The Cristero War of 1926-1929 is a serious contender for the most important recent Catholic event you’ve never heard of, a true story of resistance against the secular tide of our era. The 20th century is a tale of brutality and slaughter on a scale unseen in history, making it clear to all that, while religious conflict is certainly violent, the level of death and terror dealt out by atheistic states is on an entirely different level of its own.
The Cristero revolt was a peasant uprising against an attempt by the Mexican government to abolish Catholicism. Laypeople, and even priests, took up arms against the Mexican state, inflicting 2-1 losses in their favor. In three years of martyrdom, military victory and diplomacy (including an important intervention from the US) the people of Mexico kept the Faith. The attempted secularization of their society was halted and, in later generations, rolled back.
To understand the animosity and violence of the Cristero War, a brief survey of Mexican history is required. The roots of the Cristero War lie in the complicated relationship between the Church and Mexican politics. This article will examine the first 90 years of Church and State relations and how it created conditions where the Church found herself embroiled in the Mexican Revolution.
During the entire colonial period, the Church wielded immense political power and was the sole legal religion in Mexico. In 1821, Mexico achieved independence, in large part aided by the Church.
Political independence was a double edged sword, as it also gave rise to the wide proliferation of Mexican Masonic lodges. The Masonic ideal of separation of Church and state, combined with historical animosity to the Faith, would combine with resentment against the Church’s political activity and metastasize into anti-clerical laws. Masonry was deeply embedded into Mexican politics, with Freemasons on both right and the left.
Thirty years after independence, conservative leaning dictator Santa Anna was deposed for the final time. A new government came to power determined to usher in a new era. This period, occuring in the 1850s, was known as “La Reforma.” Among the institutions targeted was the Church.
A series of laws were passed that were designed to attack the Church’s property rights, religious courts and proclaimed separation of Church and state the masonic ideal. This was embodied in the constitution of 1857. The constitution was so unpalatable to the conservatives in Mexico that it triggered a war, called the “War of the Reform.” For obvious reasons, the Church backed the conservatives. This support would come back to haunt her.
In 1861, Benito Jaurez, a Freemason, secured the presidency and continued rolling back the Church’s influence over the next eleven years, stripping clergy of their privileges and suppressing Catholic education. Marriage became a civil matter and the separation of church and state became so extreme that priests could not wear their clerics in public.
Almost immediately after the War of the Reform, the French Emperor Napoleon III launched an invasion of Mexico and created a puppet state under its own monarch, Emperor Maximilian I which would last until 1867. The establishment of a monarchy could not have happened without the aid of Mexican conservatives and the Church. The hierarchy was now full partners with a foreign invader.
The Church’s relationship with Maximilian was stormy and the hierarchy began to expose how wildly out of touch they had become. They demanded the full restoration of their confiscated property and the abolition of freedom of religion, something that Maximilian wouldn’t and probably couldn’t agree to. The hierarchy began to dig their heels in and created significant political drag for Maximilian.
Unfortunately for both, Maximilian was deposed and shot, the French expelled, and political power consolidated in the hands of Juarez once more, now a national hero and facing little opposition. The Church wound up with nothing out of the whole affair, except a tarnished reputation.
This run of bad luck continued until General Porfrio Diaz seized power in 1876. Diaz was a liberal, but understood the importance of the Church and how the campaign to roll back her influence was a destabilizing factor in Mexican politics. Diaz would effectively rule Mexico until 1911, and under his regime the anti-clerical laws remained on the books but were not enforced, and the Church regained much of her former position.
But there was a price to this status quo. In the eyes of liberals and revolutionaries, the Church had become a staunchly reactionary power, since she backed the conservatives and the hated French. Her role in the war of independence had been overshadowed by recent events. To the liberals, the Church became not merely an obstacle but an enemy in her own right. This characterization is somewhat unfair, as the hierarchy was certainly traditionalist, large swathes of the lower clergy, i.e. the local secular priests were often quite liberal.
Furthermore, the “live and let live” agreement meant freedom at the time, but the anti-clerical laws were still enshrined in law. Everything needed for a de facto legal suppression of the Faith was in place. The key was in the ignition. All it would take is a driver to come along with the will to twist it. A sword of Damocles hung over the head of the Catholic Church.
And in 1911, the sword finally dropped.
Pray the Rosary every day and stay tuned for Cristero War: Revolution