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The Role and the Mission of the Catholic Church in Mexico

Paul V. Murray, The Role and the Mission of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Mexico, privately printed, 1963; 2nd edition, 1972). [excerpts]

An address delivered by Paul V. Murray, January 6, 1963.

When independence did come about, it was churchmen who helped make it possible. Some bishops and other leading clergymen helped Col. Agustin Iturbide to unite his troops with the few insurgent forces still in the field in 1820 and to convince other forces still loyal to Spain to declare for independence. In the mother country, a revolt had caused Ferdinand VII to accept the radical Constitution of 1812 which was later enforced in New Spain in strongly anti-clerical fashion. I think it can be safely said that more than for any other reason, it was the threat to religion in Mexico that caused the clergy to support Iturbide and thus cut forever the political ties that bound the country to Spain.

When Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero led the victorious troops into Mexico City on September 27, 1821, a new era began. For the Church, however, it was to prove a sad day. The ecclesiastical fabric had been torn asunder. Ruins were everywhere. The missionary, educational, and social work, built up at such great cost, was practically at a standstill. Very shortly, Iturbide was proclaimed Emperor and Archbishop Fonte, the titular leader of the Mexican Church, in protest left for Spain, never to return. His see remained without a successor until 1838. Herein lay the roots of many of the disasters that were to come.25

VI. The Church in the New Republic, 1823-1857

Iturbide abdicated and went into exile in 1823; and the next year, Mexico received its first constitution, modelled to some extent on that of the United States. A casual observer might say that the Church was in an invulnerable position because Article I established Catholicism as the only religion to be tolerated. But appearance[s] were deceiving. Very shortly, the continued activities, flavored with unseemly bickering unworthy of good priests, carried on by such clergymen as the erratic Dominican, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier: the intriguing Miguel Ramos Arizpe; and the openly anti-clerical and rebellious Dr. José Maria Mora and Fathers Alpuche and Marchena, gave increasing scandal to the faithful. Here we can see how costly was the lack of a strong leader in the archepiscopal see. Many nominal Catholics in the government were eager to take over the authority once held by the Viceroy under the Patronato. Others gave vent to heretical, Jansenistic or even deistic ideas. 26

The situation became more complicated with the appearance of the first American Minister to represent our government in Mexico. An intelligent and astute man, Joel Roberts Poinsett favored what he considered republicanism as against a feeling for monarchy that was still current in Mexico, especially with those who directed and moved the Scottish Rite lodges of Masonry. To offset their influence, the Minister secured from the United States a charter for York Rite lodges which, before the end of the decade had seized political power in the first real palace revolution under the republic. A third Masonic group--the National Rite lodges--also made its appearance at this time. Historians, especially those who have specialized in ecclesiastical history, are in fairly general agreement that it was during the 1824-1830 period that the Masonic groups began to work on definite plans to remove the Church from its preeminent position in Mexican life. Just as in Europe, properties would be confiscated, the bishops would be exiled, the religious orders of men and women would be suppressed, education laicized, and the government declared free of all clerical influence. The first attempts to accomplish some of these objectives during 1823-33, failed for the most part: but from that time on it can be said that a group that would eventually be known as the Liberal party, had made its appearance and would work for the success of the anti-clerical--I think we must also say anti-Catholic, although many people try to deny it--plans already noted.27

At just about the time that the Liberal movement began to take form, the modern Mexican hierarchy received its first member in the person of Francisco Pablo Vásquez, canon of the Puebla cathedral, who had been sent to Rome several years earlier to negotiate the appointment of bishops for the new republic. Two Spanish prelates were still alive, but had left Mexico. Before the end of the twenties, all the others were dead and the Mexican Church was left leaderless. Four Popes reigned during a brief period of nine years; and the tendency was to wait and see if Spain would recover her American possessions before the Papacy took the decisive step of appointing new bishops. Eventually Vásquez was consecrated in Rome and, upon his return, he consecrated the bishops who were to lead the country in the new and trying times.28

Unfortunately for all of Mexico, the period from 1828 to 1857 is one of continuous revolution, barracks revolts, bandit raids. In 1836, Texas was lost to the republic; and after the war with the United States, the country was reduced by more than half its territory through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It cannot be said that the Church did more than hold its own during these years but the growing power of the Liberals, obviously moving towards an all-out attack on the ecclesiastical establishment, foreshadowed what was to com[e]. 29

VII. The Church and the Liberal Revolution, 1857-1876

The revolution of Ayutla, which in 1855 overthrew General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the most remarkable political chameleon this country has known, brought the Liberty party to power. Very rapidly laws were passed, invading the Church's traditional prerogatives relating to ecclesiastical courts, the control of income-producing properties and the collection and disposition of clerical fees. In 1856, the Liberals organized a convention and in February of 1857 promulgated the Constitution which remained in force until l9l7. It abolished clerical privileges, forbade the acqui[si]tion of income-producing property, abolished the compulsory observance of religious vows, denied the clergy the right to public office, proclaimed the government's right to intervene in matters of worship, and established the freedom of conscience, press and education. Complete religious freedom was not granted but the full content of the legislation was sufficiently anti-Catholic for Pope Pius IX to denounce the document and to declare that all who swore to uphold it would be excommunicated.30

There was a rising against the government and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Benito Juárez, became president by constitutional provision. For the next three years, the terrible War of the Reform raged in the country. In July and August of 1859, although bottled up in the port city, the Juárez government promulgated new legislation, the so-called Reform Laws, from its stronghold in Veracruz, confiscating all the properties of the Church, establishing civil marriage, taking over the cemeteries, etc. Aided considerably by help from the United States, the Liberals triumphed and returned to power. The bishops and some other ecclesiastics were exiled and the Juárez government proceeded to dispose of the properties of the Church, previously proclaimed by the Liberals as being so vast that their sale would solve most of the treasury's financial and economic problems. Proof that such was not the case is not material for this paper but in a matter of almost months, the patrimony of the Church was dissipated, religious orders dispersed, and the treasures of three centuries taken under government custody. Once again it must be said that the story of the dispersal of art objects, church ornaments, and libraries makes sad reading for most of us today. No similar accumulation has been possible since, partly because changed economic conditions, partly because of restrictive legislation of a most extreme kind. 31

I include the ephemeral Empire of Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria under the section devoted to the Liberal Revolution for good reasons. The young Habsburg and his Belgian wife, although brought out by Catholic conservatives who thought a monarchy might unite the Mexicans and stop the relentless march of the United States under its banner of Manifest Destiny, proved to be at least as liberal as Juárez and his colleagues. On the other hand, after his arrival in 1864, Maximilian promptly showed his utter contempt for the Mexican clergy and treated in a high-handed insulting manner the papal nuncio sent to discuss the terms of a Mexican concordat with the Vatican. His pretensions were such that if Pius IX had acceded to them, the Mexican Church would have been reduced to a position just as subservient as it had known in the times of the ancient Habsburgs and the Bourbons. No concordat was ever signed, Maximilian alienated both clerical and lay support, and the end was his execution at Querétaro in June, 1867, while Charlotte went insane and lived on in Europe in that state until 1927. From 1867 till now it can be said that no group representing nineteenth conservative principles has ever been important in the political life of the country.32

Once again, Juárez returned in triumph, once again the bishops and many priests either went into exile or into hiding. Amnesty was soon granted but the more radical wing of the Liberal party clamored for extreme measures. Juárez did not satisfy their desires to any great extent during the five years he continued to serve as president. When he died in July, 1872, of a heart attack, his successor, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, sponsored the constitutionalizing of the Veracruz Reform Laws, the complete secularization of education, the expulsion of most of the Jesuits still in the country, and the exclaustration of the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. This order, which had come to Mexico some thirty years before, chose to leave the country rather than give up the common life. Over 400 Sisters made their way to France, leaving behind the thousands whom they had served in hospitals, asylums and schools. 33

One bright spot in this period was the founding of a lay organization known as La Sociedad Catolica. It worked to organize schools, give catechetical instruction, visit prisons, raise money for objects of worship in poor churches, and for the beginnings of a Catholic press. Although it pretty well ceased to function after about 1878, it would seem that its work was taken up and carried on by the new ecclesiastical organization that began to function more cohesively after the election of Don Porfirio Díaz in 1876.34

Although I am sure you know a good deal about Protestant missionary activities in Mexico and will most probably hear more about contemporary work during your visit, I believe that a few brief references should be made to the beginning of such activities. If we are to reach new levels of understanding, we shall have to know more about what happened in the past to create frictions which exist in an acute form down to the present.

It would seem that the first activity grew out of James Thompson's selling of Bibles for the British and Foreign Bible Society around 1827. Later, more Bibles were distributed when the American armies invaded Mexico during the War of 1846-48; and Protestant chaplains held services for troops during the invasion. Historians of the various missionary groups list Melinda Rankill, in the Matamoros area, Dr. Prevost in Chihuahua, and a Mrs. Charmy de Garduza in Veracruz as being engaged in evangelical work by about 1857. A group of Catholic priests left their church at approximately the same time in support of the new legislation and are therefore known as the "Constitutionalist Fathers." Some formed their own church and others appear to have affiliated with the Episcopalians. By the decade of the sixties, Thomas M. Westrup ordained a Baptist minister, made Monterrey his headquarters; after this time, both Baptists and Methodists are to be found in the northern parts of the country. We are told that there was some Protestant activity during Maximilian's Empire as Félix Eloin, his secretarv, was a Protestant; and residents of the capital who so desired were allowed to attend Reformed services conducted by chaplains of the French forces.

After the triumph of Juárez, the Rev. H. Chauncey Riley purchased from the government a portion of the great church of San Francisco in 1868 and there conducted Episcopalian services. At about the same time, a Methodist group headed by Dr. William Butler, bought another part of the same property (on Gante street, where it still remains). Under Juárez, Lerdo de Tejada, and Porfirio Díaz, the Protestants came in ever-increasing varietv and numbers. Without entering into further statistical detail, I simply list the denominations which I have seen identified as having centers in various parts of Mexico before the turn of the century. These are the Baptists, Presbyterians, Mexican Episcopal, Evangelical Quakers, Methodist Episcopal, Congregational, Plymouth Brethren (an autonomous group in Veracruz, not the American branch), and the Seventh Day Adventists. In closing these observations on the missionary movements which came largely from the United States; I think it well for us to understand that Protestant-Catholic dialogues carried on here must be preceded by careful preparation and preliminary studies of a historical nature. The whole field is in such need of study and I hope you will give it serious consideration during your stay here. 35

VIII. The Church and the Díaz Dictatorship, 1876-1911

Porfirio Díaz was one of the notable men of the last half of the nineteenth century. Although classed with the more radical wing of Liberal party when he came into power, he very early grasped the need to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards previously warring elements if Mexico were to have peace. Like Juárez before him, Díaz had left the Oaxaca seminary for the study of law but then chose the army as a career rather go into politics as Juárez had done. Grand Master of the Lodge of the Valley of Mexico, he never made any attempt to change the legislation which kept the Church in its straitened position. Being a realist, however, he found ways to allow the Church to exercise its functions in such a way that, little by little, some of its former emimence was restored as it built hospitals, seminaries, schools and orphanages. Many new dioceses were created and even two new religious orders were founded by Mexicans. At the same time, other orders, such as the Society of the Sacred Heart, the Christian Brothers, the Marists, the Salesians, the Redemptorists and others joined in giving the Church the reenforcements needed to face a new epoch. There is no doubt that Díaz brought peace to the country but the crass materialism, which showed its grosser forms in both the United States and Europe in the same period, began to grow in Mexico. Too, the philosophy of Positivism, imported from Comte's classroom in Paris by Gabino Barreda and implanted in Mexico by him at the invitation of Juárez, began to give the country an entirely new intellectual orientation. By the time that Díaz was ready to let a new university open its doors in 1910--it was founded by gathering together schools of preparatory studies, law, medicine, letters, etc.--the country was heartily sick of Positivism; but it had done its work in helping to corrode the spiritual life of Mexico. It had been helped, one must add, by. an expanding educational system in which both a sceptical and an agnostic spirit successfully barred spiritual considerations from the curriculum. 36

To the Catholic Church belongs the glory, long denied it by its opponents, of having begun the first serious studies of social problems in the country, of having suggested practical remedies, of helping build the organizations that actually got laws passed in the social field before the third phase of the Revolution of 1910 developed legislation of the same type. The appearance of Pope Leo III's challenge to socialism, communism, and materialistic capitalism in the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), became the touchstone of the Catholic social movement. Local and parish organizations, led by far-seeing bishops and priests, sponsored national congresses which debated such topics as a living wage, alcoholism, land reform, conditions on the haciendas, the position of the workers, protection of women and children, the need for spiritual content in education. An articulate and valiant Catholic press, led by laymen of spirit and prestige, helped focus attention on the lower depths of Mexican life while sycophants and foreigners helped to convince the aging President that the surface glitter of his regime was more important than what lay just below the surface. In time, these social and political debates culminated in the founding of the Partido Católico Nacional, the only organization of its kind in all Mexican history. It showed great strength in central Mexico and managed to elect deputies and senators to several state legislature after Madero had overthrown Díaz in 1911. The disasters consequent to the Huerta betrayal of Madero in 1913 helped to sweep away the Catholic party: and all similar organizations were forbidden by the Constitution of 1917 under which we live. 37

To summarize: The Church experienced a vigorous revival during the Porfirian epoch. While nowhere near so strong as it had been in colonial times, it developed many outstanding clerical and lay leaders and once again made important contributions to the social, intellectual and political life of the country. Many Catholic sources state that the seeds of spiritual revival began to bear fruit in the middle-aged and the young, just about the times the Revolution of l910 burst upon the scene. And it was well that men and women of tempered steel were ready for the test, that a courageous clergy and an equally couragous laity were prepared to face what came. That the Catholic Church did not disappear as a vital force in Mexican life was due, in great part, to the training these men and women had received and the faith that they had strengthened and that was to be tried, as never before, during the dark days of revolutionary destruction and of implacable persecution which lay ahead.


25. There is an excellent presentation of the period in W. S. Robertson, Iturbide of Mexico (Durham, 1952). Sosa, op. cit. [F. Sosa, El Episcopado Mexicano (Mexico, 1897)] has a sketch of Fonte's life. Cuevas and Bravo Ugarte have much on these topics.

26. A summary of the leading Church-State events in the first decade of independence is in Paul V. Murray, "The Church and the First Mexican Republic, 1823-1830," in Records of the American Catholic Historical Society (Philadelphia, March, 1937), Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, pp. 1-89.

27. Diplomatic episodes are treated, mostly from the American point of view, in J. Fred Rippy, The United States and Mexico (2nd. ed., New York, 1931) and in J. M. Callahan, American Foreign Policy in Mexican Relations (New York, 1932). Masonic materials are in L. J. Zalce Rodriguez, Apuntes para la Historia de la Masonería en Mexico, 2 tomos (Mexico, 1950) and in F. Navarrete (pseud. for Fr. J. Garcia Gutíerrez, La Masonería en la Historia y en las Leyes de México (Mexico, 1957).

28. See Cuevas and Bravo Ugarte.

29. Still the best source is J. Smith, The War With Mexico, 2 Vols. (New York, 1919). Best Mexican sources are Apuntes para la Historia de la Guerra entre Mexico Y los Estados Unidos (Mexico, 1848) and J. W. Roa Barcena, Recuerdos de la Invasion Norte-Americana, 1846-1848 (Mexico, 1883). The Church-State differences at this time need more profound study than they have received.

30. Good sources are W. H. Callcott, Santa Anna (Norman, 1936), and Liberalism in Mexico, 1857-1928 (Stanford 1928); W. V. Scholes, Mexican Politics During the Juárez Regime, 1855-1872 (Columbia, Mo., 1957); and the volumes by Mecham, Cuevas and Bravo Ugarte already cited.

31. The most voluminous life of Juárez in English is Ralph Roeder's Juárez and His Mexico, 2 Vols. (New York, 1947) by a man who is not a specialist in the field. Only recently has there been much critical writing on the Benemérito. See also Magner, Cuevas, Bravo Ugarte, Schlarman and Scholes. My own Tres Norteamericanos y su participacion en el desarrollo del Tratado McLane-Ocampo, 1856-1860 ("Revista Estudios Historicos," Guadalajara, 1946) establishes connections between American policy in Mexico and support of Liberal anti-Church plans.

32. Standard source on much of Empire history has been E. C. Corti, Maximilian and Charlotte of Mexico, 2 Vols. (New York, 1928) but it is strongly pro the rulers and anti-Church. A better guide for insights into the true issues at stake is J. Garcia Gutierrez, La Iglesia Mexicana en el Segundo Imperio (Mexcio, 1955). I believe Fr. G. Gutierrez was the outstanding Church-State scholar in Mexico til his death in 1959. G. Decorme's Historia de la Compañia de Jesús en la Repíblica Mexicana durante el Siglo XlX, Tomo I (Guadalajara, 1914) and Tomo Il (Guadalajara, 1921) is an important source not usually consulted.

33. Best source on Lerdo to date is Frank A. Knapp Jr.'s The Life of Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, 1823-1889 (Austin, 1951). Decorme's work, cited in Note 32, has much of value for the period.

34. I know of no special study of La Sociedad Catolica but it published a Memoria (Mexico, 1887) and a magazine called La Sociedad Catolica, printed in the capital, which endured from 1869 till at least 1877.

35. It is unfortunate that the most extensive study of Protestant missions yet remains unpublished. It is J. E. Helms' "Origins and Growth of Protestantism in Mexico to 1920" (Ph.D. Dissertation, U. of Texas, Austin, 1955). L. R. Gandee's M.A. thesis as Mexico City College -- "The Introduction and Nineteenth Century Development of Protestantism in Mexico" (Ms., Mexico, 1949) also has valuable material. G. Baez Camargo and K. Grubb's Religion in the Republic of Mexico (London & New York, 1935) is hardly calculated to advance a spirit of ecumenism so far as Mexican Catholics are concerned. Many books by early missionaries could be cited to show that they were often untactful and impudent in their actions and in their writings.

36. The most ambitious history of the Porfirian period ever attempted is Historia Moderna de Mexico, 6 tomos (Mexico, 1955-1963), done under the direction of and with the partial authorship of Daniel Cosio Villegas. [NOTE: Now -1972- completed in 10 volumes.] An earlier important work is José C. Valades, El Porfirismo, Historia de un Régimen, 3 tomos (Mexico, 1941). Three unpublished studies on the Church in the period that deserve mention are K. M. Schmitt, "Evolution of Mexican Thought on Church-State Relations, 1876-1911" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Ms., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1954); D. J. Tarrant, "The Catholic Church in Mexico: A Survey, 1877-1910" (M.A. Thesis, Ms., Catholic University of America, Washington, 1954); Alice M. Murray, "Díaz and the Church: The Conciliation Policy, 1876-1900," (M.A. Thesis, Ms., Mexico City College, Mexico, 1959). A special monograph on the period is much needed.

37. Scattered references to the Church's attitude towards social problems in the Díaz decades can he found in works cited earlier and in those in Note 36. However, the best summary I have seen is C. Hernandez, "Some Aspects of the Mexican Catholic Social Congresses, 1903-1906," (M.A. Thesis, Ms., Mexico City College, Mexico, 1959). Just recently we have had the valuable El Porque del Partido Catolico Nacional by Bishop Franciseo Banegas Galvan, published (1960) in Mexico. It supplements the Hernandez paper.