Part II: The Shadow of The Terror and Catholic Fears

In Part I, we examined the scene in modern Mexico, observing that there is an effort underway to amend Article 40 of the Mexican Constitution to add the word laica, or secular, to the definition of the Mexican Republic. Moreover, we left our discussion with the words of Representative Juventino Castro y Castro of the lower House of the Mexican Congress: expressly defining the Republic as laica reinforces the definition made by the Constitution of 1857[1], which was a “positive solution for coexistence between majority and minority religions, and to prevent the beliefs of the few from becoming dominant by means of the force of the State.”[2] Thus, the next logical step is to look at the events surrounding the adoption of the Constitution of 1857 and then to move forward through Mexican history to see how those events have helped shape more recent time.

We briefly examined the early history of modern Mexico, noting in particular the new Republic had problems with foreign invasion, seemingly never-ending internal conflict, and was even ruled for a brief period by a foreign monarch. This was the atmosphere in which the Constitution of 1857 developed. Violence was a dominant theme of conflict resolution in those years, not just in Mexico but throughout Europe and even the United States[3]. The formal institutions of the Church allied themselves loosely with the monarchists; they were known as Conservatives. The opposing side followed the ideals of the French Revolution; they were known as Liberals.

The question that comes immediately to my mind in observing this set of facts is why would the Church choose to be on the wrong side of history? In other words, why would the institutions of the Church choose the monarchist, Conservative side in an epic struggle when it appeared that the republican, Liberal side was going to win? The first answer to this question is that at the time, no one could predict the future. The world had been a monarchical world for centuries. The nascent Revolutions in the U.S. and in France by no means appeared to be the wave of the future at the time.

The second reason is that the Church is often politically naive. The political shrewdness of Pope John Paul II in dealing with the Soviet threat in the 1980s was born of his earlier years living under communist rule in Poland. But politically-savvy prelates are not necessarily the norm; there is a reason that the Church does not assert her infallibility in political or economic matters: history simply does not support such an assertion, and the Church is wise enough to assert that historical lesson even if her institutions sometimes repeat the mistake. But the most likely reason the Church chose her side was probably fear. The history books adequately tell the tale of the anti-religious bigotry and violence that surged from the French Revolution, but this tale rarely captures what the sufferers of that violence really went through. The Church suffered this Revolutionary violence intimately. Perhaps no one captures this seething atmosphere better than Baroness Emma Orczy, in the first chapter of The Scarlet Pimpernel:

During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her desire for liberty and for fraternity[4].

Those who went to the guillotine in France were Catholic. They died Catholic no matter how harshly moderns may condemn violence with their words, and they died Catholic no matter how much we moderns may wish to point out that they were wealthy, noble, even royal. They were Catholic. Catholics faced with Liberal and Republican Revolutions elsewhere in the world knew what happened in France. They knew what could happen to them if the Liberal factions gained power. Many were no doubt sympathetic to Liberal goals, but the feared the consequences and the means. And no matter how noble the cause, no matter how great the work, violence — directed at Catholics, in particular – was part and parcel of the Liberal advance. Catholics knew this, and they were scared.

In this atmosphere of violence and turbulence, the conflict between Mexican Liberals and Conservatives would reach its first critical mass (the second would occur later, during the reign of Emperor Maximiliano, who had been supported by the Conservatives). Ignacio Comonfort was elected president on December 1, 1857, with Benito Juarez as his designated vice-president. However, even before his election, the Mexican Congress had granted Comonfort “extraordinary faculties and issued a decree suspending various constitutional articles pertaining to [rights] guarantees,… authorized the government to obtain loans,… provided 20,000 men for the national guard,… and authorized the government to dictate all the Treasury and war decisions it deemed necessary to re-establish peace.”[5] By December 17, the Constitution of 1857 was abolished, and Vice-President Juarez was imprisoned. Later, on January 11, 1858, Juarez was freed, and by January 19, Juarez “declared his government to be established [in Guanajuato], proceeded to organize his cabinet, and published a manifest that began the revolution of the Reform.”[6] This Reform pitted the Liberals — and the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity which they had appropriated from the French Revolution — against the Conservatives, who counted the Catholic Church as one of their allies.

And so it would go until 1867: Conservatives against Liberals; Liberals against Conservatives. War. Multiple governments laying the same claims to central State power. Foreign potentates ruling from Mexico City. Any reading of nineteenth century Mexican history is breathtaking. It seems that someone, somewhere, was always establishing a new government, while foreign powers routinely invaded, and the same names appeared again and again at the top of the lists of government power. Comonfort himself was President prior to the establishment — and almost immediate nullification – of the Constitution of 1857. The infamous General Antonio López de Santa Anna was President several times, dictator once. At one moment, he was the remarkably competent general who helped to establish the Mexican Republic in the 1820s following the War for Independence from Spain; at another moment, he was the almost comical general whose superior forces were routed in Texas.

The Church, it must be made clear, was not an active ally of either party. It did not condone war. And the Church did defend her own rights to teach, preach, and evangelize. But the Liberal ideology was drawn from the French Revolution, and so Liberals were inclined against the Church. The mere fact that the Church had a role in society and worked with a Conservative government was enough to indict her. And it was the Church’s supreme misfortune to be associated with the Conservatives who sought monarchical help from Europe, which assistance culminated in the crowning of Maximiliano in 1864.

Today, most people misunderstand the conflicts between Liberals and Conservatives – or else they cast the conflict exclusively in the light of Democratic and Republican ideals pitted against Royalists. This is not history. It is a caricature of history, and it is important that we set aside caricature if we wish to understand the motives of the people who made that history. This is as important in Mexico as elsewhere. In Part III, we will see how this thread of Mexican history develops further.

[1] Again, the Constitution of 1857 is a predecessor of the current Constitution of 1917.

[2] Méndez, Enrique and Roberto Garduño. “Oficializa la Cámara de Diputados que México es una República laica”, 12 Feb 2010. Web. Retrieved 7 Mar 2010.

[3] Recall, for example, the U.S. Revolutionary War did not conclude until 1783; that the U.S. Consitution did not formalize a reasonably strong central government until 1788; that the U.S. was back at war with Great Britain by 1812 and had some nearly bellicose encounters with Canada along the way; that the U.S. push west was a violent one; that the U.S. and Mexico fought their own war; and that all of this culminated in the U.S. Civil War.

[4] Orczy, Emmuska. The Scarlet Pimpernel. New York: Dover Publications, 2002. Print. Page 1.

[5] Zoraida Vázquez, Josefina, Lilia Díaz, Lorenzo Meyer, La historia general de México, Volumen 2. México, D.F.: El Colegio de México, 1976. Print. Page 840-841. Hereafter, this is referenced as LHGM 2, with appropriate page numbers.

[6] LHGM 2. Page 840.

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