Journal of Church and State Vol. 20, No. 1, (1978), 81-92.
By Donald J. Mabry
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 Middle Ages.
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
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
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
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 maintains.
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 Mexico.
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
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
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, 1965).
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
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
13. La Cristiada, Vol. 3: los cristeros (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1974).
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.