Mexican Anticlerics, Bishops, Cristeros, and the Devout during the 1920s: A Scholarly Debate
Donald J. Mabry, "Mexican Anticlerics, Bishops, Cristeros, and the Devout
during the 1920s: A Scholarly Debate," Journal of Church and State Vol. 20,
No. 1, (1978), 81-92.
Every society has at least one episode in its history that attracts
international attention because it illustrates common problems or because it generates
emotional excitement. Scholars enjoy the drama of war, ideological conflict, and intrigue.
The conflict between the revolutionary Mexican state and Catholics during the 1920s
provides all these elements. Thus it is not surprising that scholars from the Soviet
Union, Mexico, France, and the United States have turned their attention to it. The
subject is vast in scope, complex in its development, controversial in its meaning, and
relevant to other societies. Mexicans themselves have been debating the conflict for five
decades with the passion and partisanship that characterizes the true believer.
Politically, the government's interpretation of events --that the Mexican Revolution
defended itself against a reactionary clergy allied with prerevolutionary elites, both of
which were trying to block progress and justice and were willing to invoke foreign
intervention--has assumed greater importance as the Revolution became institutionalized
and less revolutionary.  The scholars who have stepped into the fray have not escaped
the effects of this heated debate. It is the purpose of this article to examine the nature
of the scholarly argument and to suggest possible effects of nationality upon the
perception of historical reality.
The advent of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 decisively influenced
the history of the twentieth-century Mexican Roman Catholic Church and the development of
Catholic thought in that country. Virulent anticlericalism, an anticlericalism that has
seldom been surpassed in any other country, was one of the most important progeny of that
struggle. By 1940, the church legally had no corporate existence, no real estate, no
schools, no monasteries or convents, no foreign priests, no right to defend itself
publicly or in the courts, and no hope that its legal and actual situations would improve.
Its clergy were forbidden to wear clerical garb, to vote, to celebrate public religious
ceremonies, and to engage in politics. Although in practice many of these prohibitions
were ignored by both church and state, their existence was a constant threat. The unity of
the hierarchy had been sundered by the internecine strife fostered by the government.
Thousands of the faithful had died in struggles against a government which tended to view
the faith as subversive. Its modest prerevolutionary social reform movement, advanced in
the days of its origins and incorporated in part by "socialistic" secular
governments, was held to be reactionary, proto-fascist, and obscurantist.
All the charges leveled against the nineteenth-century church were
added to a new and similar list of charges. The church was said to be guilty of
antiscientism, fanaticism, paternalism, and conservatism and was charged with appealing to
foreign powers for intervention, aiding usurpers and murderers, and refusing to give
financial aid to revolutionary leaders while supporting their enemies. The victory of the
revolutionary government by 1929, confirmed by anticlerical persecution during the early
1930s, placed the church firmly under the control of the state. Although complete
separation of church and state was the oft-stated goal of anticlericals, the post-1929
relationship was in fact more akin to the Hapsburg corporatism of the colonial period.
The social doctrine of the Catholic Church was under fire as much as
was its putative political, economic, and educational power. To the revolutionaries,
church doctrine and their own scientific, enlightened, and progressive views were mutually
exclusive. Whereas the church stressed the worth of every person in society and the
necessity of class cooperation, the revolutionaries stressed the conflict between the
middle classes and the oppressed masses on the one hand and the old, possessing oligarchy
on the other. In particular, the revival of Thomistic doctrine that accompanied the spread
of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, demonstrated in the writings of Trinidad Sánchez
Santos and in the works of the Catholic congresses of prerevolutionary days, threatened
the revolutionaries by offering social change in a corporate form reminiscent of the
This is the position taken by Robert E. Quirk in his dissertation
 and its revised form as a book. Quirk sees the church as a threat to the
revolutionary ideal because it offered a romanticized version of medieval corporatism
(which, he asserts, is inherently unjust and unrealistic), including a social reform
program which did not speak to the needs and desires of the masses and which could not be
enacted, except in Jalisco, because Catholics had no real hope of power while decisions
were coming from the mouth of a gun. Although Quirk sees much value in church social
doctrine (land redistribution, minimum wages, profit sharing, organization of labor, labor
laws for women and children), he states that the church was doomed to lose because the
masses, personified by Pancho Villa, saw Catholicism as an irrelevant European doctrine
and its servants as exploiters of the masses. Both clerics and laymen never understood the
Mexican people and failed to reverse the tide of anticlericalism, even when they tried
cessation of religious services, economic boycott, insurrection, and appeals to foreign
forces, principally American Catholics and the United States government.
The revolutionaries won the church-state conflict, brought the
church to its heels, and prevented the introduction of corporatist practice in Mexico
because they represented the true will of the masses. Quirk grants that the
revolutionaries were ruthless, fanatical, and enemies of religious freedom because they
sought to impose their own secular view of the world on Mexico. Implicitly and subtly he
argues that such a policy was inevitable and just. Quirk, a brilliant student of Mexican
history, an excellent writer, and a competent researcher, has accepted as valid the
revolutionaries' own interpretation. In short, the book lacks balance.
Missing are lengthy discussions of ideologies and of cristeros, the
people who did the fighting. A grasp of Mexican Catholic ideology and of revolutionary
ideology is necessary before the struggle can be fully understood. The work of Mexican
Catholic Action is skimmed over and dismissed as ineffectual without an examination of
what was accomplished within the limited confines of the period. The cristero rebellion,
one of the central events of the story, is inadequately treated. No information is given
as to who they were, how they were recruited, and why they fought. The concession by
Portes Gil that there were fourteen thousand armed cristeros in the field when the
fighting ended is indicative of the significance of their action.
Examination of the author's sources indicates reasons why this book
is not totally satisfactory. Quirk makes excellent use of the Canon García Gutiérrez
collection, the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty archives, writings of
league members, published government accounts, and United States State Department records,
but he ignores the works of other scholars on the subject as well as cristero material.
The significance of these omissions will be subsequently revealed when the present author
examines these writers and their use of these sources.
An even less adequate study of the subject has been presented by
Nicolas Larin, a Russian scholar. Larin forces his study into a Marxist-Leninist
framework, thus making his conclusions predictable before the book is opened. His sources
are limited to those that support his thesis, and he ignores ideas contrary to his
position. His research does not include United States or Mexican archives.
Larin's book begins with an obligatory statement of Marxism-Leninism
and thereafter looks at the church-state relationship and the role of the United States in
the affair. Simply put, Larin sees the church as a reactionary, fanatical force tied to
the Porfirian elites, the hacendados, the new Mexican capitalists and the imperialist
interests of the United States. Although he is more sympathetic toward the Mexican
government, Larin denies that it was anything more than a bourgeois government. He asserts
that the fight was between bourgeois elements represented by the government and
quasi-feudal elements backed by an imperialist foreign power intent on exploiting Mexico.
Alicia Olivera Sedano, writing between Quirk's two works and
after Larin, has taken a more moderate and limited view of the subject. Her work does not
pretend to be comprehensive, and she wisely makes limited claims for it. She was the first
scholar to gain access to the league archives, thus making her study more thorough than
those of her predecessors. She argues that the Catholic Church was counterrevolutionary
and opposed to much of the secular revolution taking place. Unlike Quirk and Larin,
however, she argues that the Catholic elements that resisted the government were
progressive Catholics and that the church of 1926 was an institution concerned for much of
the social reform which interested the revolutionaries. She recognizes that the Catholic
group was not monolithic, and she divides the leadership into an urban-based group
directed by the league and a rural-based group composed of campesinos. In a later work 
she asserts that the divisions were even more complex. Discussing the military aspects of
the conflict, she concludes that the cristeros could not have won. The study is limited by
the absence of foreign sources, a considerable omission in view of the importance of the
American role throughout the conflict.
David C. Bailey entered the fray first with his doctoral
dissertation  and later with a book  based on that research. His interpretation,
like Quirk's, is based on newspapers, league archives, memoirs and tracts of league
members, accounts and interpretations of government officials, United States State
Department records, and, unlike Quirk, employs the work of Olivera Sedano and portions of
a dissertation by Jean Meyer.  Bailey reaches conclusions similar to Quirk's--the
conflict was the result of a century-old struggle; the rebellion was doomed to failure;
only a small minority of the population backed the rebellion; the cristeros most
apparently were not from the landless bottom of the social pyramid; the cristeros did not
understand the complexities of the church-state conflict; Mexican Catholics were divided
over the struggle, especially in the way it was terminated; the laymen who led the
rebellion at both the political and the military levels were a homogeneous group and
almost without exception belonged to the small Mexican middle class; the Vatican sought
more to preserve the opportunity for priestly functions than to preserve the position of
the Mexican church; the attitude and the intervention of the United States through Dwight
Morrow were decisive; and the government won the conflict. Bailey goes on to argue that
this was a reformed church committed to social justice, not a reactionary institution.
Further, he points out that the hacendado class and the old Catholic upper class supported
the government. Finally, he gives some attention to the cristeros themselves and points to
the aftermath of the conflict and the number of participants who were later murdered. Of
the two English-language books, this is the stronger.
What promises to be the definitive study of the subject began
appearing in print in 1973 as Jean Meyer started publishing his doctoral thesis in
Spanish. Meyer, unlike his predecessors, long recognized the enormous size of the topic
and the necessity of a lengthy and comprehensive pursuit of sources. He utilized all of
the sources of the scholars before him but went further by exploiting state and municipal
archives, interviews with participants in the conflict, questionnaires, and a plethora of
published studies and documents; his research was exhaustive. The seven years which he
spent on the subject are reflected not only in his excellent citations and bibliography
but also in the sophistication of his analysis.
In order to treat the subject in a manageable form, he divided the
story into three major headings. Volume one of the work focuses on the war,  volume
two focuses on church-state relations, including the Morrow intervention,  and volume
three focuses on the cristeros--who they were, how they were recruited, why they fought,
and how they should be compared with other peasant revolutionaries.  In short, Meyer
examines every aspect of the conflict in these three volumes.
The work is so vast and so complex that it would be impossible to
recapitulate all of it in this space. However, it is important to make note of some of the
new and different data offered by Meyer. In fact, scholars interested in similar subjects
or in the history of modern Mexico will find it obligatory to read Meyer and to be
prepared to yield some of their most cherished assumptions about Mexican peasants, the
Catholic Church, and the Revolution.
Full recognition of the multiplicity of the groups that were
involved hallmarks Meyer's work. What has traditionally been seen as the church side was
in fact five different groups, each with a different perception of the problem and
reaction to it and each with somewhat different goals.
The church hierarchy sought to preserve the church in Mexico against
a Jacobin anticlericalism which at best wanted to make the church a tool of its dominance
and at worst wanted to erase the institution from the Mexican landscape. This hierarchy
was split into two groups--one which sought to alter or evade the anticlerical provisions
of the Constitution of 1917, and the other which was willing to accommodate itself to the
Revolution if there were complete separation of church and state. Outside of Mexico was
the Vatican, which accepted the Revolution and was willing to deal with the Mexican
government in hope of preserving the opportunity for Catholicism to proselytize. It sold
out the other Catholic groups when an accommodation with the government could be reached.
It never supported the intransigent groups.
Lay leadership was also divided. There were middle-class Catholics
organized into the National Defense League of Religious Liberty who sought to control the
Catholic side of the controversy and who asserted that they were the spokesmen for all
laymen and often for the hierarchy itself. In fact, they represented themselves, and only
when convenient to the hierarchy were they allowed to represent it. Their importance in
the conflict has been overstated by other students of the subject, in large part because
league members have claimed in their prolific writings more importance than they deserve.
Moreover, league archives were the first large collection of church primary sources
available to scholars.
The people who did the fighting, the cristeros, were neither
supported nor directed by the league or by the church. They were on their own. Although
middle-class Catholics initially tried to direct the movement, the cristeros developed
their own leadership and programs. They did not so much lose the fight as the Vatican and
the hierarchy abandoned them. They were essentially peasants fighting a peasant war for
their faith and in opposition to the domination of the middle and upper classes,
regardless of their geographical location or religious attitudes.
The opposing side was also composed of different groups. Among the
revolutionaries there were rabid anticlericalists, such as Plutarco Elías Calles, and
leaders, such as Alvaro Obregon, who were desirous of avoiding unnecessary conflict.
Government employees, including military forces, aided the cristeros at times either out
of conviction or for material profit. Former revolutionaries, including zapatistas, joined
the cristero rebellion. Morrow, representing the United States government, without which
neither side could win, supported the Mexican government. The Vatican recognized the
critical importance of U.S. support and, once it recognized Morrow's attitude and probable
role, sought accommodation.
The conflict was fought on different levels. The Mexican state
attacked the Catholic Church not because the latter was counter-revolutionary (it was less
so than many "revolutionaries"), but because Mexican political leaders, as
representatives of a nascent Hispanic middle class, sought a strongly nationalistic
bourgeois state. It could not tolerate any rivals, whether foreign economic interests,
political parties, or an independent organization which claimed the allegiance of the bulk
of the population. Since there were no opposition parties of any note in Mexico during the
1920s, the organizational network of the church and its Catholic Action and Christian
socialism were seen as the most immediate domestic threat by the government. Therefore,
the church-state conflict was more of a power struggle than an ideological conflict
between the forces of reaction and of progress. The state refused to recognize that the
church of 1920 was different from the church of the nineteenth century because it was
necessary to label the church as reactionary in order to garner support both inside and
outside Mexico. Hence, this level of the struggle was national and international.
The fight on the local level was different. The cristeros were not
as concerned about the ideological questions involved as they were about preserving what
they believed to be their rights. They wanted to preserve their religion. They were not
worshippers within a Catholicism which acted as a veneer for more primitive and ancient
religious practices but were Mexican Catholics who understood and valued the beliefs which
played a central role in their lives. Further, they sought to be free of a state which
threatened not only their beliefs but also their way of life. They were traditionalist but
not counterrevolutionary. The tension between the average rural dweller and the agrarian,
who had received land from the government in return for obedience, was an important reason
for the revolt. The men beholden to government--the agrarians and the caciques--were few
in number, tools of the government, and disliked by the cristeros. The cristero army was a
popular army. Sixty percent of its members lived by selling their labor. Another 14
percent were small proprietors, and still another 15 percent were renters or
sharecroppers. The cristero uprising was as much a peasant or popular uprising as was
zapatismo, hallowed in revolutionary mythology. The cristeros were resisting the onslaught
of the modern bourgeois state, of the Mexican Revolution, of the city elites, of the
northerners running Mexico, and of the rich.
The Catholics lost because the United States government decided that
Mexico needed peace and that peace was best obtained from the existing revolutionary
government. The Vatican and finally the hierarchy recognized reality and agreed to the
compromises arranged by the apostolic delegate, Morrow, and Calles. The league and the
cristeros were ignored. They were told to accept the decision of the elites. The
government agreed to the compromise (the arreglos) because it appeared to be the best way
out of an increasingly difficult situation.
Before the arreglos of June 1929, the cristeros had forty thousand
men in the field even though the Mexican army had been fighting them for two years with
supplies obtained from the United States. The Escobar rebellion earlier that year as well
as a small Communist rebellion had been defeated, but at a price. University students were
striking over autonomy. Jose Vasconcelos was threatening continued revolutionary control
with his presidential campaign. The United States government was pressing for settlement
of issues emerging from the Revolution. The existing government of Portes Gil was an
interim government created after the popular Obregon had been assassinated the year
before, an act which threatened to split the revolutionary ranks and lead to civil war.
The creation of the National Revolutionary party had forestalled this, but the party was
being tested in the elections of that summer. Therefore the Mexican government was in
trouble when the badly needed arreglos were arranged.
As Meyer alone points out, the cristero rebellion and church-state
conflict had important consequences for Mexican history. The campesinos remained
definitively crushed; this was the last mass upheaval in Mexican history. The campesinos
resigned themselves to the violent and negative integration to the regime at the time;
they would only be positively incorporated into Mexican society with the reforms of
Lázaro Cárdenas. Opposition groups learned that violence would not
work, and the process of political modernization was accelerated as was the government's
policy of geographical and moral integration. The experience confirmed to all participants
that support of the United States government was the sine qua non of success. The church
became a supporter of the Revolution, the victory of which came not with the Constitution
of 1911 or the beginning of the Sonoran dynasty in 1920, but with the arreglos of 1929.
The Mexican bourgeoisie had gained control of the country, a control which it still
Meyer's work is important because it not only
vastly expands our understanding of an episode in Mexican history but also suggests some
important considerations in the writing of history. As already noted, Meyer's success with
the topic evolved from his diligent research into sources ignored or unknown to other
writers; part of his success was the result of his recognition of the dimensions of the
subject and his willingness to treat it fully. Beyond that, Meyer saw the subject from a
different perspective. He did not try to mold the subject to fit the most common
preconceived idea, namely, that the church was reactionary and monolithic. Instead, he
recognized through his research that he was dealing with many different groups. He did not
automatically accept the modern middle-class liberal view that Mexico had a revolution
similar to the French, Russian, or other revolutions (the position taken by the Mexican
government). He did not automatically accept the view that what the state did in the 1920s
was laudable because it was done by men who had destroyed much of the Porfirian past, a
past condemned by Mexican revolutionaries and American academicians alike. Further, he did
not automatically assume that peasant uprisings are not uprisings unless they favor social
change or "progress." In short, he did not automatically adopt the
"revolutionary line" on the subject.
Five historians from four different countries have written lengthy
studies on the same topic, [l4] but they have followed different research procedures and
arrived at different conclusions, thus allowing this author the opportunity to make some
observations about nationality and history.
The Mexican historian used Mexican sources to write a master's
thesis, but she disavowed any intention of writing a definitive study, seeing her thesis
instead as a starting point for a program of continuing research. Subsequently she has
modified her conclusions and stated her intention to research the subject along the lines
which Meyer, unbeknown to her, had pursued.
The Russian was so intent on making the story fit a preconceived
mold that he apparently believed it unnecessary to dig into all possible sources. Because
of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. rivalry in the world, he devoted a large amount of the space to an
effort to prove that the U.S. government and U.S. capitalists had nefarious designs on
The two Americans also devoted considerable space to the role of the
United States in the affair but at the expense of other parts of the story. No one,
including this author, questions the importance of the intervention by Morrow in bringing
the conflict to a halt. It is an important topic which deserves attention, but after all,
it is only one element in a larger story and not necessarily the most important one. 
One plausible explanation as to why the Americans have devoted so much attention to the
American side of the story is that they are Americans. They have a natural interest in
what their government and countrymen did. However, more important is the fact that they
had easy access to American sources (e.g., the Morrow papers, State Department records)
and thus could do much of the research in the United States. Combining these sources with
government, league, church hierarchy and Mexican newspaper sources produces the kinds of
books they wrote, books which are valuable and scientifically based, but misleading
because they capture only part of the reality.
The Frenchman had no special affection for the United States or
obligation to fit the story into a predetermined ideological mold; instead he had the
desire and the time to uncover all of the story. He chased it down avenues and across
mountains on foot, burro, automobile, train, and plane. He sought out the cristeros and
their accounts as well as those sources preserved in written form. As a Frenchman, he had
an historical consciousness of a truly revolutionary revolution and was not seduced by the
charms of the Mexican experience. Coming from a Latin Catholic country which also had an
anticlerical tradition enabled Meyer to categorize and understand Mexican Catholicism.
Leopoldo Zea, Mexican philosopher and historian of ideas, has
written that United States scholars cannot be fully objective about Latin American history
because the history of the two areas is intertwined.  In particular, the histories of
Mexico and the United States crisscross. In studying Mexico, Americans are also studying
themselves. For this article, Zea's controversial argument is suggestive. The bounds of
nationality must be broken if one is to uncover the full reality and its meaning.
1. See, for example, Emilio Portes Gil, Autobiografía de la Revolución Méxicana (México:
Instituto Mexicano de Cultura, 1964) and The Conflict between the Civil Power and the
Clergy: Historical and Legal Essay (Mexico: Press of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
1935); Alfonso Toro, La iglesia y el estado en México (Mexico: Talleres Gráficos de
la Nación. 1927).
2. "The Mexican Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1910-1929 An Ideological
Study" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1950).
3. The Mexican Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1910-1929 (Bloomington,
London: Indiana University Press, 1973).
4. Portes Gil, Autobiografiá , p. 574.
5. La rebelión de los cristeros (1926-1929), trans. Angel C. Tomas (Mexico:
Ediciones Era, 1968); originally published as _Borba tserkvi s gosudarstvom v Meksike (Moscow,
6. Aspectos del conflicto religioso de 1926 a 1929: sus antecedentes y consecuencias
(Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropologiá e Historia, 1966).
7. "La iglesia en Mexico, 1926-1970: revisión y comentarios" (Paper
delivered at the Fourth International Congress on Mexican Studies, Santa Monica,
California, 17-21 October 1973), subsequently published as "La iglesia en Mexico,
1926-1970" in James W. Wilkie, Michael C. Meyer, and Edna Monzón de Wilkie,
eds., Contemporary Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp.
8. "The Cristero Rebellion and the Religious Conflict in Mexico, 1926-1929"
(Ph.D. diss. Michigan State University, 1969).
9. !Viva Cristo Rey! The Cristero Rebellion and the Church-State Conflict in Mexico
(Austin, London: University of Texas Press, 1974).
10. Jean A. Meyer, "La Cristiade: societe et ideologie dans le Mexique
contemporain, 1926-1929" (Ph.D. diss., Paris-Nanterre, 1971).
11. La Cristiada, Vol. 1: la guerra de los cristeros (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno
Editores, 1973). Meyer has subsequently published revised versions of the three Spanish
volumes. The English version is The Cristero Rebellion: The Mexican People between
Church and State, 1926-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); the French
version is La Christiade: l'Eglise, l'Etat et le Peuple dans la Revolution Mexicaine
(Paris: Payot, 1975). Meyer also published an edited anthology entitled Apocalypse et
Revolution au Mexique (Paris: Gillimard, 1974).
12. La Cristiada, Vol. 2: el conflicto entre la iglesia y el estado 1926-1929
(Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1973).
13. La Cristiada, Vol. 3: los cristeros (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores,
14. Important shorter studies of aspects of this complex subject include the oft-cited
James W. Wilkie, "The Meaning of the Cristero Religious War against the Mexican
Revolution," A Journal of Church and State 8 (Spring 1966): 214-33, and Robert
Cortes, "The Role of the Catholic Church in Mexico's Cristero Rebellion,
1926-1929" (M.A. thesis, Baylor University, 1971). John B. Williman, La iglesia y
el estado en Veracruz, 1840-1940 (Mexico: SepSetentas, 1976) examines the conflict in
one important state.
15. The importance of the subject has made it the subject of various articles: L. Ethan
Ellis, "Dwight Morrow and the Church-State Controversy in Mexico," Hispanic
American Historical Review 38 (November 1958); 482-505; Walter Lippmann, "Church
and State in Mexico: The American Mediation," Foreign Affairs 8 (January
1930): 186-207; and Stanley R. Ross, "Dwight W. Morrow, Ambassador to Mexico," The
Americas 14 (January 1958): 273-89 ; and Ross, "Dwight Morrow and the Mexican
Revolution," Hispanic American Historical Review 38 (November 1958): 506-28.
16. Leopoldo Zea, Positivism in Mexico, trans. Josephine H Schulte (Austin,
London: University of Texas Press, 1974), pp. xiii-xxiii. (1958); 482-505; Walter
Lippmann, "Church and State in Mexico: The American Mediation," Foreign
Affairs 8 (January 1930): 186-207; and Stanley R. Ross, "Dwight W. Morrow,
Ambassador to Mexico," The Americas 14 (January 1958): 273-89 ; and Ross,
"Dwight Morrow and the Mexican Revolution," Hispanic American Historical
Review 38 (November 1958): 506-28.
16. Leopoldo Zea, Positivism in Mexico, trans. Josephine H Schulte (Austin,
London: University of Texas Press, 1974), pp. xiii-xxiii.