also published an edited anthology entitled Apocalypse et Revolution au Mexique (Paris: Gillimard, 1974).

12. La Cristiada, Vol. 2: el conflicto entre la iglesia y el estado 1926-1929 (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1973).

13. La Cristiada, Vol. 3: los cristeros (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1974).

14. Important shorter studies of aspects of this complex subject include the oft-cited James W. Wilkie, "The Meaning of the Cristero Religious War against the Mexican Revolution," A Journal of Church and State 8 (Spring 1966): 214-33, and Robert Cortes, "The Role of the Catholic Church in Mexico's Cristero Rebellion, 1926-1929" (M.A. thesis, Baylor University, 1971). John B. Williman, La iglesia y el estado en Veracruz, 1840-1940 (Mexico: SepSetentas, 1976) examines the conflict in one important state.

15. The importance of the subject has made it the subject of various articles: L. Ethan Ellis, "Dwight Morrow and the Church-State Controversy in Mexico," Hispanic American Historical Review 38 (November 1958); 482-505; Walter Lippmann, "Church and State in Mexico: The American Mediation," Foreign Affairs 8 (January 1930): 186-207; and Stanley R. Ross, "Dwight W. Morrow, Ambassador to Mexico," The Americas 14 (January 1958): 273-89 ; and Ross, "Dwight Morrow and the Mexican Revolution," Hispanic American Historical Review 38 (November 1958): 506-28.

16. Leopoldo Zea, Positivism in Mexico, trans. Josephine H Schulte (Austin, London: University of Texas Press, 1974), pp. xiii-xxiii. (1958); 482-505; Walter Lippmann, "Church and State in Mexico: The American Mediation," Foreign Affairs 8 (January 1930): 186-207; and Stanley R. Ross, "Dwight W. Morrow, Ambassador to Mexico," The Americas 14 (January 1958): 273-89 ; and Ross, "Dwight Morrow and the Mexican Revolution," Hispanic American Historical Review 38 (November 1958): 506-28.

16. Leopoldo Zea, Positivism in Mexico, trans. Josephine H Schulte (Austin, London: University of Texas Press, 1974), pp. xiii-xxiii.