Mexico’s Religious Question: Ben Fallaw on Catholicism and the State

978-0-8223-5337-9_prAs millions of Catholics in Latin American prepare to celebrate Easter under a new Pope, we're pleased to present a guest post by Ben Fallaw, Colby College professor of Latin American Studies and author of the new book Religion and State Formation in Postrevolutionary Mexico and Cárdenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Postrevolutionary Yucatán

years ago, I went to Mexico City to research Mexico’s “religious question” of
the 1930s:  the political role of the
Church after an anticlerical revolution in a Catholic country. Not long after I
arrived, the city virtually shut down as millions flocked to greet Pope John
Paul II.  He came to canonize Juan Diego,
the Nahua
shepherd who witnessed the Virgin of Guadalupe’s apparition in 1531. A
few weeks later, my archival work uncovered why the campaign to make Juan Diego
a saint was championed by Bishop José de Jesús Manríquez beginning in 1939. Manríquez
and his priests had just beaten back attempts by federal teachers to turn his
diocese of Huejutla (Hidalgo state) into a revolutionary laboratory for land
reform and indigenous empowerment. For them, Juan Diego symbolized the pure “Indian
Church” menaced by “the Beast” of the state. This was but one of many historical
connections between Mexico’s postrevolutionary religious question and Church-state
tensions today. 

Ens_031313_popeFrancisTwo months
after the publication of Religion and
State Formation in Postrevolutionary Mexico
, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the
first Latin American pope. North Americans (non-Catholics among them)
celebrated the choice, lauding the Argentine’s simplicity, devotion to the
poor, and New World origins. The latter was hard to miss: the backdrop for an
early public appearance as Francis I featured a large image of la Guadalupuana. Reaction to Francis I
in Latin America was much more divided. 

While some North
Americans see Bergoglio as a fierce critic of what John Paul II famously called
savage capitalism, many Latin Americans see in him a bitter foe of the new left.
Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a nemesis of the IMF, but
she also championed birth control and marriage equality. Bergoglio denounced
the latter as “a destructive attack on God’s plan.” They and their supporters
often view each other through the lens of history: Fernández remembered the silence
of the Argentine Church’s hierarchy during the Cold War dictatorship,
Conservative Catholics charged Fernández was prejudiced by leftist
anti-Catholicism dating back to the nineteenth century. The conflict has
underscored the Latin American Church’s paradoxical position as an institution
both non-partisan and politicized, both very influential yet feeling persecuted
by the postcolonial state.   In Mexico, I chronicle how the
postrevolutionary state’s consolidation created many lingering historical
grievances among Catholics. For instance, Bishop Manríquez’s
counterrevolutionary jeremiads were provoked in part by federal teachers’
destruction of hundreds of sacred images in Huejutla on 3 June 1935.

Of course, Mexico in the 1930s and Argentina today are profoundly
different. Among other things, Argentine Catholics never rebelled against a
revolutionary state as did Mexico’s cristeros
in the late 1920s. Nevertheless, the election of Francis I has reopened wounds
in Mexico,
too. Some are quite recent. As I was writing the conclusion to Religion and State Formation in August 2010,
the mayor of Mexico City sued the Archbishop of Guadalajara for libel after the
prelate denounced legalization of same-sex marriage in the capital, and the
press was reporting on the jailing of six young women charged with seeking abortions
in the conservative Catholic state of Guanajuato. Just last year, the PRI, the
party that claims to have institutionalized the revolution, returned to the
presidency a dozen years after its presumed demise in part by courting
important bishops. At the moment, new president Enrique Peña Nieto is
negotiating with the Vatican, reportedly offering the return of Church
influence over public schools in return for a visit by Francis I.

The PRI’s
willingness to abandon its heritage of revolutionary secularization in return
for political advantage reflects one of Religion
and State Formation
’s main concerns: the
ability of Catholics and Catholicism to impede the revolutionary transformation
of society in the 1930s. The Church refused to allow a political party or
insurgency to act in its name. However its organizational matrix, its ideology,
and its lay (and in a few cases clerical) leadership galvanized
grassroots-level resistance to postrevolutionary state-making. The Vatican
endorsed this “radial strategy” which successfully turned much of Mexican civil
society against the revolutionary state, but it was in many ways a strategy
that emerged from the base. In Campeche, caciques led syncretic gremios
(confraternities) to oppose peasant cooperatives and elect sympathetic
candidates. In Guerrero, Catholic women mobilized male voters, and catechists
and priests convinced peasants to reject federal teachers and land reform. Some
even supported the sporadic attacks against schools and ejidos (land grants)
termed the Second Cristero War (c.1932-38). In Guanajuato, congressman and army
reserve officer Salvador Azaña collaborated with cristero insurgents,
catechists and allied politics to block agrarian reform.  Again and again, the Church’s radial strategy stymied
revolutionary change.

  Historians long assumed that President Lázaro
Cárdenas (1934-40) put to rest Mexico’s vexing
religious question though
negotiation and compromise with Catholics, ending anticlerical regulations in
return for Catholic support. I found that the clergy and much of the laity saw Cárdenas’s
détente as the opportunity for a strategic shift rather than acquiescence to
the postrevolutionary regime’s hegemony. 
 After 1940, Catholic leaders formed
the right-of-center opposition party known as the PAN that eventually ousted
the PRI from the presidency in 2000. The Church also “rechristianized” Mexican
society in part by encouraging Catholics to marry sacramentally, zealously defending
its social teachings from a state still seen as anti-Catholic. Indeed,
Catholics opposed federal schooling because it was coeducational and allegedly
mandated sexual education.

Seen in this
light, contemporary Church-state tensions in Argentina and in Mexico result not
just from national traumas like the Dirty War and the Mexican Revolution but
also from deeper conflicts over the definition of marriage and human  sexuality. The direction and outcome of these
conflicts has profoundly shaped and will continue to profoundly shape everyday
life and politics in the region. In many ways the Church in Latin America prevailed
for close to two centuries.  Under Francis
I it confronts an uncertain future, one clouded by the same problems that beset
the Church in Europe and North America as well as the region’s unresolved
religious questions.


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