As millions of Catholics in Latin American prepare to celebrate Easter under a new Pope, we're pleased to present a guest post by Ben Fallaw, Colby College professor of Latin American Studies and author of the new book Religion and State Formation in Postrevolutionary Mexico and Cárdenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Postrevolutionary Yucatán.
years ago, I went to Mexico City to research Mexico’s “religious question” of
the 1930s: the political role of the
Church after an anticlerical revolution in a Catholic country. Not long after I
arrived, the city virtually shut down as millions flocked to greet Pope John
Paul II. He came to canonize Juan Diego,
shepherd who witnessed the Virgin of Guadalupe’s apparition in 1531. A few weeks later, my archival work uncovered why the campaign to make Juan Diego a saint was championed by Bishop José de Jesús Manríquez beginning in 1939. Manríquez and his priests had just beaten back attempts by federal teachers to turn his diocese of Huejutla (Hidalgo state) into a revolutionary laboratory for land reform and indigenous empowerment. For them, Juan Diego symbolized the pure “Indian Church” menaced by “the Beast” of the state. This was but one of many historical connections between Mexico’s postrevolutionary religious question and Church-state tensions today.
Two months after the publication of Religion and State Formation in Postrevolutionary Mexico, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first Latin American pope. North Americans (non-Catholics among them) celebrated the choice, lauding the Argentine’s simplicity, devotion to the poor, and New World origins. The latter was hard to miss: the backdrop for an early public appearance as Francis I featured a large image of la Guadalupuana. Reaction to Francis I in Latin America was much more divided.
While some North Americans see Bergoglio as a fierce critic of what John Paul II famously called savage capitalism, many Latin Americans see in him a bitter foe of the new left. Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a nemesis of the IMF, but she also championed birth control and marriage equality. Bergoglio denounced the latter as “a destructive attack on God’s plan.” They and their supporters often view each other through the lens of history: Fernández remembered the silence of the Argentine Church’s hierarchy during the Cold War dictatorship, Conservative Catholics charged Fernández was prejudiced by leftist anti-Catholicism dating back to the nineteenth century. The conflict has underscored the Latin American Church’s paradoxical position as an institution both non-partisan and politicized, both very influential yet feeling persecuted by the postcolonial state. In Mexico, I chronicle how the postrevolutionary state’s consolidation created many lingering historical grievances among Catholics. For instance, Bishop Manríquez’s counterrevolutionary jeremiads were provoked in part by federal teachers’ destruction of hundreds of sacred images in Huejutla on 3 June 1935.
Of course, Mexico in the 1930s and Argentina today are profoundly different. Among other things, Argentine Catholics never rebelled against a revolutionary state as did Mexico’s cristeros in the late 1920s. Nevertheless, the election of Francis I has reopened wounds in Mexico, too. Some are quite recent. As I was writing the conclusion to Religion and State Formation in August 2010, the mayor of Mexico City sued the Archbishop of Guadalajara for libel after the prelate denounced legalization of same-sex marriage in the capital, and the press was reporting on the jailing of six young women charged with seeking abortions in the conservative Catholic state of Guanajuato. Just last year, the PRI, the party that claims to have institutionalized the revolution, returned to the presidency a dozen years after its presumed demise in part by courting important bishops. At the moment, new president Enrique Peña Nieto is negotiating with the Vatican, reportedly offering the return of Church influence over public schools in return for a visit by Francis I.
The PRI’s willingness to abandon its heritage of revolutionary secularization in return for political advantage reflects one of Religion and State Formation’s main concerns: the ability of Catholics and Catholicism to impede the revolutionary transformation of society in the 1930s. The Church refused to allow a political party or insurgency to act in its name. However its organizational matrix, its ideology, and its lay (and in a few cases clerical) leadership galvanized grassroots-level resistance to postrevolutionary state-making. The Vatican endorsed this “radial strategy” which successfully turned much of Mexican civil society against the revolutionary state, but it was in many ways a strategy that emerged from the base. In Campeche, caciques led syncretic gremios (confraternities) to oppose peasant cooperatives and elect sympathetic candidates. In Guerrero, Catholic women mobilized male voters, and catechists and priests convinced peasants to reject federal teachers and land reform. Some even supported the sporadic attacks against schools and ejidos (land grants) termed the Second Cristero War (c.1932-38). In Guanajuato, congressman and army reserve officer Salvador Azaña collaborated with cristero insurgents, catechists and allied politics to block agrarian reform. Again and again, the Church’s radial strategy stymied revolutionary change.
Historians long assumed that President Lázaro
Cárdenas (1934-40) put to rest Mexico’s vexing
religious question though negotiation and compromise with Catholics, ending anticlerical regulations in return for Catholic support. I found that the clergy and much of the laity saw Cárdenas’s détente as the opportunity for a strategic shift rather than acquiescence to the postrevolutionary regime’s hegemony. After 1940, Catholic leaders formed the right-of-center opposition party known as the PAN that eventually ousted the PRI from the presidency in 2000. The Church also “rechristianized” Mexican society in part by encouraging Catholics to marry sacramentally, zealously defending its social teachings from a state still seen as anti-Catholic. Indeed, Catholics opposed federal schooling because it was coeducational and allegedly mandated sexual education.
Seen in this light, contemporary Church-state tensions in Argentina and in Mexico result not just from national traumas like the Dirty War and the Mexican Revolution but also from deeper conflicts over the definition of marriage and human sexuality. The direction and outcome of these conflicts has profoundly shaped and will continue to profoundly shape everyday life and politics in the region. In many ways the Church in Latin America prevailed for close to two centuries. Under Francis I it confronts an uncertain future, one clouded by the same problems that beset the Church in Europe and North America as well as the region’s unresolved religious questions.