The Catholic Church in Mexico: Triumphs and traumas

articles History & People Religion & religious symbols

Shep Lenchek

It is a tribute to the sincerity and strength of the faith of the Mexican people, that Catholicism, is still the dominant religion in this land south of the Rio Grande. Time after time, the Catholic Church has narrowly escaped destruction and survived only because of popular support that defied the law of the land.

It was Hernan Cortes who brought the Catholic Church to Mexico. His expedition included a friar, Bartolome de Olmedo and a priest, Juan Diaz. Conversion of the Indians was part of their mandate. In 1492, Pope Alexander VI had ordered that natives of the new lands discovered by Columbus, be instructed in Catholicism for the “salvation of their souls.” Cortes accepted this wholeheartedly and acted accordingly. At his first landfall in Cozumel he persuaded the natives to break up their idols and erect crosses and a shrine to the Virgin. He continued these efforts throughout the Conquest, oft times after fierce battles. He was also punctilious about christening women given to the Spaniards as slaves. It was forbidden for his men to have intercourse with any woman until she had been baptized.

The woman who history calls La Malinche, baptized as Donna Marina, not only served Cortes as an interpreter and later, as his mistress. She became a fervent Christian, and according to Bernal Diaz, worked hard to convert her fellow Indians. Actually, it was an effort to destroy idols and set up crosses in their place that caused the final break between the Spaniards and the Aztecs. Had the Spaniards been less insistent on the conversion of the Aztecs to Christianity and the destruction of their blood-thirsty idols, it is possible that Cortes and Moctezuma might have reached an accommodation that would have permitted the Aztec monarch to continue to rule as a vassal of the Spanish Emperor.

This same order from Pope Alexander acknowledged that the natives had “souls” and this become an issue between the clergy and the establishment. However, the same Papal declaration went on to say that those who rejected Christianity could suffer war, punishment and slavery. Seemingly contradictory orders. The conflict of interests between Church and State began shortly after the Conquistadors toppled the Aztec Empire. The bone of contention was the treatment of the natives. Between 1519 and 1524 when 12 Franciscan friars arrived in Nueva España, the process of conversion of natives was a simple baptism with no follow up. It is highly unlikely that those “converted” had any real comprehension of Christianity. Thus, Spaniards settlers claimed that the baptized Indians were not true Christians, had returned to worshiping their old Gods, and could be enslaved. Indeed, for many years, the “Christianity” of the Indians was a thin veneer barely covering their old pagan beliefs. The Conquistadors, interested only in personal wealth, had seized vast tracts of land. Called encomiendas, the natives who lived with their boundaries, baptized or not, were enslaved.

The first to challenge the treatment of the natives in Nueva España was Bartolome De Las Casas. He was appointed Bishop of Chiapas in 1544. Twenty five years earlier he had been expelled from Santo Domingo for protesting the enslavement of Indians. Back in Spain, he drafted new laws that outlawed slavery in the New World. These “New Laws,” signed by the Spanish Emperor, Charles V. in 1542, were ignored and then suspended by those who governed Nueva España. De Las Casas headed for Chiapas, fully committed to abolishing slavery. Since the entire economy of the colony was based on free native labor, he failed. Ironically, he suggested the importation of black slaves from the Indies or from Africa as a possible solution.

It was the first time that a representative of the Church had challenged the secular authority in Nueva España. It was not to be the last.

The next Churchman to take up the cause of the Indians was Juan de Zumarraga, appointed Archbishop of Mexico in 1527. Although more moderate in his views than Las Casas, he soon came into conflict with the ruling body of Nueva Espagna, an Audiencia, really a Church Court, headed by Nuno de Guzman. Called “Bloody Guzman” because of his brutal treatment of both Indians and Spaniards, a clash between the two men was inevitable. When Cortes, a bitter enemy of Guzman, returned to the colony as Captain-General, Bishop Zumarraga excommunicated the Audiencia. But Guzman fled to what is now Jalisco where he continued to wreak havoc among both Spaniards and Indians. Responding to complaints from Zumarraga a new Audiencia was formed under the newly arrived Don Vasco de Quiroga. With the aid of Cortes, a friend of the Indians, and the approval of Don Quiroga and the new Audiencia, Zumarraga established himself and the clergy as “Protector of the Indians”. Bishops were now appointed and the Church began to exercise a moderating influence on the Spanish landowners. Although they remained slaves, Indians could now turn to the Church with their grievances. Schools for Indians were founded, and now the true meaning of Christianity was made clear to those who had converted. There can be little doubt that the firm grip of Catholicism on Mexico can be traced back to the efforts of Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga.. Indeed, he confirmed the vision of “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” It was he who set up the first shrine, later re-located, that still remains the most popular religious site in Mexico.

Don Vasco de Quiroga, although a layman, had allied himself with Zumarraga. As head of second Audiencia, his punishment of the members of the first Audiencia, sent a message to the colonists. The Church, with government approval, would monitor the treatment of Indians. When the Spanish landowners foiled efforts to force them to grant Indians freedom, De Quiroga started to set up monasteries and community centers in which Indian children could be educated. Manned by friars, they gave instruction in Christianity plus arts and crafts.

Then De Quiroga turned his attention to Michoacan. To repair the damage, done by Guzman both as head of the first Audiencia and on the way to what is now Jalisco, Quiroga established himself in Tzintzuntzan, the ancient Tarascan capital. Here he achieved immediate results. Spaniards who exploited the natives were brought to justice. Indians were given land, housing was provided. Schools and hospitals were run by the church. In essence, a form of socialism, with self-governing Indian communities, was established. In 1538 he was appointed to the newly formed Bishopric of Michoacan despite being a layman. The organization of Catholicism he set up in Michoacan was to set the pattern for the establishment of that religion throughout what is now Mexico.

Now the Church had triumphed. For the next 250 years, it had smooth sailing. There was an intimate union of church and state. However, with the first stirrings of the drive for independence from Spain things started to change. It was now about to enter a period of trauma that in some ways still persists in the year 2000.

In 1749 the Spanish King, Ferdinand VI issued an order, transferring mission centers from the control of religious orders to the regular clergy. The order was largely ignored but in 1767 another royal order expelled the Jesuits. Their property was sized and turned over to the Crown. It is estimated that there were more than 2200 Jesuits in the country, ministering to over 700,000 Indians. Very unpopular, this order stirred up unrest in the country and started protests against Spanish rule.

Now the government set out to replace the religious infrastructure. Under royal patronage, new secular universities were established. The regular clergy and other orders now replaced the Jesuits in their work with the Indians. The entire episode was triggered by the unwillingness of the Jesuits to submit to either royal or diocesan authority. They had established what amounted to a Jesuit Republic in Sonora and lower California. The expulsion sent a message to Mexicans that they had no voice in the running of their country and fanned discontent with Spanish rule.

For the next 54 years until 1821 when Mexico gained its Independence, the country was in chaos. Even after that, no government was strong enough to pay any attention to the activities of the Church. The Plan of Iguala had guaranteed the supremacy of the Catholic Church. Although the new Mexican constitution paid lip service to religious tolerance, only Catholics could be Mexican citizens. Its monopoly established, the Church remained a protector of Indian rights, maintained a good working relationship with civil authorities and solidified its hold on the religious life of the country.

But in 1851, all of that started to change as a “liberal” political party was born. One of its leaders, a Zapotecan Indian named Benito Juarez would finally emerge as President of the country. But long before that, he had proclaimed himself as an anti-cleric, determined to destroy the power of the church. With a protégé, Ignacio Comonfort installed in the Presidency, the “Lerdo Law” was proclaimed. It expropriated all property owned by the church or that it held in trust.

Ironically, this act by a party, led by an Indian, stripped his fellow Indians of most of the land they held. Called Ejidos, they were lands granted to Indian tribes, clans, communities or even families. They were owned in common and were farmed communally. But because the majority of the Indians were illiterate, the Church held the lands in trust. Now they were seized along with convents, monasteries, hospitals and schools. In 1857 a new Constitution was drawn up. Liberty of conscience, religious tolerance and freedom of worship were all professed by the Liberals, but in reality they had deprived the almost 100 percent Catholic population of much of their religious freedom.

Churches remained open, but they suppressed all religious orders, declared religious vows illegal, prohibited nuns and priests from appearing in public in religious garb. Marriage was made a secular rite and even cemeteries were declared to be secular. In a further blow aimed at Catholicism, Protestants were permitted to establish themselves in the country. Despite the unpopularity of these laws, they remained in effect. But they did not break the allegiance of the Mexican people to Catholicism. Also, it led the clerics and their conservative supporters to appeal to the French, who sent troops and installed Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico.

During the reign of the Emperor Maxmillian, 1864-1867, the Church was able to recover somewhat with the Archbishops of Mexico City and Michoacan and the Bishop of Oaxaca permitted to return to the country. But the hope of a complete restoration of church property and influence never materialized. Some compensation was paid to the Church, but on the instructions of Napoleon III, himself an anti-cleric, the Church remained in disfavor.

When Maximilian was deposed, Juarez was restored to the presidency and the war against the Church continued. In 1873, a rebellion against the anti-church laws, now being enforced by President Lerdo de Tejada, broke out and continued until 1876 when Porfirio Diaz became President. Though not repealed, the laws were not enforced. But later, Presidents Carranza, elected in 1917 and Obregon who came into power in 1920, enforce them selectively. A new Constitution, adopted in 1917, now made it clear that the state was to control the church. President Elias Calles, elected in 1924, was a Socialist, and continued to look on the Church as an enemy. During his presidency, all but Mexican born priests were deported, religious schools were closed. Limits were put on the number of priests in the country and their registration with the Government, required.

In the years that followed, these anti-clerical laws were never repealed but were either enforced or ignored at the pleasure of the ruling PRI and the President. This on again-off again pattern of anti-clericalism finally led to the “Cristeros War.” It had been brewing since 1925 and in early 1929 the violence escalated as the government moved to crush the rebels. Centered mostly in the northern part of Jalisco called Los Altos, by June of that year, the fighting had ended with a Government victory.

With the election of Lazaro Cardenas to the presidency in 1934, a détente between Church and State became a reality. In 1940, Cardenas was succeeded by Avila Camacho. A devout Catholic he changed the Constitution to re-affirm religious freedom, but did not succeed in repealing all the anti clerical provisions it contained. Thus Catholic schools were able open again but were forced to disguise themselves as private institutions.

Now, the Mexican Communist Party entered the scene. Surprisingly, they were pro-church, since the right wing government was anti-cleric. The late 70’s and early 80’s again saw anti-clerical laws, still legally in effect, ignored by the government. It was not until 1992 that President Carlos Salinas actually entered into negotiations with the Vatican and a formal rapprochement took place.

Today, Priests and Nuns are free to appear in public in religious garb. There is true freedom of religion. But it is clear that the Catholic Church in Mexico must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, unto God the things that are God’s.

In May of 2000 the Catholic Church, in both Mexico City and Guadalajara voiced some comments critical of the ruling political party. It immediately received a warning from Ministry of the Interior, reminding them that meddling in politics is strictly prohibited by the Mexican Constitution. This confirms that there are still anti-clerical laws in effect and that the government will not hesitate to invoke them should the Church continue to speak out on political matters.

Thus, at least for the moment, the Church cannot attempt to influence politics. This is not to say that individual politicians are not devout Catholics and look out for the interests of their Church. The upcoming election may change things, since one of the candidates is friendlier to the Church than those now in power. There are those who warn that any attempt by the Church to regain political influence may lead to social unrest.

Despite some 141 years of harsh treatment by government, Catholicism still holds the hearts of the majority of Mexicans.

Perhaps the greatest problems today lie in the area of family planning. Upper and middle class women seem to be challenging church doctrine in this area, but in all other matters, their faith remains firm. Large families are still very much in evidence outside the largest cities. The growth of Evangelic Protestantism is still not a major problem. As of this moment the Church remains a unifying force in the private lives of Mexicans. It is the one constant in the changing and sometimes chaotic Mexican scene. There can be no question that without the moderating influence of the Church, the indigenous people might have been completely wiped out.

As Mexico moves toward Democracy, old political alliances may crumble, but the strength and sincerity of their religious beliefs will always sustain the people.

Pax Vobiscum

Published or Updated on: July 1, 2000 by Shep Lenchek © 2000
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