History of the Cristiada

    In 1926, tensions between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the anti-clerical government in Mexico became so strained that an armed rebellion broke out and lasted for three years. This conflict between church and state had begun in the mid-19th century as the Enlightenment ideas of liberalism became enshrined in the Constitution of 1857. The resulting conflict between the secular and ecclesiastical became one of many factors that led to the 1910 Revolution. In 1916 Venustiano Carranza called an assembly of delegates to draft a new constitution, and many of the delegates saw the church as an obstacle to social reforms. Thus the document they drafted, the Constitution of 1917, contained several articles that reduced the political, social, and economic power of the church. Among the many restrictions, clergy would no longer enjoy any special legal status, priests would now be considered members of an ordinary profession, and the number of priests allowed to reside in a given state would be limited. All priests in Mexico had to be native born, were required to register with civil authorities, and were prohibited from forming political parties. Religious ceremonies could not be performed in public; they were only allowed to take place within the confines of a church. Marriage was declared to be a civil, rather than a religious ceremony. The Constitution also called for the establishment of a primary educational system that would be free, obligatory, and most importantly, secular. (Meyer & Sherman, p. 543)

Map of the Areas of Principal Cristero Activity

Areas of Principal Cristero Activity

     Venustiano Carranza did not take very much action to enforce the anti-clerical articles, however during Álvaro Obregón's administration hostility between the government and the Church hierarchy increased markedly. Obregón expelled some Spanish priests from the country as well as the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Ernesto Filippi. But it was Plutarco Elías Calles, Obregón's successor in 1924, who took the church head on bringing a fierce anti-clerical ideology to the presidency. He reacted strongly to the defiance of the church hierarchy, particularly to the public statements made by Archbishop José Mora y del Rio denouncing the anti-clerical articles of the constitution. Calles closed churches and convents and had two hundred foreign priests deported. He even had a bishop arrested, tried and condemned for publicly opposing the laws of the country. And he introduced a new penal code that set penalties from one to five years for priests and clergy who criticized the laws, the authorities, or the government. (Camín & Meyer, p.87) Grassroots groups quickly formed to protest these actions. These included the Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana (ACJM), the Unión Popular (UP), and the Liga Nacional Defensora de la Libertad Religiosa (la Liga). Outraged bishops appeared before Congress with a petition to rescind the laws, but to no avail.
     On July 25, 1926, the Mexican Episcopate decided to suspend all public worship. From that day on priests would not administer any of the sacraments, hoping to arouse public support for the church and against Calles. (González, p. 211) "The denial of religious services created a profound crisis among devout Catholics." (González, p. 211) Once the rebellion occurred, however, the high clergy did not provide political direction for the movement and the Vatican was even more cautious, fearing religious repression like they had seen during the French and Bolshevik Revolutions. Many priests sought refuge in the homes of wealthy Catholics in urban centers or they simply left the country. Leadership was left to the popular movements, particularly la Liga. The rebellions, led by Soldiers of Christ or the Cristeros, took place mainly in the central and western regions of the country: Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato y Colima, where the church had been strongly rooted since colonial times.
     Due to the Cristero's lack of military training and supplies, they mostly relied on guerrilla tactics that made it difficult for the national army to defeat them. In July 1927, la Liga recruited a former Huertista general, Enrique Gorostieta, to coordinate their effort. He was not necessarily a religious man, rather he represented the conservative forces disenfranchised by the revolution. He published a manifesto in which he demanded "equitable land reform with indemnification for hacendados as well as revocation of the reform laws that had stripped the church of its special courts and haciendas." (González, p. 215) As Calles was not able to quell this rebellion, he later turned to men who had benefited from the "land reform" of the revolution and asked for their support. Though the redistribution of land had always been a primary objective of the revolution, the land still ended up being concentrated in the hands of a few powerful "agrarian warlords." These warlords were asked to raise battalions of "agraristas" to aid the federal troops in the fight against the Cristeros.
     In 1928 the U.S. ambassador, Dwight Morrow served as a mediator between the Vatican, the Mexican Catholic hierarchy, and the Calles government, during talks for a peaceful resolution of the Cristero problem. However these plans were put on hold when later that year president-elect Alvaro Obregón was assassinated by a zealous young Catholic by the name of José de León Toral. Calles then named don Emilio Portes Gil to be the provisional President, who would take on the task of organizing a new election. During the presidency of Portes Gil, ambassador Morrow resurrected the peace negotiation, and in June of 1929 an agreement was reached between Portes Gil and the Archbishop Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, which finally brought the Cristero War to an end. According to the historian Michael Gonzales this was a bittersweet compromise in which very little was truly resolved. In spite of the tens of thousands of lives that had been lost during the war, nothing fundamental had changed politically. The anti-clerical laws remained in the Constitution, but the government would not enforce them "in a manner hostile to the church." In the years to come, the federal government would increasingly establish its hegemony over the Catholic Church, however the clergy would continue to resist, as much as possible, the government's attempts at educational and religious reforms. Gonzales notes that the "bloody stalemate" in which the war ended still left unresolved the conflicts between traditional Mexican culture, strongly rooted in Catholicism, and the goals for social reform of the revolutionary government. (Gonzales, pp.218-219)

     --Written by Elizabeth Garcia and Mike McKinley, May 2004

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