The Pope and the Cristeros

The most meaningful stop on the Pope’s Latin American swing last week was not Cuba, as the press would have it, but Guanajuato, Mexico, the symbolic heart of Catholic violence in the Americas. His presence there honored the Cristeros, who slaughtered 50,000 Mexicans early in the 20th century in order to promote the rule of “Christ the King” – a struggle the pope evidently intends to renew.

For hundreds of years after the Spanish conquest of Hernán Cortés, Mexico was ruled by a coterie of priests and soldiers, who sucked as much wealth as they could out of the land for the benefit of the other priests and soldiers who ruled mother Spain. That ended when independence arrived in 1821. The new republican government systematically began returning the land and wealth the church had expropriated to the Mexican people, and regulating the exorbitant fees the church charged the peasants for services like baptism and burial. Naturally, the church opposed all this, and collaborated joyously in the brief restoration of foreign monarchy under the Emperor Maximilian in 1862. But the Mexican people, most of whom seem to be only nominally Catholic, quickly reinstalled a secular government under Benito Juarez, one of the most outstanding leaders any nation ever had.

The church hasn’t endured for this many centuries by giving up easily, though. In 1913 it financed the overthrow of Mexico’s secular government by a brutal military dictator, who later conspired with German diplomats to try to bring Mexico into World War I. The Mexican people didn’t care for this fellow either, and after years of bloody struggle a secular government was re-established in 1920, with a humanistic constitution providing for free and mandatory secular schools, civil marriage, exclusion of foreign-born clergy, broadened ownership of land, collective bargaining, and vastly increased rights for women.

Catholic God experts hated all this, especially the provisions on education. The church is well aware of how weak its argument is among people who are able to think for themselves, and ever since the 4th century has stressed the importance of brainwashing impressionable children. Squeezing the teaching of magic out of the schools would cripple the church’s hope of ever staging a comeback in Mexico.

In 1926, Mexico’s bishops (with the enthusiastic support of the pope) went on the offensive. In order to “re-establish religious liberty” (the same catch-phrase being used today in the church’s struggle against contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans), they decreed that no more masses or sacraments could be offered to the faithful until the government knuckled under. Simultaneously, powerful Catholic lay organizations demanded a boycott of tax payments, and pressured Catholic educators to stop teaching children in evil public schools. The government responded with an unreasonably harsh crackdown. The result was predictable: in August of that year, 400 armed Catholics in Guadalajara engaged in a shootout with federal troops, which only ended when the rebels ran out of ammunition.

Soon large portions of the country were engulfed in civil war. The Catholic rebels were called the “Cristeros,” a shortened form of Cristo el Rey, or Christ the King. Since Christ was unlikely to appear to rule in person, the Cristeros felt that a church-approved dictator or divine right monarch would be the next best thing. This was no minor skirmish; the government side suffered more casualties than America did in Vietnam, and the Catholic side, with two priests at the helm, may have fared even worse. Brutality and torture were common on both sides.

Unquestionably, some elements on the government side went to indefensible extremes in the struggle to keep Mexico free of religious domination. The governor of Veracruz limited the number of priests to one per one hundred thousand population, and the governor of Tabasco, who named his first-born son Satan, organized “Red Shirt” thugs to burn religious images and terrorize the devout. Would these excesses have happened had the church not kept up a hundred year struggle to restore the hegemony it enjoyed in colonial times, limiting itself to serving those who freely chose to accept its teachings? Only in an alternate universe could we truly know the answer, but I seriously doubt it.

After two years of bitter warfare, former Mexican president Álvaro Obregón was re-elected on a pledge to work out a compromise to end the slaughter. But the day before he was to be inaugurated, he was assassinated by a devout Catholic, and the combat continued. Finally, in 1929, American ambassador Dwight Morrow brokered a truce in which the bishops called off the sacrament strike and the government agreed to suspend enforcement of the more extreme anticlerical measures. The government would not back down on secular education, though, and used the respite from Catholic military campaigns to proliferate religion-free schools in rural Mexico. This infuriated the pope, who issued a major encyclical at the end of the year condemning Catholic participation in secular education:

How grave therefore is the error of those who separate things so closely united, and who think that they can produce good citizens by ways and methods other than those which make for the formation of good Christians. For, let human prudence say what it likes and reason as it pleases, it is impossible to produce true temporal peace and tranquility by things repugnant or opposed to the peace and happiness of eternity.

The result was continued Catholic disruption of “peace and tranquility” throughout the 1930s, largely directed at teachers in the newly established schools. Hundreds of teachers were butchered. Many of the corpses had their ears cut off, presumably because of their refusal to hear God’s word.

The enduring Catholic alliance with Mexico’s wealthiest classes continued through the 1930s as well. The government’s campaign for land reform was frustrated in many areas by priests who persuaded peasants that accepting land from subdivided estates would send them straight to hell, where they could share quarters with others who had committed the grave sin of joining a labor union.

Angels at the foot of Cristo el Rey hold an earthly crown and a crown of thorns

In 1940, the government extended an olive branch to the church by having its taxpayers, religious and non-religious alike, contribute half the cost of a giant statue of Cristo el Rey in the heart of insurgent territory. Of all the places in a rather large country Benedict could have chosen to visit, he picked this one, precisely so he could give his blessing to the statue, a hallowed place of pilgrimage for Cristero zealots ever since it was built. Even John Paul II shied away from its implications on each of his five visits to Mexico. “It offers a great platform for the vindication of the church in its confrontations with the state,” said Víctor Ramos Cortes, of the University of Guadalajara. “The symbolism is perfect.” Equally symbolic is the pope’s choice to visit a state where seven women who suffered miscarriages were jailed in 2010, on suspicion of the crime of abortion. The truth is, the church still hasn’t abandoned its dream of regaining political power in Mexico, as evidenced by its skirting of the rules against endorsing political candidates and its incessant demand for religious indoctrination in the public schools. The timing of the Pope’s visit, six days before the start of the official political campaign season, says it all.

One Response to “The Pope and the Cristeros”

  1. Marty says:

    great story- thanks!

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