Part V: Will Mexican Secularism Ever be Disconnected from Bigotry and Violence?

In the first four parts of this series, we examined the current movement to amend the Mexican Constitution to include language that explicitly defines the Mexican Republic as laica, or secular. Then, we began a study of Mexican history to see how this movement relates to the larger historical context within Mexico. Now, we will crystallize the discussion to demonstrate how Mexican secularism has been historically associated with violence on the part of the government.

At least 90 percent of the population of Mexico is Catholic. When the Constitution of 1917[i] went into force, this percentage was even higher. Thus, the language restricting religious ministers in general is primarily aimed at the Catholic hierarchy: priests, religious brothers and sisters, and bishops. As a practical matter, it is an act of bigotry, whose goal is to bring the Church to heel. And this language has been used violently by the Mexican government in the past. Brian Van Hove, S.J., writes in “Blood-Drenched Altars:”

In 1926 there was a rebellion of Mexican Catholics against the regime which had been kept in power by military means and the will of the ruling National Revolutionary Party. The Party, an amalgam of Masons, Socialists, Communists, and greedy opportunists, had interpreted the anti-clerical laws arbitrarily and severely. This led to the killing of priests and the confiscation of churches, schools, religious houses of all kinds, and other properties[ii].

This not just the shrill criticism of an isolated priest. Pope Pius XI himself weighed in with at least 2 different encyclicals that document and condemn the persecution of the Church in Mexico. The principle of non-intervention in internal affairs of the Church[iii] was a dead letter. The government in Mexico City went so far as to sponsor a new Mexican Catholic Church[iv]. So the principle by which the government would not establish any Church was also a dead letter, for how else does the government “sponsor” a religious organization except by “establishing” it? Many of us have heard of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Well, Mexico had its own “Mexican Catholic Patriotic Association” some 80 or 90 years ago, well before the concept ever occurred to the Chinese government! This Mexican Catholic Church failed, but the principle of government intervention in the internal affairs of the Church was established, notwithstanding Constitutional language to the contrary.

Pope Pius documents the details of the Mexican persecution in Iniquis Afflictisque, published on Nov. 18, 1926. The government at the time made a radical interpretation of Constitutional Article 24, concerning education. Pope Pius reports that “[i]t is not permitted to teach children their religion even in a private school.”[v] But this was a small thing compared to the real persecution: “[W]hole colleges of canons were rushed off to jail, the aged being carried there in their beds. Priests and laymen have been cruelly put to death in the very streets or in the public squares which front the Churches.”[vi] Those priests that were not killed or exiled were left destitute, “for they must live from their holy office, and since they are poor and do not themselves possess anything and the Church cannot support them, they are obliged to live bravely in poverty and in misery.”[vii] There’s more: “the government of Tabasco state required that priests be married as a necessary condition for allowing them to exercise their [ministerial] functions.”[viii] Even the government’s campaign against those who defended themselves against this persecution was unnecessarily violent: “The Cristero[ix] offensives never became a true threat for the government, but the pacification was slow and incomplete, and the arbitrary acts that the government troops committed in this campaign made it more difficult.”[x]

In 1932, Pope Pius returned to the topic of the persecution in Mexico. Part of the Pope’s role had been to negotiate a modus vivendi with the Mexican government by which Mexican Catholics could continue to practice their religion in the wake of the government’s policy of overt repression. In Acerba Animi, he writes that the government of Mexico “frustrated every attempt to arrive at an understanding. On the contrary, it most unexpectedly broke the promises made to Us shortly before in writing, banishing repeatedly Our Representatives and showing thereby animosity towards the Church.”[xi] He goes on to observe “that all lovers of order and peace among nations, on seeing that such an unheard of persecution differs but little, especially in certain [Mexican] States, from the one raging within the unhappy borders of Russia, may from this iniquitous similarity of purpose conceive fresh ardour to stem the torrent which is subverting all social order.”[xii]

Thus do we arrive at the true thread of secular history within Mexico: the Mexican government has repeated used secularism – i.e. laicidad – as a club to pummel religion, the Catholic Church in particular given the overwhelming majorities of Mexicans who are Catholic. When Representative Juventino Castro y Castro[xiii] indicates that the reform sought by amending Article 40 of the Mexican Constitution is to continue with the Reforms sought by the Constitution of 1857, he is placing himself and his policies within the historical thread that began with the 1857 Constitution, continued with the wars of Reform undertaken by Benito Juarez, and culminated in the overt, violent persecution of the Mexican Church in the 1920s and 1930s. While it is certain that Mexico today is not the same as it was yesterday, it is just as certain that Mexico is what she is because of the decisions of her people over the collection of all her yesterdays. Those decisions have included the affirmation of laicidad through violence. And thus, the modern affirmation of laicidad cannot completely separate itself from this violent history. They are both part of the same thread. Now, this does not mean that Representative Castro y Castro supports violent persecution of the Church himself. Quite the contrary, he may have the best of intentions. However, he cannot eliminate that history from the march of secularism in Mexico. For Mexico, to affirm secularism has been of one piece with violent persecution of the Roman Catholic Church.

The bishops in Mexico know this, of course. They have opposed the reform of Article 40 in measured language, given the formal limits placed upon their political participation in light of Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution. The reform of Article 40 now sits in the Senate, where Roberto Blancarte reports in the Mexican web portal, noroeste.com: “The Catholic offensive now has enough supporters in the Senate to at least attempt to block the reform that includes the laicidad of the State.”[xiv] Mr. Blancarte goes further to comment on a separate initiative begun by PRD[xv] Senator Pablo Gómez to eliminate Section E from Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution: “One possible strategy of the bishops and [supporting] senators would then be to seek to negotiate the reform of Article 24 or 130 in exchange for the reform to article 40, following the logic that either both reforms advance or neither does.” It is a good and hopeful strategy. The separation of Church and State is an acceptable condition for the Church so long as the State allows the Church to function as she must. Such has rarely been the case in Mexico over the past 150 years – and the Church has suffered for it.

But if the advance of secularism also includes the establishment of real freedom of religion in Mexico, together with freedom of speech and association for Mexican bishops, priests, deacons, and religious, then the state of affairs in Mexico would actually improve. Mexico would be able to depart from the historic association between secularism on the one hand and governmental bigotry and violence on the other. Church and State could reach a real modus vivendi, wherein preaching, teaching, and evangelizing are freely permitted, even if the government representatives do not like what is said. After all, the government in Mexico – as in the U.S. – has ample resources at its disposal, far more than the Church does. Public debates between Church leaders and government leaders would be a welcome development.

But if the reform simply reinforces secularism without furthering the cause of real freedom of religion in Mexico, then Mexico regresses. After all, by reinforcing secularism, Mexico will already be repeating one of the gravest errors of its past since it will be defining its government as secular in direct opposition to the Catholic reality of the overwhelming majority of its citizens. This conflict is at the heart of the turbulent history of Mexico: a government at odds with its citizenry, a government, if you will, that is in harmony neither with the City of Man nor the City of God.


[i] Recall form Part II that the Constitution of 1917 was adopted during the years of the Mexican Revolution.

[ii] Van Hove, Brian, S.J. “Blood-Drenched Altars.” 1996, Eternal Word Television Network. Web. Retrieved March 7, 2010. Originally published in the Summer 1994 issue of “Faith & Reason.”

[iii] As established by Article 130, Section B of the Constitution of 1917.

[iv] Zoraida Vázquez, Josefina Lilia Díaz, Lorenzo Meyer, et.al. La historia general de México, Volumen 2. México, D.F.: El Colegio de México, 1976. Print. Page 1190. Hereafter, this is referenced as LHGM 2, with appropriate page numbers.

[v] Pope Pius XI. Iniquis Afflictisque. Web. Retrieved March 7, 2010. No 9.

[vi] Iniquis Afflictisque. No. 16.

[vii] Iniquis Afflictisque. No. 23.

[viii] LHGM 2, Page 1190.

[ix] The Cristeros were those Catholics who had the temerity to defend themselves against this persecution. Their principle was self-defense.

[x] LHGM 2, Page 1191.

[xi] Pope Pius XI. Acerba Animi. Web. Retrieved March 7, 2010. No. 3.

[xii] Acerba Animi. No. 12.

[xiii] See Part I for details.

[xiv] Blancarte, Roberto. “Libertad política para los sacerdotes.” Noroeste.com: El Portal de Sinaloa. Web. Retrieved March7, 2010.

[xv] The PRD is by no means a monolithic political party in Mexico. Just as the Democratic Party here has people like Representative Bart Stupack who firmly opposes abortion, the PRD also has representatives who support the teachings of the Church.

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  • GaryT

    Chris,
    thanks for taking the time to tell this sorrowful tale. Most of us know too little about the sad history of our nearest neighbor.

    This also should give us pause as we watch secular forces in our own country who wish to silent the voice of the church. People who claim the bishops should not be allowed to speak due to “separation of church and state” may be sowing the seeds of a very bad future for our own country. We must defend with maximum determination authentic freedom of religion, including the right to bring religious expression and beliefs into the public square.

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