"THERE is no persecution of the Church in Mexico, but all religious organizations must confine their activities to spiritual affairs," asserts President Lazaro Cardenas. The declaration is supported by ex-President Emilio Portes Gil, ranking member of the Cabinet. "Definitely," he says, "this government is not opposed to religion." According to him, the current controversy "is due solely to the rebellious attitude of the Catholic clergy, which continues to aspire to a worldly or temporal mission denied to all religions by the Constitution." Garrido Canabal, until recently Minister of Agriculture, and long a bitter opponent of the church and all its works, has just been sent into exile. He it was who named his three sons Lenin, Lucifer and Satan, and while Governor of Tabasco ordered that church images be seized and burned and that crosses be removed from monuments and graveyards.

On the other hand, ex-President Plutarco Elias Calles, still in his retirement "the strong man of Mexico," avows that the state program of education is "anti-religious." The National Revolutionary Party, the only one of importance in the republic and the one which dominates the government in power, has often provided evidence to support this view. At the party convention in Queretaro in December 1933 a Tabasco delegate declared amid applause: "God exists only in books, by which the priests exploit the poor! Mexico wants no God and our Party wants no God!"

Similar contrasted declarations by government officials and by party leaders might be quoted indefinitely. They are not so contradictory as at first sight appears. The milder statements must be strictly construed. The apologists for the government declare that they have no quarrel with religion but they do not pretend that they have no controversy with religious organizations. The more extreme radicals make no such differentiation. Both groups are alike intent on reducing the influence of religious activities in the social life of the nation.

The bitterness of the conflict now in progress is the less easy to understand because Mexico for centuries has been a staunchly Catholic country. Other beliefs, proscribed in the colonial régime, were later granted legal equality; but the great majority of the people have always paid allegiance to Rome, so that the church controversy almost exclusively affects only the Catholic branch of the Christian religion.

In the Diaz régime the number of Protestants in Mexico was estimated at about 90,000. Even at present the non-Catholic immigrants and the "indifferents" of later years, both of which groups have steadily grown in numbers, are estimated by church authorities at only some 1,600,000, or about one-tenth of the population. How can it happen that a people professing loyalty to its traditional religious affiliations accepts a government in which some of the leaders are content to minimize the attacks which have been made upon the faith, while others in high positions openly revile it?

The roots of the controversy go back to the period just following the discovery of the new world, and indeed to a still earlier time when the relations of church and state were still unsettled in Spain. Long before the Spanish kingdom was united under Ferdinand and Isabella the Church and the monarchy were in dispute over the real patronato, the right to nominate or present clerics for appointments to vacant ecclesiastical offices, and the control of the incomes by which religious activities were to be supported. The former was the essence of the disagreement. Royalists maintained that the right of patronage was a part of the kingly power. The papacy never yielded the point. Choice of its officials, the Pope argued, touched the internal organization of the Church, and any power exercised by the king in this field must be considered as derived from the Pope and recallable by him. The theoretical issue continued to be discussed, but in practice it came to be of minor importance through the Pope's grant to the king of extensive rights in church patronage and in control of church incomes.

In the Indies, including Mexico, a similar though much broader concession was given to the royal authority. A series of specific grants by the Pope between 1493 and 1508 gave the king universal patronage, including the tithes of the Church. The grants were made in consideration of services done and to be done in christianization, education and welfare work. The royal power over non-doctrinal ecclesiastical affairs was practically unquestioned.

Church and State thus came to be closely associated in the colonies, with the latter in the dominant position. The king used the Church as an active instrument in establishing and maintaining his government in the new possessions. For over three centuries it was one of the most effective arms of the civil power and discharged numerous functions which in most countries have in later times been taken over by the political authorities. There is no dispute as to whether the Church was "in politics" in the colonial period. It kept its doctrinal freedom, but otherwise Church and State were one. In the broad non-doctrinal activities which the two undertook there was no clearly drawn demarcation of functions.

When Mexico won its independence the patronato issue remained unsettled. The new State claimed to inherit the royal rights over the Church; while the Pope insisted that since the royal authority had been displaced, the rights which the king had held over the Church in Mexico reverted to the papacy which, so the clerical argument ran, had originally granted them. As a result of the revolution, spokesmen of the Church asserted, it automatically recouped the privileges which it had earlier assigned. The dispute has never been settled.

In the first half century of its independent existence Mexico went through a long series of revolutions, but control of religious activities did not become a major item of controversy. Revolutionary leaders fell out with the Church; but they would have agreed that their controversies were with the Catholic organization as a secular institution continuing the widespread non-religious activities which it had discharged in the colonial period. With its work as the guardian of the faith they had no quarrel.

But the Church had acted as the partner of the State for so long that it was not always easy to distinguish between its functions secular and ecclesiastical. It had been by far the most important and best organized social service agency of the colonial régime. In its hands had lain such relief of distress as was attempted. It was the directing influence in education and in large degree discharged the functions of a banker lending money for financing local enterprise. Great property holdings came into its possession. All this helped emphasize the Church's rôle as defender of peace and order and in general as a powerful influence for the maintenance of the social status quo.

Hence, it was evident that while the doctrinal issue continued to remain in the background, the social and economic activity of the Church might easily become unacceptable to revolutionary leaders. And so they promptly did. The egalitarian doctrines which the "republicans" espoused prompted a campaign against any surviving legal privileges of the Church. Governments hard pressed for funds looked longingly at the resources of an organization possessing such great wealth. Church property before the revolution had an estimated value of 65,000,000 pesos. It grew in value even in the disturbed period which followed independence, due to gifts, bequests and the establishment of pious endowments, and also due to skilful management which stood out in contrast to the lack of administrative ability shown in civil affairs. Shortly after the revolution the value of church property was reported at 179,000,000 pesos, and it continued to increase during the next thirty years.

Revolutionary leaders found other grounds for criticism in the alleged worldliness of certain of the higher clergy. Complaints on this score had often been made to the king in colonial times, even by Mexican clerics. They were almost bound to increase under such conditions as prevailed in the post-revolutionary years. The fact remained that the great majority of the Catholic priests in both periods were poorly paid and often had only a bare subsistence. It was also said that the lavish use of ceremonial led to the neglect of thorough instruction in morals and religious theory. In reply the argument was advanced that after all the Indians were children in spirit and not suitable material for instruction in the refinements of religious doctrine. If through the Church ceremonial and even through the utilization of local fiestas they could be drawn into the Christian fold that in itself was a real accomplishment. Such arguments, it need hardly be added, had no acceptance with the revolutionary statesmen.

Under these conditions the Church was drawn inevitably into the revolution and the political developments which followed it, though religion in the stricter sense was neither a major cause of the break with Spain nor of the succeeding wars.

Before the middle of the last century criticism of the Church on the part of political leaders had begun to gather momentum. In 1855 the Juarez Law sought abolition of the surviving clerical legal privileges. The next year the Lerdo Law provided for sale of ecclesiastical lands except those used directly for worship, the proceeds to be returned to the Church. The avowed purpose was economic, so that the basis might be laid for the creation of a small land-holding class. It was said that the Church had come to hold one-third of the exploited land, besides controlling many holdings through mortgages, and that this situation must be changed if progress was to be made in land reform. Actually the motive was political as well as economic, for destruction of the right of the Church to hold extensive properties was bound to lessen its alleged political influence.

The land legislation was a disappointment. The poor could not buy the areas disposed of by the Church; and instead of greater distribution of wealth, greater concentration resulted. The economic influence of the Church was not measurably lessened. Neither did it calmly accept the "reforms." Its authorities protested against the violation of its property rights and the Pope condemned the new laws.

The political leaders then sharpened their attack and a new constitution was published on February 12, 1857. As before, the patronato question was not directly an issue. The right to interfere "in matters of religious worship and outward ecclesiastical reforms" was indeed asserted. The clause might be interpreted in a way which would raise the patronage question. But still the internal organization of the Church did not become a matter of dispute. Other clauses seemed to be conciliatory. It was declared that the Catholic faith was to be protected by "wise and just laws," though other cults were not prohibited. The provisions of the land legislation affecting the Church were, however, repeated. Compulsory observance of religious vows was abolished. No cleric was to be eligible for the presidency. Public education was to be "free." In general, strict enforcement of the constitution would destroy much of the prestige of the religious authorities and take away the resources and many of the functions which they had enjoyed.

The constitution of 1857 was the work of an organized and militant minority determined to force the nation to discard its past affiliations and allow itself to be poured into a new mold. The "Wars of the Reform" followed. Victory at first lay with the clerical party; but in the end it rested with the Liberals. These came out boldly for the confiscation of church property -- not its purchase -- for definite separation of Church and State, and for a long list of other "reform" measures.

The years following the victory of the Liberals under Juarez in 1860 tell a story of conflicting desires in which the threads of political ambition and religious interest are inextricably interwoven. High clerical officials welcomed intervention by the French, who put the Emperor Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. The Apostolic Nuncio informed the Empress Carlotta that "the clergy had made the empire." Juarez was also not above appealing for foreign aid to support his cause. He sought a protectorate from the United States. Both sides were disappointed in the results of their plans. Maximilian refused to support the extreme demands of the Conservatives and the United States Senate declined to follow up the Liberal leader's suggestion. But ultimately the French troops were withdrawn, the empire collapsed, the Liberals reëstablished their control and made the constitution of 1857 the law of the land.

The period when the representatives of the Church might aspire to their former influence in politics was definitely at an end. The Church might regain some of its influence in the life of the people and even hold property in large amounts. It might give education and even reëstablish the religious orders. But it would do all these things on sufferance and the Laws of Reform would hang over it like a sword of Damocles.

In the long period when Porfirio Diaz was dominant in Mexico, from 1876 to 1910, many of the substantive activities of the Church revived. The laws restricting them remained on the statute books, but enforcement was in abeyance. The power of restraint lay unused and in the long run the state authority came to coöperate with the ecclesiastical. Large lands and endowments again were accumulated. Church schools assumed leadership once more, old religious communities revived, new ones were established. The clerical garb was openly worn and public religious festivals met no opposition from the authorities. All in all, though it never regained the prestige of the old days, the Church again became not only a great religious force but an outstanding feature in the social life of the republic.

The very prosperity and success of the Church forecast the troubles which were to break upon its head when the new revolution came in 1910. The old rancors soon reappeared in full vigor. They arose partly because the revolutionists believed the Church to be rich and allied with the rich and therefore reactionary in sympathy. Partly they were explained by the demand for an educational program with which, it was felt, the continuance of church control of teaching was inconsistent.

Madero was not an outright opponent of the Church. Huerta was alleged to be pro-clerical. Carranza at first did not raise the religious issue; but he took no stand against the radical proposals introduced in the convention which produced his constitution of 1917.

The new fundamental law went far beyond the constitution of 1857. Some of the old clauses restricting church activities were paraphrased, some were strengthened, and new ones were introduced, especially with regard to education and property holding. Monastic orders were again proscribed. Religion was to be free but no religious demonstrations were to be held in public. All churches were "nationalized." State authority might determine how many were needed for religious services and the number of priests who could function. All priests or ministers of any faith must be Mexicans by birth; they could not vote, be chosen to office, meet for political purposes or criticize the fundamental laws either publicly or privately. No political parties with religious purposes were to be tolerated nor was discussion of political issues by religious journals to be permitted. No cleric could teach in any primary school; no religious corporation could establish such schools. All private primary schools must be under state control. No church was to have juridical personality. Trial by jury was not to be granted in cases involving breaking of the new laws on religion.

If laws to enforce these standards were adopted and enforced evidently the Church would be destroyed as a social force and be reduced to the narrowest sort of religious activity. It would become little more than a shadow of its former self.

But after the adoption of the constitution of 1917 came a lull in anti-religious activity. More insistent problems claimed political attention. The new regulations lay almost as much a dead letter as the old ones had done in the Diaz period. Religious orders increased, the clergy continued about their duties, public ceremonies were undisturbed. Many thought that history was to repeat itself. But the quiet proved to be only the calm before the storm. The authorities of the new revolution, unlike Diaz, were not anxious for compromise and coöperation. For them the church issue was still alive. Operation of the new laws might be postponed but it was not to be neglected permanently.

The church authorities gave the government an occasion to renew the attack when on January 11, 1923, they held an elaborate celebration at the laying of the cornerstone of a great monument to Christ the King near the geographical center of Mexico. Some 50,000 persons attended, including many of the highest officers of the Church. It was an outdoor celebration -- though on private property -- and obviously a religious ceremony. The Obregon Government took the stand that if this were allowed to pass unnoticed the constitution was indeed a dead letter. The Apostolic Delegate was promptly expelled.

Since 1923 the controversy between the two authorities has been practically continuous, except for short truces which in reality have only marked stages of the anti-church advance. Even before the incident above described some of the more radical states exercised their "constitutional rights" severely to limit the number of priests within their borders. When Calles succeeded Obregon in December 1924, he promptly indicated his intention to support the anti-church campaign. His administration encouraged the establishment of a National Mexican Catholic Church, which became violently anti-Catholic and shortly passed out of existence, an object of public ridicule. But failure to start a new faith was only an incentive to redoubled efforts to forward the enforcement of the new constitutional rules.

In February 1926 a newspaper published an alleged interview with the Archbishop of Mexico summoning the faithful to a campaign against the religious clauses of the constitution. The authenticity of the statement was later denied, but the principles it advocated were applauded by Catholic organizations. The Catholic prelates issued a manifesto declaring that the constitution tore up the rights of the Church by the roots, and the Pope protested against "the wicked regulations and laws."

Meanwhile the government declared the Archbishop's reported statements seditious and moved to enforce the restrictive legislation to the letter. All priests and private schools were required to register. Clerics were forbidden to teach and religious instruction was prohibited even in private schools. Many foreign priests were expelled; and convents, schools attached to convents and asylums were closed.

In the meantime the "National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty" on July 31, 1926, launched a nationwide "boycott" as a protest against the government policy. Only first necessities were to be purchased, with the aim of bringing economic pressure to bear to force greater leniency. Archbishop Diaz of Mexico City called on all to support the boycott. The Pope, however, refused to approve the measure, though he set aside August 1 as a day of world-wide prayer that persecution might cease, and approved withdrawing all priests from the churches. Many Catholic countries made formal protest against the policy on which the government had embarked. It was soon evident that the boycott was a failure. Many Catholic organizations then resorted to violence, though this was discountenanced both by the Episcopate and the Pope. This was the "Cristeros War." Practically speaking, it was brought to an end by the government troops in 1927, but it continued in Jalisco until 1929. During the "war" the Apostolic Delegate, Ruiz y Flores, and six other high church officials were deported. Church authorities insist that they terminated the struggle only because of the acceptance by both sides of a compromise informally arranged through Ambassador Dwight W. Morrow.

In practice the "compromise" won the Church little. The State agreed that it would not license any priests not suggested by their superiors, thus indirectly recognizing the church organization in spite of the fact that under the constitution it had no "juridical personality." The right of petition was also to be respected. But the government maintained its rule for compulsory registration of all clerics and kept the right to limit their number. It stood firm also on its claim to control education; for the moment it did not suggest that instruction should be anti-religious, only that it must be non-religious. The Church resumed the celebration of masses and other church functions on June 27, 1929. They had not been held since July 30, 1926.

Another short lull in the contest followed. But in June 1931 Vera Cruz limited the number of priests allowed to work within its borders to a proportion of one to every 100,000 of its population. The Pope in October 1932 protested against the continued persecutions. The Apostolic Delegate, Ruiz y Flores, was promptly deported for a third time. These were the preliminaries of the political developments looking toward the limitation of church functions which have since followed each other in close succession.

Religion today is an issue both in state and national politics. In December 1933 the convention of the National Revolutionary Party, practically the only party in the republic, proposed an amendment to the constitution providing for "socialistic education." In October of the next year the amendment was approved by both houses of Congress, and was ratified by the states with remarkable promptness. It was proclaimed on November 15, 1934. In substance it provides that only public authorities and authorized private schools shall impart primary, secondary and normal education. Such instruction shall be "socialistic and . . . exclude all religious doctrines and combat fanaticism and prejudices." It shall "imbue in the young a rational and exact concept of the universe and social life." State monopoly over education is thus extended far beyond the primary schools.

What the amendment will come to mean as its purposes become crystallized under enabling legislation and practice no one can tell. It has widely different meanings to different people. As indicated at the start of this article, apologists assert that the state is not opposed to religion as such. But at least some of the most powerful leaders in the country interpret the new program as meaning the contrary. The Catholic Church authorities are convinced that compulsory "socialistic education" destroys freedom of education and freedom of religion, and that without the right to teach religion in the home and in such schools as they should be free to establish they cannot perform their proper functions. Upon the position in which the Church may find itself when the first heat of the controversy has passed we can as yet only speculate.

The actual enforcement of the restrictive legislation -- the amendment itself, and the measures which preceded and followed it -- is very irregular. In Nuevo Leon, in spite of restraining measures on the statute books, Catholic schools are reported to continue undisturbed. On the other hand, in Yucatan the Federal Board of Education has ordered each teacher to take the following pledge: "I hereby declare myself an irreconcilable enemy of the Catholic religion and disposed to combat the clergy wherever it shall be necessary. I also declare myself disposed to take part in the campaign against fanaticism." In the majority of the states, at least thirteen, current information is that no priests whatever are allowed. In the rest the number ranges from two to fifty -- in even the most liberal allowance a number far below the minimum needed for effective ministry.

An indication of the real eventual meaning of the law would be furnished by the response of popular opinion to the government program. But here also the evidence is contradictory. In the capital, the students of the University of Mexico denounced the school law as a violation of freedom of thought, and when the proposal was made to extend its provisions to the University the courageous young rector, Manuel Gomez Marin, resigned in protest. Still, in the same capital a parade reported as 200,000 strong, bearing banners with such slogans as "Death to the Catholics" and "Death to the clergy," recently filed past the President and President-elect to demonstrate in favor of the new measures.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington on January 31, 1935, issued the following statement in reply to protests heard in the United States: "Catholic clergymen, as well as those belonging to other faiths who have complied with the laws, are exercising their ministry in Mexico and throughout the republic without being molested in the least." This may well be literally true. The catch lies in the clause "who have complied with the laws." In most of Mexico if a priest complies literally with the laws he cannot act as a priest.

The Church is denied juridical personality. It cannot freely determine who shall be its representatives. No land or endowments can be held. No schools for training of priests are permitted nor popular schools of primary, secondary or normal grade. Appointments to the ministry may be made only to the number permitted by the states, and most of these permit none at all. Representatives of the Church cannot vote, hold office, participate in political meetings or seek publicly or privately the modification of the religious clauses of the constitution. The right of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are abridged. Papers defending the Church are denied use of the mails. Except for limitations such as these -- and the list is not complete -- the Church is free.

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  • CHESTER LLOYD JONES, Director, School of Commerce, University of Wisconsin; formerly American Commercial Attaché in Spain, Cuba, France and Mexico; author of "Mexico and Its Reconstruction" and other works
  • More By Chester Lloyd Jones