Apart from its having actually come to power nearly everywhere in the world two centuries after first exploding in France in 1789, the ever-unfolding Revolution 1 has succeeded in other ways. Perhaps its greatest success is the extent to which it has persuaded the great mass of mankind that it is their movement, a struggle of the majority for freedom and opportunity against elites who formerly oppressed them and will do so again unless they remain vigilant. Doubtless the success of the Revolution in this respect helps account for the fact that it now holds sway nearly everywhere, though seldom under its own name anymore. Nowadays it usually calls itself “democracy.”
Though its power does extend nearly everywhere, what matters most to the Revolution itself is that its power is first of all coextensive with those lands that once constituted Christendom. It came into existence, after all, to overthrow the beliefs, laws, customs and practices which distinguished Christendom from the rest of the world. As for that “rest,” most of it was colonized or otherwise taking its lead from the lands of Christendom by the time the Revolution supplanted the teachings of the Faith with its own false philosophy. Thus, Christendom’s transformation into the liberal West inevitably resulted in the Revolution’s hegemony over the other lands, ones in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, and their peoples.
That the Revolution always aimed to supplant the teachings of the Faith with its own principles has led many Christian commentators to identify this or that non-Christian group or organization as the “real” force or power “behind” the movement. No reasonable man can doubt that the “forces of organized naturalism,” as the redoubtable Fr. Denis Fahey called them, have had their role in the history of the past two centuries. However, it is the point of view here — as we believe it was Fr. Fahey’s, if we read him correctly —
that the nearly universal sway of the Revolution today is owed more to our own fallen nature than to anything else. That is, men have been inclined ever since the Fall to live according to their own will instead of God’s. Starting two centuries ago, they finally began to overthrow the political and social institutions that curbed their inclination. For a time the Church was able to prevent this development from becoming nearly complete, as earlier she was able to prevent it altogether. At Vatican II, however, it was disavowed that her teachings had a special role or influence in the conduct of politi cal affairs. (We are speaking of politics in the sense of their being the means by which the life of society is regulated.) Since then, there has been little standing in the way.
To say there has been little standing in the way is not to say there is nothing. Here and there individuals and groups strive to keep alive the idea of Christian social order. Their very existence keeps the nearly universal sway of the Revolution from becoming total. That is on the one hand. On the other, by keeping the idea alive now, they also make it possible for Christian social order to be revived when God decides the time for that is come.
The work of these individuals and groups is taxing, for it is not easy to seem always to be on history’s losing side. Things can be even more discouraging for those not directly engaged in the work, but who support it. Will a brighter day ever come? they wonder.
An Encouraging Example
The story that follows may be of some encouragement. It is the story — told far too briefly — of Mexico’s Cristeros, Catholic peasants who did not accept that the Revolution was their movement. They rose in arms against it in their country, and by their very fighting and dying in the number they did, gave the lie — like the Vendeens in France and the Carlists of Spain — to the notion that the enemy owed its past and present success to “the people.”
The story of the Cristeros, alas, is not one of victory. That does not make it less than inspiring, however, for if they finally laid down their arms, they did not really surrender to the Revolution against which they fought. Militarily they had brilliant successes, and that they could ultimately have prevailed in the field is possible. In May, 1929, it even looked likely. However, they lacked the support they deserved. This is not to speak of popular support, for theirs was already genuinely a popular rising. What was missing, except at the very beginning (and which was not of a practical nature even then) was the support of the bishops of the Church in Mexico. Missing too was the support of the Holy See, which had once thundered against the regime in Mexico City, but that was before a deal was reached with it, a deal fatal to the Cristeros. Insofar as the bishops and Holy See went the route they did, instead of supporting the Cristeros, it could be said the peasant-warriors were betrayed by the very men for whom they fought.
Betrayed they were. Ultimately, however, they fought for themselves, for their families, for their way of life, for what they believed . If they were compelled to stop fighting short of victory, their cause was not defeated, and certainly not “lost.” It remains alive in the minds and hearts of many Mexicans who still believe as did the Cristeros. It remains alive in much the way that, to many Americans, the Southern cause (the cause of a hierarchically-ordered society rooted in the land, faithful to custom and tradition, clinging to honor, and contemptuous of political expediency) is not “lost” even if the armed struggle for an independent nation to embody it ceased in 1865.
As with anything on as epic a scale as the story of La Cristiada , the story cannot be understood without some grasp of the historical background. (The Cristeros, the men who fought La Cristiada , did not call themselves Cristeros or their fight the Cristero rebellion. The word “Cristero” was coined and applied to them by their enemies, the Masonic-Socialists who ruled Mexico, on account of their slogan and veritable battle-cry, Viva Cristo Rey! — “Long live Christ the King!”)
Before we look at the historical background, a word is in order concerning sources. Reliable accounts of La Cristiada , or Cristero rebellion, exist in English. The most complete — indeed, the definitive one — is The Cristero Rebellion; The Mexican People Between Church and State, 1926-1929 , by Jean A. Meyer (Cambridge University Press, 1976). Another work that can be recommended is Viva Cristo Rey! The Cristero Rebellion and the Church-State Conflict in Mexico , by David C. Bailey (University of Texas Press, 1974).
Those two books and other things, though mainly those two books, are the source for most of the facts here related, though the interpretation of many facts arises from our own unabashed Catholic point of view and the personal convictions springing from it. It must be said of Bailey’s work, however, that he attributes to two organizations far more of the direction or command of the Cristero rebellion than they actually exercised. (Memoirs by some veterans of the fighting, as well as Meyer’s book, make that clear.) The organizations were the ACJM (Asociacion Catolica de la Juventud Mexicana; Catholic Association of Mexican Youth) and, especially, the LNDLR (Liga Nacional Defensora de la Libertad Religiosa; National League for the Defense of Religious Lib erty).
It is true that in 1926 the men at the core of the LNDLR decided, other means having been exhausted, that there was no way to end the Revolution’s oppression of the Church in Mexico except armed insurrection against the government, with the ultimate aim of replacing it with a Catholic one. However, by the time the decision was taken there had been peasant risings against the government in numerous locales, and peasant leaders, here and there, had begun to emerge and were starting to combine their efforts. In other words, a parade was already on the march. The middle-class lawyers, doctors, engineers, small businessmen and intellectuals of the LNDLR had to run like mad to get to the front of it. Further, once arrived, they were simply out there. Some would pay a high price for their “leadership” of the Cristeros, including the ultimate one, but few ever saw action in the field. The Cristeros were very much their own men. They would have marched on with or without the LNDLR. In fact, they did. The last Cristero warrior to fall in battle did so in 1941, twelve years after betrayal rendered the LNDLR and ACJM utterly impotent. (The LNDLR soon fell apart. The ACJM was folded into the episcopacy’s official youth organization.)
Who They Were
The real nature of the rebellion is shown by the men who finally became its true leaders. As the peasants of the Vendee in France were led mainly by other peasants and artisans who demonstrated a surprising gift for military command, especially in guerrilla-type actions, the Cristeros found their most brilliant general in a man who was an itinerant salesman of pharmaceutical products before the rebellion. His name, still honored by Mexico’s Catholic patriots, was Jesus Degollado Guizar. Two other top generals were simple priests (both ethnic Indians) from rural parishes, Fathers Aristeo Pedroza and Jose Reyes. Other men with no military experience rose to command positions in an army that numbered 50,000 when it seemed on the brink of victory.
A few professional soldiers would fight with the Cristeros. The most illustrious, an artilleryman who became a general in the regular Mexican army at age 40, was Enrique Gorostieta. Incredibly, he was an agnostic, even a Freemason. Why exactly he had quit the army before the Cristero rebellion, and then joined the revolt, is not clear. He was an ambitious man and may have dreamed of a successful military career leading to political power. Did he leave the regular army because his career there was not leading him in that direction after all? Did he imagine Cristero victory might? It hardly matters. What does is that his service with the Cristeros led to his becoming Catholic and dying heroically.
It was the comportment of his men off the battlefield, but especially under fire, that converted the military professional. That is, the commander was filled with admiration for the men he commanded. This can be gleaned from numerous remarks he made over time to subordinates and fellow officers. What made the Cristeros the men they were? he asked himself. It was their Faith, he concluded. So he embraced it.
We shall let Jean Meyer describe what Gorostieta witnessed when he beheld the Cristeros in action: “Soldiers in sandals and dressed in white linen, still filled with the communal spirit of their village, of their field, of their private undertakings, of their family, [who] held steady under fire, did not hesitate to respond to supreme demands, and before his eyes crossed that line beyond which one no longer loves oneself, beyond which one no longer thinks of preserving one’s life. He saw them stand up and march calmly to the battle, hurl themselves machete in hand on the Federal machine-guns, and scale heights at the summit of which simple peasants begin to appear to us as great warriors.”
On June 2, 1929, at a hacienda in Michoacan, cut off from his men, wounded, aware that the bishops were selling out the cause, trapped in a house surrounded by government troops but refusing to surrender, Gorostieta burst out the door and died with guns blazing from both hands, evidently determined to take with him as many federales as possible.
Although the LNDLR had bestowed on him the title of “Supreme Chief” of what it styled the Guardia Nacional, it must be emphasized that Gorostieta, no more than Jesus Degollado, Fr. Pedroza, Fr. Reyes, or anybody else, ever was seen by the Cristeros themselves as their overall supreme commander or leader. The rebellion had no Pancho Villa, no Emiliano Zapata, no caudillo . In the context of Mexico’s history, this was so unusual that the military attachE9 at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Col. Gordon Johnston, reported to the War Department in Washington that it was the most remarkable feature of the rebellion.
Could it even have occurred to Johnston, who almost certainly was Protestant (and probably a Freemason if he made colonel in the U.S. Army in those days), that men with Christ the King at their head had no need of a single human leader to whom to rally?
Bl. Miguel Pro
To say that the rebellion was not truly headed by the LNDLR or ACJM is not to disparage the men of those organizations. We have already said that some of them paid, even with their lives, for their fidelity to the Faith — and so did others because they were connected to them by blood or friendship. Consider the martyrdom of Bl. Fr. Miguel Pro, shot — many readers will have seen photos of it — by a firing squad at police headquarters in Mexico City on November 23, 1927.
Though he was not active with the LNDLR, both Fr. Pro’s brothers, Humberto and Roberto, were. (During the months he spent underground in Mexico City, Bl. Fr. Pro did run a sort of speakers’ bureau for the League.) On November 13, 1927, there was an attempt to assassinate Gen. Alvaro Obregon. (He and the incumbent President, Plutarco Elias Calles, were the two men who dominated Mexican political life in the 1920s, alternating power between them in a diarchy somewhat resembling the rule of co-emperors that developed in the Roman Empire.) The shots fired at Obregon came from a borrowed car whose ownership was easily traced to the LNDLR. One of the would-be assassins was a 24-year-old electrical engineer named Luis Segura Vilchis, an active member of the ACJM. Leaders of both the LNDLR and ACJM were totally in the dark as to what Vilchis and his companions were up to, but when he was eventually arrested, the police threw out a net for other ACJM and LNDLR members. Caught in the net when the house where they lived together was raided: Humberto Pro and his priest-brother. Neither is believed to have had anything to do with the assassination attempt. As already related, Bl. Fr. Miguel was not even a member of the LNDLR. It did not matter to the tyrannical Calles. Such was the depth of his anti-Catholicism that he was sure Bl. Fr. Miguel had to be the mastermind of the assassination attempt on Obregon. So he ordered the execution without trial of Vilchis, the two Pro brothers, and a fourth man, Juan Tirado. The police had been looking for Bl. Fr. Miguel for months, but had they found him before November 13, expulsion from the country would probably have been his worst fate. It was the assassination attempt on Obregon and Bl. Fr. Miguel’s link to the LNDLR, through his brother, that got him killed.
We have shown that the men of the LNDLR ran real risks even if they were not out in the hills with the Cristeros. It must also be said — it ought to be obvious — that had the Catholic peasant-warriors prevailed militarily, neither their valor as fighters nor the purity of their hearts as Catholic men would necessarily have equipped them to form and lead a national government.
Who among them would even have been interested in trying? A clear conscience, not backing down in a fight, the love of their wives and children, getting in their crops and maybe having a little something to drink and a satisfying smoke at the end of the day — such would be the interests of the Cristeros when they were not warriors. Men like that, serious men, know their limitations. These peasants were not like so many of today’s Americans taught from childhood that “You can be anything you want” and who become bitterly resentful and often a menace when they learn the truth.
When, during the course of their rebellion, the Cristeros took over towns, then wider areas and eventually almost the entirety of several states, they did not attempt themselves to provide the government needed to maintain basic services for the inhabitants, like keeping the schools open, food available, transportation running or anything of that kind. Others were enlisted to administer things: sympathetic priests, friendly low-level officials, small proprietors, school teachers, clerks — those men and others like them — men of some education or professional training. Formation of a national government would have required men like those of the LNDLR.
There is one more point to register before we turn to the historical background of La Cristiada.
Reference was made a few paragraphs ago to the depth of the anti-Catholicism of President Calles. The anti-Catholicism of which we speak is not the kind against which most readers brush in their everyday lives. It is the anti-Catholicism revealed by the Revolution (or “democracy”) as inherent in it when it insists that men should live according to their own will instead of God’s, as if He did not exist. Everyday anti-Catholicism merely views the Faith as wrong or as too controlling in the lives of us who adhere to it. The Revolution does not see the Faith as merely wrong, but as positively inimical to itself. It is inimical to the Revolution, but that is irrelevant to the point now being made. The revolutionary, when he is truest to himself, does not simply reject the Faith, he hates it, he wishes to destroy it. “ Ecrasez l’infame! ” cried Voltaire. “Crush the Infamous One!” — the “Infamous One” being the Church.
To gauge the depth of the Revolution’s hatred, to behold what it was the Cristeros fought against, here are a few lines extracted from a speech delivered during the rebellion by one of the government’s generals, J.B. Vargas, to the people of Valparaiso in the state of Zacatecas:
“The evil clergy, composed of traitors to the country, and taking its orders from a foreign leader who is always conspiring to provoke foreign interventions in Mexico in order to ensure his domination and privileges, is harmful because its mission is to brutalize the ignorant people so as to exploit it and make it fanatical to the point of idiocy, and deceive it by making out that the clergy are representatives of God, so as to live off the indolent and illiterate masses, which is where the Friar holds sway. It is enough to have some idea of the terrible history of the Inquisition for one to realize that priests and cassocks reek of prostitution and crime.”
As for Calles himself, it is useful to have a precise idea of what motivated him since he was the very incarnation of the Revolution in Mexico. (Indeed, after Obregon was gone, official reference to Calles became “Supreme Chief of the Revolution.”) The man was summed up by Ernest Lagarde, charge d’affaires at the French Legation in Mexico City at the time of La Cristiada . According to David Bailey, U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow “considered Lagarde to be the best-informed man on the subject [of Church-state relations] in Mexico.” Lagarde wrote of the President of the Republic:
“Calles was a violent and passionate adversary of the Roman Church, not because he wished to prevent the latter from extending its influence and power, but because he had decided to extirpate the Catholic Faith from the soil of Mexico. What was so fundamental in his character, was that he was a man of principle, possessed of an energy which did not stop short of obstinacy and cruelty, and he was prepared to attack not only persons but also principles and even the institution itself, and that the system of government which, as a result of his philosophical convictions, he supported, condemned as economically and politically disastrous the very existence of the Church.”
Now for the promised historical background.
Americans unfamiliar with the history of Europe and their own Hemisphere, except in very broad terms, will suppose that when Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519 with his small band of fellow conquistadors, it was under the aegis of the Spanish crown. That was so, but there was more to it. That the feather cloak of Montezuma is on display today at a museum in Vienna, not Madrid, gives the complete picture. Cortes’s sovereign was Emperor Charles V. Charles was ruler of Spain since that land was part of the Empire, but it was only in 1556 that the country came to stand alone and as we know her today. It was in 1556, that is, that Charles, desiring to spend his last years in a monastery, divided the Empire when resigning the imperial dignity. His brother Ferdinand took up that dignity. Spain and the new dominions in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico, were assigned to Charles’s son Philip, known to history as Philip II, a very great monarch in his own right.
The theory of the Empire was that Church and state, Pope and Emperor, would work together harmoniously for its peace and prosperity toward the end that its subjects might stay as close to God as possible. Writers have tried in various ways to depict this harmony. For instance, the Empire has been likened to a train on its tracks, the tracks being the Church and her teachings, which guided the train. I prefer to see the Empire as a ship. The Emperor was at the helm. The Pope was in the crow’s nest 2 looking out for reefs and ready to cry a warning if he spied one. In all history, a more ideal government has not been attempted.
Unfortunately, several times over the centuries the Emperor or Pope, one or the other, wanted to act as both helmsman and look-out, creating tension between Church and state. On occasion the tension became conflict. Such a point was reached in 1527 when troops of Charles V sacked Rome. (Charles did not intend the pillage, and his generals were powerless to stop it.)
Philip II and the Kings of Spain who followed him would know times of tension, and outright conflict, between Church and state, as had and would various Emperors. Ultimately, the state would prevail in Spain, though never to as extreme a degree as in some other nations. Spain was not like France, with the disaster of Gallicanism, or the Empire under Joseph II. Much less did it resemble England, where a monarch, Henry VIII, simply declared himself Head of the Church in that kingdom.
All this is of interest to us because, as a result of it, during the three centuries that Mexico was Spanish, the Church in Mexico was generally subservient to the crown, although her position was not cast in those terms. Rather, it was presented that the Church enjoyed the protection or “royal patronage” (the term that was actually used) of the crown. It must be said that, on her side, the Church did not find her position very objectionable since the Real Patronato (the term in Spanish) guaranteed to her rights that she enjoys nowhere in the world today. The King could name bishops, true, but no sect would be allowed to exercise in public what it is the Church’s exclusive right to do, objectively speaking: declare when religious teaching is Christian and when it is not. The time would come when the Revolution in Mexico, aware of past history and ignoring the immense difference between a Catholic crown and the purely secular and anti-religious state it was setting up, would endeavor, first, to make the Church subservient to that state, and then to eliminate her altogether.
The endeavor did not begin immediately upon the country’s attaining independence from Spain in 1821. That is because revolutionaries were not then in command. In fact, the men who first led independent Mexico were quite conservative and, almost every one of them, monarchist. It was in Spain herself that liberals had come to power. The Mexicans, with the support of the country’s bishops, sought independence precisely because of that. Achieving it, when they found no foreign prince to reign over them, they turned to a man in their own ranks, Agustin de Iturbide, proclaiming him emperor. Thus, the very first ruler of independent Mexico was a Catholic monarch. (History books that mention this episode at all usually speak of Agustin I — the name he took — as declaring himself emperor, like another Bonaparte. To the contrary, he was canonically anointed by the Archbishop of Guadalajara.)
It wants to be remembered at this juncture that Mexico at the time was twice the size of the nation that has existed since 1848. Texas, California, and all of the rest of the U.S. that we call the Southwest — all that was part of Mexico. Having a Catholic monarchy occupying so much of their own North America made the Protestants who dominated the U.S., a liberal republic, mighty uncomfortable. Even an independent Mexico born as a republic, but one that was Catholic in character instead of liberal, would have been unacceptable to them. The Catholic vision of what a society should be was too different from their own. In time, they would act to eliminate the perceived threat of Catholic power challenging their own by taking over half of Mexico by force of arms and then by buttressing the Revolution once it was installed in what remained of the country. For now, engineering Emperor Agustin’s downfall was the first order of business.
This was not difficult, given the fragility that always characterizes the institutions of a nation — Mexico’s no less than others’ — when it first comes into existence. In 1823 Agustin I sailed into exile in Italy, and a republic was proclaimed. (The next year, believing he could still be of service to his country and ignorant that he had been sentenced to death, Agustin returned. He was arrested upon arrival and shot.) Now is when Mexico’s northern neighbor could set to work in earnest. If the object was to undermine the nation as a Catholic one, the old Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) explains succinctly how the accomplishment of it was begun:
“Freemasonry, so actively promoted in Mexico by the first minister from the United States, Joel R. Poinsset, began gradually to lessen the loyalty both the rulers and the governed had manifested towards the Church. Little by little laws were enacted against the Church, curtailing her rights, as, for example, in 1833, the exclusion of the clergy from the public schools, notwithstanding the fact that at the time the president, D. Valentin Gomez Farias, claimed for the Republican Government all the privileges of the royal patronage, with the power of filling vacant sees and other ecclesiastical benefices.”
Though it risks too much space being given to this outline of the historical background of La Cristiada , the encyclopedia’s reference to Freemasonry suggests the necessity of some comment on the role in Mexico of this particular force of organized naturalism, especially since the reference makes it clear that role has been central.
To concede its centrality would appear to contradict the thought expressed at our beginning: that the success of the Revolution is owed more to our own fallen nature than to the doings of this or that group or organization. However, we allowed that the forces of organized naturalism, including Freemasonry, have had an important part to play in advancing the “progress” of the Revolution. That has been nowhere more conspicuously the case than in Mexico. Usually, Freemasonry can be glimpsed behind the scene: in France in 1789, at the foundation of our own liberal republic, in Russia in 1917. In Mexico it has been front and center.
To give one example: As recently as 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Mexico on his first foreign trip anywhere as supreme pontiff, various lodges around the country took out full-page ads in Mexico City newspapers, all in their own name, protesting the visit and forecasting dire consequences.
Whatever the extent of their power and influence in the U.S., the Masons in this country have never been that open in displaying either themselves or what they are about.
(From the Masonic point of view, developments since the Pope’s first visit to Mexico have been dire. Not merely is it now legal for priests to wear the collar in public, they have been given the right to vote. Still worse, the nation now has a practicing Catholic, Vicente Fox, for President. Moreover, he has said on the record that in his youth he was inspired by stories of Cristero valor.)
If Freemasonry began to be a force in the political life of Mexico as soon as the first U.S. envoy arrived in the country, by the 1920s it was much more. This was acknowledged by Emilio Portes Gil, handpicked by Calles, when he became President in 1929 and declared: “In Mexico the State and Freemasonry have become one and the same in recent years.”
If that was the case with the Mexican state, it was inevitably much the same with the Mexican army. Typical of its officers was Gen. Joaquin Amaro, Minister of War at the time of La Cristiada . There was an infamous occasion during his years as minister when fellow officers and Masons gave him a party in the Church of San Joaquin in Mexico City on the feast day of that saint. The party included the performance of a sacrilegious parody of Holy Mass, complete with champagne drunk from chalices.
(Not so typically, Gen. Amaro converted to the Faith before the end of his life. Some would probably say today that it was highly appropriate that he willed his very extensive library of anti-Catholic literature to the Jesuits.)
Apart from Freemasonry, though never by much, another force that actively sought to undermine Mexico as a Catholic nation was Protestantism. It had considerable success, especially in the north — the part of the country bordering the U.S.
The north is what some Americans imagine all of Mexico to be: largely desert and hot. Before the advent of air-conditioning made it possible for some of its towns, like Monterrey, to grow into major cities and manufacturing centers, it was sparsely populated. Not coincidentally, Mexicans commonly refer to the historical leaders of the Revolution in their country as “the Men of the North” because that is where most of them came from, including both Obregon and Calles. These were men who grew up outside the Hispanic and Indian heartland of Mexico. Their formative years were spent literally and figuratively closer to the U.S. than to that heartland. As a consequence, they often attributed the “backwardness” of their country to her Catholicism. They saw the Protestantism just across the frontier as accounting for the wealth and progressiveness of the U.S.
Doubtless there is something to that notion. Catholics do believe, or should, that some things are more important than acquiring wealth. Acquiring virtue is one. Protestants, especially if they are of a Calvinist stripe, see wealth as a reward from God Himself for their abstemiousness and work ethic, which they fancy as constituting all the virtue that matters. This difference in outlook of Catholics and Protestants produces different lifestyles. “Time is money” is an American dictum with roots as old as Benjamin Franklin’s injunction that “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Time is not to be wasted. In Catholic countries, especially Latin ones in Europe and the Western Hemisphere, men are given to “wasting” it by spending hours on cafE9 terraces or in cantinas or in long siestas. The Protestant will observe that is not the way to make money or otherwise “get ahead.” We have an observation of our own: It is remarkable how many rich Protestants choose to vacation and even retire in places like Provence or Tuscany or Cuernavaca to taste a little of the life always enjoyed by the despised Catholic. You never hear of one of them hiring an architect to renovate an old farm house in Kansas.
In any event, when the Men of the North came to power early in the 20th century, they opened up the country, as a matter of policy, to Protestant penetration. That being the case, American Protestants generally supported the Revolution in Mexico wholeheartedly. As one of them, S.G. Inman of the Committee of the League of Free Nations, would testify to a U.S. Senate committee in 1919: “When the Mexican Revolution began, the Protestant Churches threw themselves into it almost unanimously because they believed that the progress of the Revolution represented what these churches had been preaching through the years and that the triumph of the Revolution meant the triumph of the Gospel. There were some entire congregations who, led by their pastors, volunteered for service in the Revolutionary Army85 Many Protestant preachers are now prominent in the Mexican government.”
By 1922 there were 261 American missionaries working with 773 Mexican Protestant pastors in 703 places of worship whose combined congregations numbered 22,000. By 1926 the Methodists were running 200 schools in Mexico. The YMCA was all over the place. The Episcopalian Bishop of Mexico, Moises Saenz, was the brother of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aaron Saenz. That connection by itself guaranteed that the Protestant missions would enjoy government cooperation. Protestants also controlled the Ministry of Education.
Jean Meyer relates the Protestant penetration to the growing Catholic resistance to the Revolution, a resistance that finally produced the Cristero rebellion: “Proselytism, always based on the twin themes of the immorality of the celibate priests and the rapacity of the higher clergy85was quite effective in the North and in the pioneering areas of the hot lands, but elsewhere it produced reactions which were often violent, and which became increasingly frequent after 1926 as Protestantism grew in strength. To the Catholics, it was obvious that the Government was collaborating closely with the Yankee missions and that it was working for the great ‘decatholization’ hoped for by Theodore Roosevelt as a prelude to annexation. The Catholic politicians would have given much to have been able to publish this telegram sent by the Episcopalian churches of Toledo, Ohio, and Taylor, Pennsylvania, to President Obregon: ‘Millions of Americans feel for you and pray for you while you struggle to unloose the grip of the Roman Catholic Church upon your great country.’ ”
Actually opening the country to Protestant penetration and promoting the sects as a matter of policy began with the rise to power of the Men of the North, but they were not the first to wish the “decatholization” of Mexico. That was no more the case than that the Revolution in Mexico began with them, though it was with them that it openly called itself the Revolution. We have already heard that the loyalty of both rulers and governed towards the Church began to lessen — that it was made to do so — as soon as the first U.S. envoy arrived in the country soon after Mexico attained independence.
The pace of the Revolution’s advance, and with it the “de-catholization” that is the very definition of what it is about, accelerated in the 1850s. Between 1855 and 1857, when a new constitution was adopted, a series of anti-Catholic measures were enacted by the government. One required the Church to divest herself of all her real estate except churches. Another required the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages. Still another put cemeteries under the control of the state. A revolt against the new constitution, supported by Catholic leaders, broke out. Fighting between the rebels and government forces lasted three years.
The government at the time was headed by Benito Juarez. He was so highly regarded in the U.S. that he remains probably the only Mexican president that many Americans can name. From Veracruz, the Gulf Coast city where he set up a temporary capital during the fighting of 1858-60, he issued numerous edicts which are collectively known in Mexican history as the Laws of Reform. The first decreed the absolute separation of Church and state. Others nationalized all Church-owned land; prohibited public officials from attending religious services; made tithing illegal; abolished male monastic orders; 3 prohibited female orders from accepting new members; made civil marriage obligatory and legalized divorce.
His army abundantly supplied with arms by the U.S., Juarez finally prevailed in the field and re-established the capital in Mexico City at the beginning of 1861. Conservative leaders refused to accept defeat, however, and looked to Europe for help. Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, was ready to provide it.
The conservatives wished to revive the form of government Mexico enjoyed when she first became independent: monarchy. They sought a prince to reign over them. They found one in a descendant of Charles V. He was the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, whose ambitious wife, Charlotte, was a daughter of Leopold, King of the Belgians.
Reluctant at first to accept the proffered crown of Mexico, since acceptance entailed the surrender of all his rights in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but pressed by Charlotte and, above all, Napoleon, Maximilian finally agreed. So much sentimental nonsense has been written about him that a few lines on the blunt reality of this interlude in Mexican history would be salutary.
Explaining why Napoleon III chose to become involved is beyond our scope. (In part, Mexico owed a great deal of money to France; in part, the French have always been fascinated by the country.) However, the effort to reestablish monarchy in Mexico 45 years after the first attempt would not have been possible except that he garrisoned the country with a very large expeditionary force of thousands of men. It was, in effect, under its protection that Maximilian and Charlotte arrived in Mexico in May, 1864, to reign as Emperor Maximiliano and Empress Carlota.
If the safeguard of the rights of Christ as King of Society ought to be the paramount concern of government, those rights certainly were more likely not to be entirely ignored under Maximilian than Benito Juarez (or anyone who followed him as President). Thus it would unquestionably have been better for Mexico and even the world had Napoleon and Maximilian’s venture succeeded. However, it was doomed from the start. That is because Maxmilian simply was not up to it. The man was a romantic, a dreamer. He may have meant well, but did almost nothing right, except die manfully when the time for that came. The single worst thing he did was refuse restitution to the Church and other great landowners of any of the property Juarez had seized from them with the Laws of Reform. It is a fact that the Church had come to own perhaps as much as 50 percent of the country’s arable land, and that may have been too much, but setting aside the question of justice, by his refusal Maximilian alienated the very parties who should have constituted his natural power base. It was insane to decide against any restitution at all, and there was no reason for it except that Maximilian imagined it would somehow win him “the love of the people,” for which he longed.
Meantime, Juarez had never left the country. He was in the north, still calling himself President, still recognized as such by the U.S. Further, after fighting in the War Between the States ended in April, 1865, Washington could once again provide him with arms while making it known diplomatically to France and other European powers that it was no happier in the 1860s than four decades before at the prospect of a Catholic monarchy next door.
The outcome was virtually inevitable. When Napoleon, feeling heat from the U.S. and foreseeing war with Prussia, pulled his troops out of Mexico, Maximilian was left alone to contend with the republicans, who had begun to move south. With no solid base on which to stabilize it, thanks to his own short-sightedness, his throne was bound to topple. He dispatched Charlotte to Europe to try to drum up support in its courts, but that mission proved as futile as his own when he rode into the field to take personal command of the dwindling number of men still loyal to him and fighting the U.S.-equipped Juaristas.
He was captured at the town of Queretaro on May 15, 1867, and shot by a firing squad the following June 19. Like Bl. Fr. Miguel Pro 60 years later, he faced his shooters without a blindfold or the slightest visible trace of fear. (We said his death, if nothing else, became him. As for Charlotte, she lived on at one of her family’s chateaux in Belgium, sunk in madness, still believing herself to be a sitting empress, until 1927.)
As our war of 1861-65 decided once-and-for-all whether the U.S. would continue as the federation of sovereign states intended by a majority of the Founding Fathers or as a unitary nation with political power centralized in Washington, D.C., so the fall of Maximilian decided once-and-for-all whether Mexico would exist as a monarchy or republic. There was, however, still some question as to what sort of republic it would be.
That was not entirely settled during the years of Juarez’s presidency or even when, in 1873, his successor, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, incorporated the Laws of Reform into the constitution. That year and several times during the next four, peasants in a half-dozen states, encouraged by local clergy, rebelled against the government. Then, in 1877, Gen. Porfirio Diaz seized power. He would brook disorder from no quarter, not in 1877 or anytime during the coming 34 years that he ruled Mexico with an iron fist.
Diaz was another Freemason, and the anti-Catholic restrictions now incorporated into the constitution remained. Still, he was a leader worthy of being called a statesman. More to the point, for the sake of maintaining stability and order, he consistently pursued a policy of conciliation toward the Church. That meant that many of the constitutional restrictions on her simply were not enforced. By the 1890s new dioceses could be established and there were even Catholic schools operating in many parts of the country. Further, after Pope Leo XIII in 1891 published to the world his great social encyclical Rerum Novarum , perhaps the single most influential papal document of the past two centuries, Catholic leaders in Mexico, as in many other places, began to promote social reform. Porfirio Diaz allowed them the freedom to do so, and in ever-increasing measure.
This is not the place for a survey of Mexican Catholicism at the turn of the 20th century, but in 1903 a congress of the Mexican faithful was convened in Puebla. It was followed by other congresses held in other cities in 1904, 1905 and 1908. Trade union organization, establishment of schools of agriculture and the arts, the improvement of public health, a campaign against unjust and fraudulent labor contracts, the living conditions of Mexico’s vast Indian population — all these and many other topics were discussed and debated at the congresses.
Again, Diaz tolerated it. What he would not allow was Catholics becoming active in politics as Catholics . There could be no Catholic political party (or party of any other coloration). Then, in 1910, a revolt against him was launched by Francisco I. Madero, best described as a sort of Mexican Kerensky. In 1911, a few weeks before Diaz was finally ousted from power and sent into exile, the Archbishop of Mexico City, fearing that the old authoritarian might rally Catholics to the defense of his regime, convened a gathering of lay leaders who thereupon founded a National Catholic Party.
The new party soon began to flourish. In two states, Jalisco and Zacatecas, it even won control of legislatures. They passed laws that provided for worker accident insurance, that exempted credit cooperatives from state and local taxes, and that required employers to give workers a day off on Sunday.
An Ugly Turn
Madero was a liberal, but was personally decent. Given all that would follow, it was unfortunate that he was overthrown and murdered, along with hi s Vice President, by Gen. Victoriano Huerta in February, 1913. This was when the Revolution, as the Revolution, truly began in Mexico.
Huerta was soon successfully opposed by another faction of revolutionaries calling themselves the Constitutionalists. Their head, a state governor named Venustiano Carranza, was prepared to allow the Church some rights, like maintaining her school system, but he was outnumbered in his group’s leadership by men determined not simply to eliminate Catholic influence in Mexico’s public life, but to “liberate” Mexicans from even the private practice of the religion. By mid-1914 the radical elements were seizing church buildings and jailing or exiling bishops, priests and nuns. Their activities culminated in 1917 with the promulgation of still another constitution.
Numerous of its provisions were designed to eliminate the Church as a force in the life of the nation and, ultimately, altogether. Article 3 required all elementary education, public or private, to be secular; clergy were prohibited from establishing or directing elementary schools. Monastic vows as well as monastic orders were outlawed by Article 5. Article 24 barred public worship or any other religious event (like processions) outside churches. Those churches and all other Church-owned buildings (bishops’ residences, seminaries, convents, hospitals, orphanages, etc.) were declared to be property of the state by Article 27. All that was bad enough, but it was Article 130 that mattered most. It empowered the federal government to “exercise in matters of religious worship and external discipline such intervention as by law authorized.” (What did that mean exactly? Whatever the government cared for it to mean.)
The same article forbade all publications deemed religious by title, policy or “merely by their general tendencies” to comment on public affairs; declared the clergy to be members of a profession and therefore subject to civil regulation (state legislatures were given the power to determine the number of clergy allowed to function in their states); and much else, including denial of trial by jury in cases arising from violations of Article 130.
The new constitution was promulgated on February 5, 1917. Most of the country’s bishops were in exile in the U.S. at the time. From there they issued a protest in April, but not much of one. Pleading that they, too, wanted democracy established in Mexico, they appealed for toleration so that the Church could exert her moral authority to assist the government “in its task of promoting the national welfare.”
If Their Excellencies’ protest was not exactly a summons to resistance, the following years right up to the mid-twenties saw, in the words of David Bailey, “a steady growth of Catholic opposition to the Revolution.” That cannot here be chronicled, but it was during this period that both the ACJM and LNDLR were founded. By the outbreak of the Cristero rebellion, the LNDLR would have a membership of 800,000, which sounds very impressive until it is learned that most of it was middle-class and, indeed, female. These members felt they had too much to lose and melted away as an “opposition” as soon as the rebellion began and the LNDLR leadership had to go underground.
A National Church
The next date that is important to us is February 21, 1925. It was a Saturday. Shortly before eight o’clock that morning a hundred armed men calling themselves “Knights of the Order of Guadalupe” entered the Church of La Soledad in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City. They promptly ejected the pastor, his two assistants and the worshippers who had gathered for Mass at that hour. A few minutes later, a 73-year-old priest named Joaquin Perez arrived under the escort of another armed group and proclaimed himself “Patriarch of the Mexican Catholic Church.” Perez was a former Freemason who had once suspended himself from the priesthood to serve in the Revolutionary Army. He was soon joined by another priest, Manuel Monge, who had a police record in his native Spain and was just then living with a woman.
All was quiet at La Soledad on Sunday, but when Monge appeared in the church to say Mass at eleven o’clock Monday morning, parishioners rushed him. He fled to the sacristy and a general riot involving at least a thousand persons broke out. It took mounted police and firemen using high-pressure hoses to break it up. Many parishioners were injured and one killed.
Who was really behind the “Knights” became obvious when the government issued a statement: “The members of the Mexican Church [i.e., the Perez grouplet] must not resort to censurable methods to obtain what the authorities are prepared to grant them provided they seek it peacefully and comply with the requirements of the law.” Further, after Perez and Monge were driven out of La Soledad, Calles ordered the church closed and converted into a public library. Perez was given the use of another, more centrally-located church, one that had been vacant for a number of years.
Even in his day, Benito Juarez had corresponded with Episcopalian bishops in the U.S., sounding them out on their willingness to set up a National Church in Mexico. A couple of other times there had been actual attempts to establish such a schismatic entity, comparable to the so-called Patriotic Church that exists in the Communist People’s Republic of China today. So the incident at La Soledad did not represent a new development, but it was the immediate background against which Mexico’s Catholics viewed events in the following months. For instance, Catholic worship was effectively ended in Tabasco when the state’s governor ordered enforcement of a law requiring all priests to be married and over 40 in order to exercise their ministry. In Hidalgo the legislature limited the number of priests in the state to sixty. Officials closed all seminaries and other Catholic schools in Jalisco and Colima. At the end of February, 1926, Calles sent a message to all state governors urging them to take immediate steps to enforce the constitutional articles on religion. In a speech a few days later he declared: “As long as I am President of the Republic, the Constitution of 1917 will be obeyed.” In April, Pope Pius XI ordered public prayers for Mexico in the churches of Rome. In June he addressed a letter to the Mexican hierarchy urging patience but also firmness. Then came July 2, 1926.
The Last Straw
That was when the government published a decree of 33 articles which would become known as the “Calles Law.” Its effect was to require uniform enforcement on a nationwide basis of all of the constitution’s anti-Catholic provisions, and it spelled out penalties for infractions by officials who failed to enforce the law, as well as by private citizens. Most troubling to the bishops was a provision which required all pastors to register with the government. Clearly, episcopal control of the Church in Mexico was now threatened. The government was moving to arrogate to itself the power to appoint and dismiss priests.
What to do? Simply defy the government and order pastors not to register? The bishops lacked the stomach for that. Pending Vatican approval, which was soon forthcoming, they decided on an action that was without precedent in any land in the entire history of the Church. It was announced in a pastoral letter on July 24: priests were to be withdrawn from all the nation’s churches, there would be no public worship for an indefinite period. The letter emphasized that the country was not being placed under interdict. Still, the moment could not be more dramatic. As David Bailey writes of Sunday, August 1, 1926, the day the action began: “For the first time in more than four centuries, no priest mounted the altar of a Mexican church for morning Mass.”
Some government ministers were sure that the Revolution had won a great victory. Because they did not believe, they supposed that Catholics, with the Sacraments no longer readily available, would stop believing. Various of them offered differing predictions as to how many Catholics would fall away from the Faith each month that Mass was not celebrated in any Church.
The ministers were mistaken. To be sure, the great majority of Mexico’s Catholics, like the great majority in every country, might not be exactly zealous. As long as they were not personally affected, they might even look upon the government’s doings with a certain indifference. For many, however, the situation became different when, as at La Soledad, it was a matter of their church being closed, their priest not being available to hear confession, to baptize an infant, to bury the dead or, most of all, to say Mass. In the cities and big towns a faithful Catholic might find Mass somewhere (usually a private home). It was not like that in the villages and hamlets of the countryside, and as the parishioners of La Soledad rioted when their Mass was directly threatened, so the Cristero rebellion began, and would be fought, in the countryside.
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 horror85 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 left85 The only thing I must tell you is that you must lay down your arms85 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.