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18 May
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HistoryPodcast 62 – The Cristero War

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The struggle between church and state in Mexico broke out in armed conflict during the Cristero War (also known as the Cristiada) of 1926 to 1929. This was a popular uprising against the anti-clerical provisions of the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

After a period of peaceful resistance, a number of skirmishes took place in 1926. The formal rebellion began on January 1, 1927 with the rebels calling themselves Cristeros because they felt they were fighting for Christ himself. Just as the Cristeros began to hold their own against the federal forces, the rebellion was ended by diplomatic means, in large part due to the efforts of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow.

HP62 – The Cristero War.mp3 16:50 – 15.6MB

Source: Wikipedia Article

Thank to Juan for calling into the history hotline. You too can call in at 206 339-7278. Since Juan is the first person to call in a request using the history hotline his request goes straight to the top of the list making it todays subject. Opening the show was Intelect with PodTheme.

The struggle between church and state in Mexico broke out in armed conflict during the Cristero War (also known as the Cristiada) of 1926 to 1929. This was a popular uprising against the anti-clerical provisions of the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

After a period of peaceful resistance, a number of skirmishes took place in 1926. The formal rebellion began on January 1, 1927 with the rebels calling themselves Cristeros because they felt they were fighting for Christ himself. Just as the Cristeros began to hold their own against the federal forces, the rebellion was ended by diplomatic means, in large part due to the efforts of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow.

The 1917 Constitution

Five articles of the 1917 Constitution of Mexico were particularly aimed at reducing the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican life. Article 3 demanded secular education in schools. Article 5 outlawed monastic religious orders. Article 24 forbade public worship outside of church buildings, while Article 27 restricted religious organizations’ rights to own property. Finally, Article 130 took away basic civil rights of members of the clergy: priests and religious leaders were prevented from wearing their habits, were denied the right to vote, and were not permitted to comment on public affairs in the press.

The anticlerical mindset of the government extended also to superficial changes made to place names to “laicize” them. For instance, the state of “Vera Cruz” (closely resembling the phrase “True Cross”) was renamed Veracruz.

Background to rebellion

When the anti-Catholic measures were enacted in 1917, the President of Mexico was Venustiano Carranza. Carranza was overthrown by the machinations of his one-time ally Álvaro Obregón in 1919, who succeeded to the presidency in late 1920. While sharing the anti-clerical sentiments of Carranza, he applied the measures selectively, only in areas where Catholic sentiment was weakest.

This uneasy “truce” between the government and the Church ended with the election of Plutarco Elías Calles in 1924. Calles applied the anti-Catholic laws stringently throughout the country and added his own anti-Catholic legislation. In June 1926, he signed the “Law for Reforming the Penal Code”, known unofficially as the “Calles Law”. This provided specific penalties for priests and religious who dared to violate the provisions of the 1917 Constitution. For instance, wearing clerical garb earned a fine of 500 pesos (approximately 250 U.S. dollars at the time); a priest who criticized the government could be imprisoned for five years.

Peaceful resistance

In response to these measures, Catholic organizations began to intensify their resistance. The most important of these groups was the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, founded in 1924. This was joined by the Mexican Association of Catholic Youth (founded 1913) and the Popular Union, a Catholic political party founded in 1925.

On July 11, 1926, the Mexican bishops voted to suspend all public worship in Mexico in response to the Calles Law. This suspension was to take place on August 1. On July 14, they endorsed plans for an economic boycott against the government, which was particularly effective in west-central Mexico (the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas). Catholics in these areas stopped attending movies and plays and using public transportation and Catholic teachers stopped teaching in secular schools.

However, this boycott collapsed by October 1926, in large part due to lack of support among wealthy Catholics, who were themselves losing money due to the boycott. The wealthy were generally disliked because of this, and the reputation was worsened when they paid the federal army for protection and called on the police to break the picket lines.

The Catholic bishops meanwhile worked to have the offending articles of the Constitution amended. The Pope explicitly approved this means of resistance. However, the Calles government considered this seditious behavior and had many churches closed. In September the episcopate submitted a proposal for the amendment of the constitution, but this was rejected by Congress on September 22, 1926.

Escalation of violence

In Guadalajara, Jalisco, on August 3, 1926, some 400 armed Catholics shut themselves up in the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in that city. They were involved in a shootout with federal troops from there, and surrendered only when they ran out of ammunition. According to U.S. consular sources, this battle resulted in 18 dead and 40 injured.

The following day, in Sahuayo, Michoacán, 240 government soldiers stormed the parish church. The parish priest and his vicar were killed in the ensuing violence. On August 14, government agents staged a purge of the Chalchihuites, Zacatecas, chapter of the Association of Catholic Youth and executed their spiritual advisor, Father Luis Bátiz Sainz.

From here actions begin to move very rapidly. A band of ranchers under the leadership of Pedro Quintanar, upon hearing that Father Bátiz had been killed, seized the local treasury and declared themselves in rebellion. At the height of their rebellion, they held a region including the entire northern part of Jalisco.

Another uprising was led by the mayor of Pénjamo, Guanajuato, Luis Navarro Origel, beginning on September 28. His men were defeated by federal troops in the open land around the town, but retreated into the mountains, where they continued as guerrillas. This was followed by an uprising in Durango led by Trinidad Mora on September 29 and an October 4 rebellion in southern Guanajuato, led by former general Rodolfo Gallegos. Both of these rebel leaders were forced to adopt guerrilla tactics, as they were no match for the federal troops on open ground.

Meanwhile, the rebels in Jalisco (particularly the region northeast of Guadalajara) quietly began gathering forces. This region became the main focal point of the rebellion led by 27-year-old René Capistran Garza, leader of the Mexican Association of Catholic Youth. The rebellion began on January 1, 1927.

The Cristero war

The formal rebellion began with a manifesto sent by Garza on New Year’s Day, titled A la Nación (To the Nation). This declared that “the hour of battle has sounded” and “the hour of victory belongs to God”. With the declaration, the state of Jalisco, which had seemed to be quiet since the Guadalajara church uprising, exploded. Bands of rebels moving in the “Los Altos” region northeast of Guadalajara began seizing villages, often armed with only ancient muskets and clubs. The Cristeros’ battle cry was ¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! (“Long live Christ the King! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!”)

The Calles government did not take the threat very seriously at first. The rebels did well against the agraristas (a rural militia recruited throughout Mexico) and the Social Defense forces (local militia), but were always defeated by the federal troops who guarded the important cities. At this time, the federal army numbered 79,759 men. When Jalisco federal commander General Jesús Ferreira moved on the rebels, he calmly stated that “it will be less a campaign than a hunt.”

However, these rebels, who had had no previous military experience for the most part, planned their battles well. The most successful rebel leaders were Jesús Degollado (a druggist), Victoriano Ramírez (a ranch hand), and two priests, Aristeo Pedroza and José Reyes Vega. In total, five priests took up arms.

Recent scholarship suggests that for many Cristeros, religious motivations for rebellion were reinforced by other political and material concerns. Participants in the uprising often came from rural communities that had suffered from the government’s land reform policies since 1920, or otherwise felt threatened by recent political and economic changes. Many agraristas and other government supporters were also fervent Catholics.

Whether the Cristeros’ actions were or were not supported by the episcopate or the Pope has been a subject of controversy. Officially, the Mexican episcopate never supported the rebellion, but by several accounts, the rebels had the episcopate’s acknowledgement that their cause was legitimate.

The episcopate did not, in any event, condemn the rebels. Bishop José Francisco Orozco y Jiménez of Guadalajara remained with the rebels; while formally rejecting armed rebellion, he was unwilling to leave his flock. Many modern historians consider him to have been the real head of the movement.

On February 23, 1927, the Cristeros defeated federal troops for the first time at San Francisco del Rincón, Guanajuato, followed by another victory at San Julián, Jalisco. The rebellion was almost extinguished, however, on April 19, when Father Vega led a raid against a train thought to be carrying a shipment of money. In the shootout, his brother was killed, and Father Vega had the train cars doused in gasoline and set afire, killing 51 civilians.

This atrocity turned public opinion against the Cristeros. The government began moving the civilians back into the population centers and prevented them from providing supplies to the rebels. By the summer, the rebellion was almost completely quelled. Garza resigned from his position at the head of the rebellion in July, after a failed attempt to raise funds in the United States of America.

The rebellion was given new life by the efforts of Victoriano Ramírez, generally known as “El Catorce” (the fourteen). Legend has it the nickname originated because during jailbreak he killed all fourteen members of the posse sent after him. He then sent a message to the mayor—his uncle—telling him that in the future he had better not send so few men after him.

El Catorce was illiterate, but a natural guerrilla leader. He brought the rebellion back to life, enabling the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty to select a general, a mercenary who demanded twice the salary of a federal general. Enrique Gorostieta was so alienated from Catholicism that he made fun of his own troops’ religion. Despite his lack of piety, he trained the rebel troops well, producing disciplined units and officers. Gradually, the Cristeros began to gain the upper hand.

Both priest-commanders, Father Vega and Father Pedroza, were born soldiers. Father Vega was not a typical priest, and was reputed to drink heavily and routinely ignore his vow of celibacy. Father Pedroza, by contrast, was rigidly moral and faithful to his priestly vows. However, the fact that the two took up arms at all is problematic from the point of view of Catholic sacramental theology.

On June 21, 1927, the first brigade of female Cristeros was formed in Zapopan. They named themselves for Saint Joan of Arc. The brigade began with 17 women, but soon grew to 135 members. Its mission was to obtain money, weapons, provisions, and information for the combatant men; they also cared for the wounded. By March 1928, there were some 10,000 women involved. Many smuggled weapons into the combat zones by carrying them in carts filled with grain or cement. By the end of the war, they numbered some 25,000.

The Cristeros maintained the upper hand throughout 1928, and in 1929, the federal government faced a new crisis: a revolt within Army ranks, led by Arnulfo R. Gómez in Veracruz. The Cristeros tried to take advantage of this with an attack on Guadalajara in late March. This failed, but the rebels did manage to take Tepatitlán on April 19. Father Vega was killed in that battle.

However, the military rebellion was quickly put down, and the Cristeros were soon facing divisions within their own ranks. Mario Valdés, widely believed by historians to have been a federal spy, managed to stir up sentiment against El Catorce leading to his execution before a rigged court-martial.

On June 2, Gorostieta was killed when he was ambushed by a federal patrol. However the rebels had some 50,000 men under arms by this point and seemed poised to draw out the rebellion for a long time.

Diplomacy and the uprising

Before and after the successes had by the rebels and the support of Bishop Orozco y Jiménez, the Mexican bishops supported the Cristeros. The bishops were expelled from Mexico after Father Vega’s savage attack on the train, but continued to try and influence the war’s outcome from outside the country

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, in October 1927, was Dwight Whitney Morrow. He initiated a series of breakfast meetings with Calles where the two would discuss a whole range of problems, from the religious uprising, to oil and irrigation. This earned him the nickname “ham and eggs diplomat” in U.S. papers. Morrow wanted the conflict to come to an end both for humanitarian reasons, and to help find a solution to the oil problem in the U.S. He was aided in his efforts by Father John Burke of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. The Vatican was also actively suing for peace.

Calles’ term as president was coming to an end and president-elect Álvaro Obregón was scheduled to take office on December 1. However, he was assassinated by a Catholic radical two weeks before he was to take office, gravely damaging the peace process.

Congress named Emilio Portes Gil interim president in September, with an election to be held in November 1929. Portes Gil was more open to the Church than Calles had been, allowing Morrow and Burke to reinitiate their peace initiative. Portes Gil told a foreign correspondent on May 1 that “the Catholic clergy, when they wish, may renew the exercise of their rites with only one obligation, that they respect the laws of the land.”

The next day, exiled Archbishop Leopoldo Ruíz y Flores issued a statement that the hierarchy had elected to suspend worship because it “was not able to accept laws that are enforced in my country.” That is, the bishops would not demand the repeal of the laws, only their more lenient application.

Morrow managed to bring the parties to agreement on June 21, 1929. The pact he drafted, called the arreglos (arrangements) would allow worship to resume in Mexico and granted three concessions to the Catholics: only priests who were named by hierarchical superiors would be required to register, religious instruction in the churches (but not in the schools) would be permitted, and all citizens, including the clergy, would be allowed to make petitions to reform the laws. But the most important part of it was that the church would recover the right to use its properties, and priests recovered their rights to live on such property. Legally speaking, the church was not allowed to own real estate, and its former facilities remained federal property. However, the church took control over them, and the government never again tried to take these properties back. It was a convenient arrangement for both parties and Church support for the rebels ended.

The arreglos led to an unusual end to the war. In the last two years, many more anticlerical officers who were hostile to the federal government for other reasons had joined the rebels. When the arreglos were made known, only a minority of the rebels went home, those who felt their battle had been won. As the rebels themselves were not consulted in these talks, most of them felt betrayed and some continued to fight. The church then threathened rebels with excommunication, and gradually the rebellion died out.

The officers, fearing that they would be tried as traitors, tried to keep the rebellion alive. This attempt failed and many were captured and shot, while others escaped to San Luis Potosí, where General Saturnino Cedillo gave them refuge.

On June 27, the church bells rang in Mexico for the first time in almost three years.

The war had claimed the lives of some 90,000: 56,882 on the federal side, 30,000 Cristeros, and numerous civilians and Cristeros who were killed in anticlerical raids after the war’s end. As promised by Portes Gil, the Calles Law remained on the books, but no organized federal attempts to enforce it were put into action. Nonetheless, in several localities, persecution of Catholic priests continued based on local officials’ interpretations of the law. The anticlerical provisions of the Constitution remain in place as of 2005, though they are no longer enforced.

Cristero War saints

The Catholic Church has recognized several of those killed in connection with the Cristero rebellion as martyrs. Perhaps the best-known is Blessed Miguel Pro, SJ. This Jesuit priest was executed by firing squad on November 23, 1927, without benefit of a trial, on the grounds that his priestly activities were in defiance of the government. The Calles government hoped to use images of the execution to scare the rebels into surrender, but the photos had the opposite effect. Upon seeing the photos, which the government had printed in all the newspapers, the Cristeros were inspired with a desire to follow Father Pro into martyrdom for Christ. His beatification occurred in 1988.

On May 21, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of 25 martyrs from this period. (They had been beatified on November 22, 1992.) For the most part, these were priests who did not take up arms, but refused to leave their flocks, and were executed by federal forces.

To cite just one example (mentioned above in the history), Father Luis Bátiz Sainz was the parish priest in Chalchihuites and a member of the Knights of Columbus. He was known for his devotion to the Eucharist and for his prayer for martyrdom: “Lord, I want to be a martyr; even though I am your unworthy servant, I want to pour out my blood, drop by drop, for your name.” In 1926, shortly before the closing of the churches, he was denounced as a conspirator against the government because of his connections with the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was preparing an armed uprising. A squad of soldiers raided the private house he was staying in on August 14, taking him captive. He was executed without trial together with three youths of the Mexican Association of Catholic Youths.

Thirteen additional victims of the anti-Catholic regime have been declared martyrs by the Catholic Church, paving the way to their beatification. These are primarily lay people, including the 14-year-old José Sánchez del Río. The requirement that they did not take up arms, which was applied to the priest martyrs, does not apply to the lay people, though it had to be shown that they were taking up arms in self-defense.

On November 20th, 2005 on Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico, these 13 martyrs were blessed by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins.

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Source: Wikipedia Article

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