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date: 24 April 2017

Catholicism in Mexico, 1910 to the Present

Summary and Keywords

The history of Mexican Catholicism between 1910 and 2010 was one of successive conflict and compromise with the state, latterly coupled with increased concern about religious pluralism, secularization, and divisions of both style and theological and ecclesiological substance within Catholicism. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) represented a particular threat to the church, which was identified by many revolutionaries as an institution allied to the old regime, and hence persecuted. In the same period, and until 1929, the church was openly committed to implementing its own social and political project in competition with the state. Religious conflict reached a tragic peak in the 1920s and 1930s, as revolutionary anticlericals waged political and cultural campaigns against the church, provoking both passive and armed resistance by Catholics. With some exceptions, the period from the late 1930s to the late 1960s was one of comparative church–state conciliation, and a period of institutional collaboration that began when both institutions stood down their militant cadres in the 1930s. In subsequent decades, an over-clericalized and socially conservative church and a theoretically revolutionary but undemocratic state made common cause around the poles of civic and Catholic nationalism, economic stability, and anti-communism. From the later 1960s, however, the church grew increasingly vocal as a critical interlocutor of the state, in terms of both the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s failing socioeconomic model and, especially in the 1980s, its authoritarian political practices. In places, radical strains of Liberation Theology helped to guide indigenous and urban protests against the regime, while also posing an internal, ecclesial problem for the church itself. The rise of economic neoliberalism and qualified democracy from the 1980s onward, as well as the political reorientation of Catholicism under the papacy of John Paul II, saw the church assume a frankly intransigent position, but one that was significantly appeased by the 1992 constitutional reforms that restored the church’s legal personality. After 1992, the church gained in political prominence but lost social relevance. Should the church cleave to an unofficial corporatist relationship with a generally supportive state in the face of rising religious competition? Should Catholics assert their newfound freedoms more independently in a maturing lay regime? A cursory view of Catholicism’s religious landscape today reveals that the tension between more horizontal and vertical expressions of Catholicism remains unresolved. Catholics are to be found in the van of rural self-defense movements, leading transnational civic protests against judicial impunity, and decrying the abuses suffered by Central American migrants at the hands of border vigilantes. At the same time, the mainstream church seeks official preferment of Catholicism by the state and lends moral support to the PRI and PAN parties alike.

Keywords: Mexico, religion, Roman Catholic Church, Catholicism, church and state, 20th century, postrevolutionary Mexico, cristero rebellion

Contemporary and Historical Context

The hundred years from the 1910 Revolution to the present were challenging ones for Mexican Catholicism. In the century’s first quarter, from 1910 to 1936, the church achieved sufficient ideological hegemony and organizational militancy to attempt to re-Christianize the social and political orders. In the same period, it offered strenuous—and, it seemed to many, heroic—resistance to Mexico’s postrevolutionary, and frequently anticlerical, governments. By the 1940s and 1950s, in contrast, the church had made a more pragmatic than ideological peace with the regime, with nationalism, anticommunism, and development, providing the common ground for a modus vivendi. Yet the church was still confined to a legal penumbra and was, by the latter decade, also seeing the first real percentage-point threats to its status as a religious monopoly. If the church stayed socially relevant and vibrant in the 1960s through 1980s, this was in no small measure because its increasingly vocal critiques of Mexico’s moribund authoritarian system—the endless one-party rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)—reflected popular sentiment. Somewhat paradoxically, Catholicism has suffered its fastest slippage since 1992, when PRI president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994) delivered a constitutional reform restoring its legal status, which had been suppressed since 1917. Though it remained comfortably majoritarian in the 2010s, the church looked complacent and declining, comfortable with, even rather dependent upon, a sympathetic political elite,1 but in need of managerial, theological, and pastoral renewal.

Census returns mark the decline in stark statistical fashion: in 1910, 99 percent of the population identified as Catholic; by 2010, it was 84 percent, and in all probability falling. Even so, what follows is by no means a straightforward history of “inevitable” secularization, but something more complicated and historically contingent. For example, it should be stressed that the fastest rates of Catholic attrition, usually in favor of evangelical denominations, have been noted in geographical regions that were either less churched, or even unchurched, in the first place, such as the south and southeast. In the historically “Catholic” states of the center-west, the percentage of Catholics by 2015 was still over 90 percent or even 95 percent in places such as Guanajuato.2 From this perspective, the dilemma facing Mexican Catholicism is whether to retrench as a conservative, increasingly regionalized force relying on inertia and informal ties to the Mexican political and economic elites, or whether to seek creative ways to reengage with Mexican society that will, in all probability, require more critical detachment from elites and a willingness to engage with and speak up for marginalized sectors—the victims of Mexico’s drug wars, economic migrants, the urban poor, and indigenous Mexicans. Indeed, this was the challenge that Pope Francis laid down dramatically in his February 2016 visit to Mexico. Over four days, Francis traveled to cartel-ravaged Michoacán, performed a cross-border Mass at Juárez, and prayed at the tomb of Mexico’s “red bishop,” Samuel Ruiz, in San Cristóbal Las Casas, where Mass was also said in the indigenous languages Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Chol, as well as in Spanish. Beneath the domes of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Francis delivered a sensational televised rebuke to the episcopate.3

It should be stressed that there is potential for Catholic renewal. For one thing, it should be remembered that while Mexico’s church has shrunk relatively since about 1950—relative, that is, to population and a dizzying array of religious competitors—in absolute terms it has grown enormously. The 1910 census counted 15 million Catholics; in 2010 there were 93 million. This massive body of faithful, second only to Brazil’s worldwide, is divided into some 3,200 Catholic asociaciones religiosas4 and served by some 21,000 ministros de culto, compared to a paltry 3,500 in 1910.5 To use another indicator, Mexico in 1910 was divided into thirty sees, many of them territorially vast and poorly integrated. Today, the Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano (CEM) lists eighteen archdioceses, sixty-six dioceses, and five territorial prelatures nationwide.6 As Roderic Camp’s surveys have consistently shown, too, in terms of societal attitudes the church remains the most trusted institution in Mexico; in 2006, two-thirds of Mexicans attended church once a month, with 50 percent attending weekly. Additionally, most Mexicans say they want a socially committed Catholicism, not just a sacristy church, even if many no longer follow hierarchical teachings on moral questions such as contraception, same-sex unions, and abortion. Even Catholics reject the idea that the church should dictate their political preferences; yet a large majority, priests included, want the church to play a significant role in education, the provision of social welfare and healthcare, and the promotion of democracy and human rights.7

These introductory observations should do more than give readers a loose sense of where the church is today. They also bear out a significant trend in the whole history of Catholicism after 1910, which was well identified by Miguel Romero de Solís some time ago: the periods of greatest ecclesial vitality in Mexico—the mid-1910s through 1920s, the mid-1950s, the late 1960s through mid-1980s, and potentially the late 2010s—have unfailingly been those in which the church has made its strongest efforts to develop and enact independent pastoral solutions to the country’s social problems.8 Unsurprisingly, these periods have often coincided with those of the church’s greatest critical detachment from the political class, and with periods of unusual religious intransigence, here meaning Catholics’ refusal to accept the confinement of religion to the private sphere as a defining feature of a secular, liberal polity.9 Rarely has the Mexican church been socially militant and politic at the same time; the exception, perhaps, is the 1950s, when the church renewed its indigenous pastorate yet collaborated with the PRI in its fight against communism.10 It should be stressed, too, that these militant high points have also coincided with significant generational shifts within the Catholic hierarchy, and with doctrinal innovations such as “social” Catholicism and, from the 1960s, Liberation Theology. Thus it should be restated, and is herein assumed, that the church’s social and political actions result as much from the outworkings of religious ideas as from the inworkings of sociopolitical factors.11 Another major variable concerns the political direction given to the Mexican hierarchy by Rome, which can be relatively moderate (as in the 1930s and 1940s) or intransigent (as in the 1920s and 1980s). There is, in sum, a dialectic of theological, pastoral, political, social, and strategic factors ever at work in Mexican Catholicism.

The remainder of this essay is divided into four sections. Although church-state relations are foregrounded, social, cultural, and theological aspects also feature. First, it is argued that a period of revolutionary-era Catholic intransigence occurred during 1910–1929, when lay Catholics and the episcopate’s leaders tried to implement an autonomous social, religious, and political project, effectively a Mexican neo-Christendom. This prompted bloody clashes with the revolutionary state. The second section (1930–1960) characterizes the 1930s through 1950s as a transitional period of qualified intransigence, in that the Catholic hierarchy (Rome as well as the episcopate) moderated or restricted key aspects of this project. They did so in an attempt to reach a compromise with the state and also to reassert control over a militant, and latterly armed, laity. Even so, Mexican Catholics for years remained locked in rhetorical and political combat with an unappreciative, deeply anticlerical state, particularly over public education, before church and state reached an effective but sometimes bumpy modus vivendi predicated on shared nationalism, pragmatism, and anticommunism. The period roughly from 1960 to 1990, covered in the third section, is described in terms of the decline of this modus vivendi and the church’s assumption of an increasingly critical posture vis-à-vis the state, especially in terms of social questions. The fourth, concluding section glosses the 1992 constitutional reform, which removed many of the juridical shackles placed on the church by the revolutionaries of 1917, and hints at susbsequent developments. It must be understood that all these periodic shifts represent periods of ascendancy by one particular ecclesial faction, idea, or project vis-à-vis other possibles. They do not represent definitive ruptures, and the attempt to divide them by period is itself a simplification of what were actually complicated processual changes. By the same token, and despite the use of shorthand (“church,” “Catholicism”), it should be appreciated that Mexican Catholicism—except, perhaps, in revolutionary anticlericals’ discourse—is neither static nor monolithic, but diverse and perhaps increasingly so.

1910–1929: Viva Cristo Rey

The 1910 Revolution provided Mexican Catholics with an opportunity to emerge from the social and political shadows in which the church languished during Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship (1876–1911). During this period, the church—politically defeated (1867) and so accepting the liberal state as an unavoidable evil—basically opted for internal consolidation within the framework of a secular republic. This meant pious introspection and disciplinary reform: new seminaries and dioceses, Rome-endorsed devotions (the Sacred Heart, the Holy Family), and new, regimented canonical associations such as the Nocturnal Adoration.12 Díaz’s famous “reconciliation policy” with the church, meanwhile, was largely a matter of keeping the latter waiting for restoration of diplomatic relations with Rome, perhaps even a concordat, and hence quiescent, even if neither arrangement was really on the table.13 After thirty-five years of such deflating quietism, the Revolution offered Catholics grand opportunities and terrible political temptations, especially in 1913. In any event—and here chronology becomes critical to analysis—the coming forces of Mexican Catholicism made a response to Francisco Madero’s revolution that was initially positive. Indeed, many Catholics who had chafed at the ascetic pieties of the Porfirian church,—bleakly satirized in Agustín Yáñez’s The Edge of the Storm (1947), found that they could at last give expression to a vibrant sociopolitical Catholicism. This vision originated largely in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Thomist-inspired encyclical Rerum Novarum, which diagnosed modern evils (inequality, class envy, spiritual perdition) and instead proposed a juster, corporate society in which the church would regulate relations between labor and capital on a Christian, mutually charitable basis. This social vision had been keenly debated in a series of Catholic congresses held in the 1900s, and it slowly found institutional expression in the center-west, the church’s historic center of gravity.14 Following Díaz’s fall in 1911, however, a politically checked social Catholicism flowered as Catholic militants exploited Madero’s democratic aperture and sought via the ballot box to re-Christianize the sociopolitical order. The National Catholic Party (PCN) was born in May 1911, and in 1912 took office in a number of states, preeminently Jalisco, where it passed homestead and labor laws. Confessional proto-corporations—blocks for Catholic youth (ACJM) and women (UDCM)—were also founded during the Madero years.15 The early Revolution additionally saw the church’s capture by an intransigent hierarchy educated in Rome’s Jesuit-run Latin American College. This “Roman” faction was led by martinet bishops such as Francisco Orozco y Jiménez (archbishop of Guadalajara, 1912) and José Mora y del Río (Mexico, 1908), and supported by Jesuit technicians such as Bernardo Bergöend. This development was key because it meant that the “liberal” Porfirian episcopate—which largely accepted the church’s exclusion from politics—had lost to a group that wanted to rebuild a Christian society and that operated far more in Rome’s shadow than was usual in Mexico. Finally, Mexico’s Catholic project received its own, appropriately Jesuitical avatar in the form of Christ the King (Cristo Rey). This muscular, triumphalist cult originated in the plan, also mooted in May 1911 but fatally delayed until January 1914, to crown the Sacred Heart as Mexico’s temporal sovereign.

Crucially, Madero welcomed the reemergence of political Catholicism as a necessary opposition force. His overthrow and murder at military hands in February 1913 changed everything, however, because some preeminent Catholics—Mora y del Rio rashly to the fore—were implicated in his downfall. As a result, the Constitutionalist revolution that arose to smash Victoriano Huerta’s army dictatorship (1913–1914) acquired a political grudge against the church that only intensified an underlying cultural anticlericalism. From 1913–1917, relations between the church and the Constitutionalist movement that slowly reaggregated the functions of state reached a nadir, with mass ecclesiastical banishments (or worse), public iconoclasms, and the encouragement of ecclesiastical dissidents. In February 1917 came a vindictive anticlerical constitution, promulgated at Querétaro over the head of the Revolution’s First Chief, Venustiano Carranza. Among other things, the constitution deprived the church of juridical identity, while (paradoxically) empowering the state to license priests as a professional group; it nationalized all church property, including churches and church fabric; and it banned religious primary schooling. While anticlericals exulted, the constitution sowed the seeds of tragedy by authorizing the state to take extreme measures against an institution that was legally supposed not to exist. This gave free rein to irresponsible anticlericals while depriving Catholics of recourse; violence inevitably resulted, on a massive scale during 1926–1929. Even when the dust settled, the juridical—the fantasy—suppression of Catholicism in a country where church and state inevitably had to talk cheapened the law ethically by making backroom dealing the norm in religious affairs.

Keen to avoid trouble, the wily Venustiano Carranza (president, 1917–1920) allowed the bishops to return and the constitution to languish, as, essentially, did his charismatic successor, Álvaro Obregón (1920–1924). Indeed, it was under Obregón that the Catholic social project matured and was extended to functional groups such as peasants and workers. In 1920, the influential Mexican Social Secretariat (SSM) was founded under the direction of the Zacatecan Jesuit Alfredo Méndez Medina. This organization would train social Catholic organizers and pave the way, it was hoped, for a confessional, functional democracy. In its wake came Catholic peasant unions and the National Catholic Labor Confederation (CNCT). This sindicato blanco came to rival the official labor central and was disputed by the archdioceses of Mexico and Guadalajara, each of which wanted to control social Catholicism’s prize asset.16 This time around, though, there was no replacement for the defunct PCN, and Catholic efforts focused not so much on capturing the state as on offering confessional alternatives to revolutionary organizations. Once again, however, there were symbolic articulations of a Catholic republic, not least the raising of a Cristo Rey monument at Silao, Mexico’s geographical fulcrum, in 1923, and the holding of a National Eucharistic Congress just meters from the national palace in 1924. President Obregón, listening to the exalted speeches on the radio, bristled at Catholic claims to represent the national will.

For his part, Obregón’s successor, the pathological clerophobe Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–1928), immediately and provocatively reversed the Catholic formula by abetting in 1925 the creation of a national (i.e. non-Roman) Catholic Church, the Iglesia Católica Apostólica Mexicana (ICAM). Also pushed by his powerful labor movement, the CROM, which resented Catholics competing for its urban and rural clienteles, Calles looked benignly on the schism when it broke out in Mexico City during that year’s Carnival. The longer-term significance of the movement—it revived a tradition of dissentient liberal Catholicism and forged a lasting link between the revolutionary state and popular, especially indigenous, religiosity17—was lost in short-term controversy and the spiraling, hateful paranoia that by now characterized relations between church and state. From the spring of 1925, each feared the other’s wish to resemble, harm, or devour it. Catholic social groups were amalgamated and placed on a virtual war footing in the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (LNDLR), founded in March 1925; the Calles Law of June 1926 introduced anticlerical laws so punitive that they violated the church’s canonical integrity and could not be accepted, still less by an ecclesiastical hierarchy that was schooled to defend the principle of Roman authority above all others, and that had presided over the creation of a militant laity and the muscular devotional brand of Cristo Rey. The Mexican hierarchy, ultimately backed by the Holy See, protested by declaring an ecclesiastical strike beginning at midnight on July 31, 1926.

This public denial of the sacraments moved what had been a political and juridical dispute into uncharted emotional and existential territory. A major religious insurgency broke out in August 1926 that, according to its best and most poetic historian, had all the aspects of a Mexican Passion, at least in the central-western highland states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Colima, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and Durango.18 Though martyrdoms abounded, perhaps the overall truth was more prosaic, in that often the rebels, dubbed cristeros, were peasant ultramontanes from historically Catholic strongholds doing battle with peasant agrarians of a different social and religious mindset.19 Whether the war was theological (a war of religions) or ultimately prophetic (a 20th-century Revelation), however, it terrified the regime and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the first because of its spiritual intensity and inescapable popularity, and the latter because of its disconcerting, increasingly freelance quality. By 1929, the hierarchy’s essential position of autumn 1926—give the faithful their head but only tacitly so, in order that they resist the state sufficiently without implicating the clergy in rebellion—was compromised. A mystic pistolero, León de Toral, had murdered a president-elect in 1928; popular broadsides endorsing the doctrine of tyrannicide were doing the rounds; and sacramental observances were only possible in many parishes because the laity handled consecrated bread or recited Latin formulae. Priests, like the whisky priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), feared losing their identity and prestige in a gray suit. The state was still standing, but it was being bludgeoned by an enraged and quixotic peasant army that was breaking free of, and perhaps staking the future of, the institutional church that it had set out to defend. Accordingly, in June 1929 the more conciliatory faction of the Mexican hierarchy led by Ruiz y Flores (Morelia) and Díaz y Barreto (Tabasco) was empowered by Rome to call off the dogs before it lost control of them, and pact with the state for what it could. On 21 June, Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores and Pascual Díaz y Barreto—now trading respectively as Apostolic Delegate and Archbishop of Mexico—signed a peace accord with the Mexican government. A generational Catholic project to build a this-worldly Christian utopia via the mobilization en bloc of a crusading laity, as well as the creation of a short-lived confessional party answerable to the episcopate—and laicism take the hindmost—was now shelved.

1930–1960: Catholic Action and Inaction

Even so, it may be truer to say that this Catholic social project was merely postponed after 1929, with the intransigent form (rather than substance) really changing, as Blancarte argues.20 The year 1929 was still a critical one in Catholic history. This was not because the June accords (arreglos) marked the beginnings of a true church-state modus vivendi, but more because they marked the end of the cristero revolt. The armed option was henceforth closed to Catholics, for all that cristero diehards reappeared sporadically, and unsuccessfully, through the 1930s. In related fashion, 1929 saw a major reassertion of clerical authority over the laity, with the Rome-endorsed Mexican Catholic Action (ACM) constituting the essential centralizing device after its creation that December. Within a year or two, beligerent bodies such as the League, Catholic syndicates, and many simply pious groups had been broken up or reconfigured in the ACM’s four sectors: the Unión Feminina Católica Mexicana (UFCM, always the most flourishing of the four); the Unión de Católicos Mexicanos (UCM); the Juventud Católica Feminina Mexicana (JCFM); and the Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana (ACJM). Henceforth, lay energies would be steered towards apolitical, pious and catechetical projects under the surveillance of the clergy, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and ultimately Pius XI’s Rome.21 If such projects were still designed to dispute the postrevolutionary state’s claims on Mexican hearts and minds, they were also designed to avoid political confrontations when possible, especially in syndical affairs, where confessional participation was banned by the 1931 Labor Code. Indeed, the laity’s cooption and pious schooling under ecclesiastical auspices, and the hierarchy’s more pragmatic handling of political disputes with the state, were essential features of the 1930s, and would remain so through the 1940s and, to a lesser extent, the 1950s. Those who forgot this clerical preeminence were reminded of it. As the jocular but steely Luis María Martínez (Archbishop of Mexico, 1937–1956) chided one Catholic journalist who was being too critical of government policy, “No te olvides que a mí me toca ordeñar la vaca” (“Don’t forget I’m the one who milks the cow”).22

Martínez’s ranchero humor belied the seriousness of the reprimand. There was one notable but temporary exception to this trend, however, in which Catholics (including the ACM) were encouraged to assume a fiercely intransigent political position: that was when resisting the State’s notorious policy of “socialist” (i.e., crudely rationalist and anti-Catholic) education, which was introduced in 1934 but discontinued in the 1940s. This policy prompted mass school boycotts across the country, some of them instigated by a 1935 collective pastoral letter, and no little violence, especially in the countryside, where public schoolteachers could lose their ears, their genitalia, or their lives if caught by Catholic protesters. Despite this school violence, the overall pattern in the 1930s was for the ecclesiastical hierarchy to turn the other cheek to anticlerical provocation, offering largely rhetorical resistance, to tighten its control over the laity, turning them into church mice where possible,23 and to cede control of the public sphere, if not the conscience of the public, to the state, except in neuralgic cases such as the above. Some Catholics, men especially, mocked such pietism as “castrated action” (acción castrada), and went off to join autonomous civic organizations such as the National Sinarquista Union (UNS, founded 1937), a peasant league drenched in mystical Catholicism that opposed revolutionary agrarian reform, especially. Later (1939) they could militate in the PAN (National Action Party), an opposition force inspired by Catholic social doctrine. Nonetheless, it was this “soft” intransigence, which was founded on direct control of the Catholic laity and a clearer, also defensive separation of Catholic faith from politics, as well as the rise of a new ecclesiastical elite led by Martínez (archbishop Garibi Rivera of Guadalajara was a kindred spirit) that facilitated a more significant and enduring rapprochement between church and state. This development could be noted tentatively by 1936, and manifestly by 1938. The fact that the ACM by then had 370,000 socios spread across Mexico, and the UNS as many more (though concentrated in the formerly cristero zone of the Bajío, around the “Sinarcópolis” of León, especially), no doubt helped to make the government more tractable than it might otherwise have been.

In any event, revolutionary anticlericalism was an ideology of diminishing returns for the state compared to revolutionary nationalism, which was something that the church could support to mutual advantage, as well as in various guises. Famously, both Garibi Rivera and Martínez fleeced their flocks in order to help President Lázaro Cárdenas pay for the oil expropriation of March 1938, a gesture, both appreciated and reciprocated, that marked the real start of a church-state understanding built from the basic elements so far outlined: in exchange for state tolerance of Catholic education, and for as long as it was unmolested in the exercise of the cult, the church would support—no longer critique or rival—revolutionary social projects in a spirit of common patriotism. Cárdenas’s successor, Manuel Ávila Camacho, made explicit what had only been tacit in 1940, when declaring to the magazine Hoy that he was a “believer” (creyente). The 1940 Nationalization Law, while renewing the ban on church property, tactfully left enough loopholes to make it almost impossible to expropriate charitable (read Catholic) schools; a year later, the “socialist” character of public education was unceremoniously binned. The church also made ideological overtures to, or tacked alongside, the state. In 1942, speaking as Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Martínez exhorted Catholics to support Mexico’s anti-Axis entry into the war, reminding them that only the government had the legal and ethical right to plot foreign policy. Three years later, as the government assumed an anticommunist stance, the church used the 1945 Guadalupan anniversary to showcase a Christian-rooted pan-Americanism, specifically by declaring that the Virgin of Guadalupe was now Patroness of the Americas. Over time, the church declared that it was aloof from politics, but that mature revolutionary state forms and labor laws—corporatist, premised on national unity not class antagonism—rested on social Catholic principles (this in a 1941 pastoral commemorating Rerum Novarum).24 If anything, this community of interests had bonded further by the early 1950s under President Miguel Alemán, to the point that presidents and prelates could now jest with one another about the limits of their respective sovereignties. When invited to the inauguration of the Basilica of Guadalupe’s new atrium, for instance, which his government had facilitated, Alemán joked with Archbishop Martínez that he had only entered a sacred precinct because he was compelled to by the crowd (“el pueblo de México me ha hecho entrar a este recinto sagrado”).25

Some argue that the church-state modus vivendi expired in the 1950s as the church, responding to concerns that the PRI’s overheating capitalist model was generating serious social and economic inequalities, began to distance itself from the state and publicly reassert a utopian line of Catholic thinking.26 Certainly there was a cooling of relations; the modus vivendi became stretched as the church, sensing that it was gaining the upper hand, began to strike out more, and with renewed confidence, in the social sphere. Yet this was usually done with tact, without the reckless triumphalism of the past, and neither church nor state really expected the relationship to deteriorate seriously, or had any wish for it to. It was, then, basically a philosophical kind of disengagement or differentiation. Nonetheless, a new ambiguity was expressed at the start of Miguel Darío Miranda’s tenure as Archbishop of Mexico, in June 1956. At their first meeting, Miranda presented President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (an anticlerical cold fish, or a Calles to Alemán’s Obregón) with a book on Catholic social doctrine and asked him to check inside if he ever heard a statement attributed to him and desired to know if it were true. Despite this obvious hint that social doctrine would now be publicly honored, not sidelined, Miranda’s first public homily as primate cloyingly averred: “We are one thing in Christ in this great nation, our beloved Fatherland” (“Somos una sola cosa en Cristo en esta gran nación, nuestra amada Patria”). And, as the fiestas patrias neared that September, Miranda ordered all priests to place a Mexican tricolor to the right of their altars, permanently, opposite the pontifical flag. Thirty years before, people had died for less, and such symbolic equanimity was impossible.27

If it proceeded under cover of mexicanidad, it is also important to note that the revival of Catholic social doctrine was not mere opportunism as the PRI regime rolled with the punches of railway and teachers’ strikes. Rather, it was a largely organic development in Catholic culture that had begun as far back as the early 1940s and now came to the fore under a primate who was, after all, a former director of the SSM. This institution itself, through adjuncts such as popular savings banks (cajas populares), was also revived in the early 1950s under Father Pedro Velázquez, the SSM’s leader since 1948, and latterly his brother, Manuel.28 Even before this, in the Interdiocesan Seminary at Montezuma, New Mexico, Catholic social teaching had been broached to new generations of priests via the seminary’s own “Pius XI Catholic Action Secretariat,” founded in 1941. In 1943, montezumenses held a Rural Week in which North American and European agronomists propagated a Catholic developmentalism (cooperativism, rural credit, hygiene, sociology) and the famous pastoral-pedagogical method of the Belgian priest Father Joseph Cardijn: “See, judge, act”—discern, evaluate, and act upon a social reality. Scrutinizing the signs of the times had therefore begun well before Vatican II; and in places the formation of priests and laity who reflected on oppressive structures and endeavored to transform them by applying the gospel, rather than going through pious motions in the ACM, had begun in the mid to late 1940s.29

To give a final example, in the 1950s the church belatedly renewed its indigenous pastoral, with new sees or territorial prelatures for Tapachula, Toluca, and the Nayar, and a new pastoral emphasis on multilingualism and the tolerance of popular religious idiosyncrasy. This itself was a development that could be directly tied to the 1955 creation of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), which emphasized the need for a new indigenous missiology at its first meeting in Rio de Janeiro. In Tulancingo, a poor indigenous diocese governed by Miranda prior to his elevation to the primacy,30 parish priests such as Father Pérez Carreto now allowed indigenous worshippers to remain in church all night playing violin and guitar, since this was how they prayed; nor did they prohibit their Nahua parishioners from climbing local hills and praying for rain, sometimes remaining there until the heavens opened. Tulancingo also had developed “specialized pastoral teams” by 1955; these, like the former SEP misioneros culturales, went circuit riding in an attempt to overcome shortages of priests and immensity of terrain, as well as to strike quickly at pastoral problems. There were also an indigenous language center for priests in Chiconcuautla and a mission center in Ixmiquilpan. The project was even reported on by Life magazine, which in 1952 sent a team to Tlachichilco to photograph Father Enrique Sálazar talking to the cacique, administering injections, blessing farmers, and performing sacraments, with his cassock rolled up under his smock to comply with the law. It bears repeating, then, that if this work represented an intellectual rupture with the concept of the purely lay state, in political terms it was conceived of as a partnership, or a finessing. Father Ángel María Garibay, a leading Catholic indigenista of this period, wrote a 1957 article in América Indígena arguing that church-state relations were moving into an enlightened, collaborative phase, after a phase of colonial protectionism and a second phase of liberal extermination.31

1960–1990: From Liberationism to Neo-intransigence

In the 1960s, however, the relationship between Catholicism and the state began to unravel more rapidly under a different set of ideological and political pressures. This could not be predicted at the start of the decade, when President López Mateos continued to appeal to Catholics by talking of a “redemptive Revolution” and the church cooperated enthusiastically in an anticommunist campaign given new impetus by the leftward drift of the Cuban revolution. On a hill outside Tepic in 1961, to give just one visible example of this collaboration, the slogan “Cristianismo sí, comunismo no” was marked out in whitewashed stones beside a gigantic cross crushing a hammer and sickle.32 One weighty ideological factor in the church’s subsequent retreat from a position of conciliation with the state was the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), which was felt gradually but inexorably once the Mexican church accepted the council’s conclusions. There was, it should be said, a significant measure of observance in the breach only (obedezco pero no cumplo), as well as determined resistance to specific measures such as the adoption of the reformed, vernacular liturgy, introduced to Mexico in 1965. More significant, perhaps, were two conciliar constitutions: Gaudium et Spes, which imposed a standing obligation on the church to scrutinize the “sign of the times,” interpreting social reality by Gospel lights; and Dignitatis Humanae, which upheld the principle of religious liberty inside the church and so generated tension between the conciliar ecclesiology of the church as the People of God (as set out in a third constitution, Lumen Gentium) and Mexico’s actual clericalized church. The Mexican church that emerged from Vatican II, Roberto Blancarte well observes, was thus committed to acting more upon and in the world, but was fearful of assimilating a worldly pluralism that might transform its own decidedly hierarchical religious field.33 This paradox saw the church renege on its modus vivendi with a declining PRI state and, on one hand, assert its own social vision, which was a development that predated the 1968 massacres; on the other, it struggled to find an internal equilibrium between the multiple Catholicisms that emerged in the mid-1960s and 1970s, particularly those of the mainstream and those inspired by Liberation Theology.

It should be stressed, however, that the collegial, more horizontal spirit of Vatican II did inflect mainstream Mexican Catholicism, and did so relatively early—just not so radically. It was present, for instance, in the foundation of the Episcopal Mutual Aid Union (1963), which functioned as a social fund for the benefit especially of poorer dioceses, and so was a significant step away from the historic dominance of the sees of Mexico, Guadalajara, and the Bajío toward the formulation of a collective pastoral project that transcended diocesan lines. The same spirit informed the church’s approach to another problem associated with Mexico’s economic miracle: urbanization, and the necessary urbanization of the church, whose parochial system was failing to keep up. Initially, Archbishop Miranda operated more in the spirit of the ACM, identifying a lack of clergy, lay leaders, and pastoral specialization as the main problems. Miranda therefore proposed the creation of pastoral teams, with catechesis, education, the cultivation of vocations, and social assistance as the main goals. There was also a “Great Mission” for the capital (1962–1964), which promised the restoration of the Christian family (slogan: “Sin familia no hay Patria”). In the mid-1960s, though, came a new territorial division prompted by a debate as to whether the increasingly big, heterogeneous city should be divided into several dioceses, or whether pastoral zones should be created to allow for the redress of common pastoral issues that cut across parish lines, such as poverty or in-migration, while preserving the integrity of the whole. In the end, it was decided to create eight such zones (gerencias de pastoral), each with a vicario (1964–1967). It was intended, too, that lay initiative should be prioritized. The French pastoral theologian Father Fernando Boulard, advised on the process (as he had on UAME) and produced a 1967 report that praised the ecclesiastical esprit de corps in Mexico City while warning that the scope of lay participation fell short of conciliar norms: “It is imperative to make an effort,” he wrote “because except in one or two gerencias, little has been done, except to employ them [laypeople] in catechesis or the liturgy; very little [has been done] in the way of a lay vocation proper.” As the main inhibiting factors, Boulard noted a lack of constancy among priests and laity, but especially a fear among priests that laity would usurp their functions if they surrendered the reins.34

Over time, the conciliar ethos reshaped the hierarchy’s political, and increasingly critical, stance. A collegial—hence presumably centrist—expression of disenchantment with the Mexican political and economic model came with the episcopate’s pastoral letter on development and integration, published in spring 1968. This document attacked the exclusion suffered by the rural and urban poor as a result of Mexico’s lopsided economic growth, plus what it called a lack of “social vertebration.” In what was evidently a rupture with an ossifying, increasingly repressive state, however, the ecclesiastical hierarchy then made a call for democratization.35 By this time, then, the church had ceased being the regime’s moral prop and become its moral judge, or at best its conditional helper. What was more, movements of a more radical stripe were gathering at the margins of the church and were only encouraged by the CELAM meeting held later that same year at Medellín, which urged the church to develop a “preferential option for the poor” and to theologize radical structural change (“liberation”), even class struggle. The regime’s violent suppression, also in 1968, of the student democracy movement was significant, too, in that it encouraged socially committed sectors of the church to break with the mainline episcopate, among them the SSM, and so marked a crisis point in the internal hegemony of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Even some prelates went somewhat in this direction, among them Samuel Ruiz (San Cristóbal Las Casas) and Adalberto Almeida (Zacatecas; from 1969, Chihuahua), both of whom demanded that Medellín’s call to counter structural injustices (in fact, Almeida’s preferred phrase was “institutionalized violence”) be implemented. For his part, Sergio Méndez Arceo, the liberationist bishop of Cuernavaca, denounced government repression of student protests and demanded the humane treatment of political prisoners. Méndez Arceo’s famous “Annecuilco document” of 1970, meanwhile, which he served like a writ on a stunned President Luis Echeverría while he visited Zapata’s birthplace, called for a constitutional reform that would free the church from state tutelage, as well as for greater religious and political pluralism. At bottom this denoted a new intransigence in which a progressive Catholicism chafed against the laicist tradition and sought to have the state recognize its right to intervene directly in sociopolitical affairs. Some clerical groups, such as Sacerdotes para el Pueblo, launched in 1972, even professed Marxist, revolutionary aspirations. If that were not complicated enough, there were lay groups such as the Movimiento Familiar Cristiano (MFC) which demanded a greater voice in the church’s pastorate on the strength of their rights as baptized Christians. In sum, by the mid-1970s, the mainstream church was offering increasingly strident but well-meaning critiques of a regime (Echeverría’s) that swung between repression and reformism, while beset by minority factions that were either highly confrontational in a political sense or else demanded a kind of baptismal democracy in the church.36 Samuel Ruiz, especially, would develop the most fully realized Medellín-style church in Chiapas, and even ordained men to a married sub-deaconate in line with indigenous priestly (tuhunel) practice. This, for Mexico, was the creative peak of liberationism and of the principle of inculturation: rather than bringing, finding God in an indigenous cultural practice. Yet such grassroots innovations would see Ruiz earn the emnity of government officials, local caciques, and ecclesiastical conservatives alike.37

Nonetheless, he was not alone. The division of the whole republic into pastoral zones from 1977 reduced the pull of archdiocesan churches (ecclesiastical provinces) and linked previously individuated sees in supradiocesan, regional constellations, allowing them to speak and minister with a common voice, often in the interests of specific regional constituencies. Thus, the southern pastoral zones articulated a concern for indigenous and agrarian rights; those of the north, which included metropoles such as Chihuahua and Monterrey, featured a rising urban disquiet over Mexico’s non-democracy.38

The by now ailing PRI state could muster occasional anticlerical outrage in response to the repoliticization of the church, yet fundamentally it was starting to crave the kind of moral legitimacy that was in the church’s gift. How else is one to explain President Echeverría’s visit to Rome (the first by a PRI premier, 1974), or the unofficial support—right down to after-hours deliveries by cabinet ministers of suitcases filled with presidential cash39—that was noted during the construction of a new, modernist basilica, inaugurated in 1976? Or the fact that the Echeverría regime’s attempts to limit population growth, culminating in a 1973 General Law of Population (slogan: “Responsible paternity”), were framed in an explicitly Catholic discourse derived from the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae?40 Finally, at what price came the church’s tacit blessing of a regime with which it continued to have substantive ideological differences in many areas?

As things turned out, the 1979 visit to Mexico of Pope John Paul II marked a major turning point in the church’s relationship with the regime. In the short term, the visit served to reconfirm the new intransigence of the Mexican episcopate: anticlerical laws governing public religious cult were shown to be unenforcable, and the visit became an exuberant, highly mediatized plebiscite on the relative popularity of the PRI and the Roman Catholic Church. It is equally important to note, however, that in ecclesial terms the visit reconcentrated the church’s political firepower in specific areas, or rather, along a narrow front that was increasingly dictated from Rome, rather than by the Mexican bishops. This included the defense of Catholics’ political and human rights, with a clear desire for future recognition of Catholicism’s legal personality by the regime as well as the restoration of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the Holy See. It also included a narrowly polemical range of moral issues, not least the church’s ironclad opposition to family planning, abortion, and divorce. Far less emphasis than before was given to social exclusion and economic injustice; as a corollary, Rome reassigned or unseated Liberationist troublemakers, among them Méndez Arceo, whose resignation was happily accepted in 1982.41 As in 1929, in sum, an intransigent position developed by the Mexican church was being romanized; that is, it was given a hard, uncompromising edge, but in areas where the state might respond, and which also tended to favor universal church concerns as opposed to merely Mexican ones.

This new direction was not surprising. During his 1979 visit, the pope had glowered at the CELAM delegates assembled at Puebla and called for a “correct” (by which he had meant non-Liberationist) take on the Medellín declarations; in his closed-door discussions with the Mexican episcopate, he had demanded to know how it could be that, in such a Catholic country, the church labored under worse laws than those in force in his native, and communist, Poland. The presence in Mexico from 1978 of a powerful and unpopular apostolic delegate, Girolamo Prigione, further canalized Catholic pressure in the direction that Rome desired through the preferment of compliant ecclesiastics. Finally, the general rise in opposition to a regime that was palpably losing legitimacy from the early 1980s amid a spiraling economic crisis also needs to be factored in; neoliberal economic reforms were slowly being forced upon Mexico and the PRI’s malfunctioning socioeconomic model was being dismantled, making this clearly an opportune moment to press for a fairer constitutional hearing for the church—even if the first PRI president presented with the idea by representatives of the episcopate, Miguel de la Madrid, proved obtuse and backward-looking when it came to religious questions.42 Undiscouraged, the Mexican bishops at 1985’s CELAM meeting agreed that the church’s ghoulish legal situation could no longer be tolerated as “normal.” Increasingly, too, they began to push for democratization and to channel societal pressures for political reform, again, both for transparency’s sake and to facilitate a constitutional shake-up. Rarely, too, had the episcopate enjoyed such moral prestige as it did at this time. In 1985, Catholic parish and charitable organizations such as Father González Torres’s Fundación para el Apoyo a la Comunidad (FAC) put the government to shame in responding to a terrible Mexico City earthquake43; in Chihuahua in 1986, Archbishop Almeida led an angry protest against yet another fraudulent state election favoring the PRI, in which he threatened to call, as in 1926, a sacramental strike. After an appeal from the interior ministry, it was Prigione who averted the threat, reportedly after consulting directly with Rome. In 1988 came a powerful symbolic gesture: beatification of the martyred Mexican Jesuit Miguel Pro, as proof that Rome could no longer accept the church’s uncertain place in Mexico’s constitutional order and wanted change.44 Though anticlericals screamed, in fact the terms of a new pact were tacitly being sketched out: if the state extended fuller constitutional rights to its religiously minded citizens and their institutional proxies, it could expect a dividend.45

1992 and Beyond

Of course, the Mexican government—now under Carlos Salinas de Gortari—had reasons of its own for wanting the constitutional reform that was finally delivered in 1992, not least reformist prestige in the eyes of Mexico’s international partners and in the ongoing NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) negotiations, as well as the equilibration of internal political forces through Catholic support for Salinas’s neoliberal project. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that high-level government and ecclesiastical officials met without press on numerous occasions from 1988 through 1990, often convening in the apostolic delegation, at Salinas’s behest the reform was presented as an initiative emanating from the legislature.46 Salinas’s proposed reform of constitutional articles governing religion was therefore presented to the Chamber of Deputies in December 1991 by the congressional PRI, not the president. Congress passed the reform after a week. The enabling legislation, in the form of the Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship (Ley de Asociaciones Religiosas y Culto Público), was passed on July 15, 1992. In essence, the reform conferred juridical personality on legally registered religious associations that could demonstrate five years’ religious activity and genuine community standing (Art. 130); it allowed exceptional acts of religious worship to be celebrated in public (Art. 24); it allowed the church to own indispensable properties (Art. 27); and it suppressed restrictions on the founding of religious congregations (Art. 5). That September, finally, Mexico and the Holy See exchanged diplomatic notes, and Prigione became nuncio.

Though the reform navigated Congress rapidly, it was the subject of some criticism and lasting disgruntlement in Catholic circles, for all that it ended decades of dissimulation in religious affairs and flatly affirmed religion’s social and associative character. Even some moderates in the episcopate balked at the legalistic language, which was phrased in classic liberal garb—the state conceding where and under what circumstances acts of worship might be celebrated—rather than departing from an assertion of what the CEM deemed to be the human right of religious liberty. The failure to reform Article 5, which continued to uphold the exclusively lay character of public education, rankled especially. For their part, more socially committed prelates (Ruiz, Lona Reyes of Tehuantepec) considered the reform a distraction from the church’s social apostolate, if not an actual limitation. In general, too, it could be said that the law gave more, not less, power to the state, which could in theory regulate religious associations like small businesses. Most divisive was the fact that the 1992 reform—no less than the 1929 arreglos—was negotiated at the political apex and seemed more to reflect the kind of European agenda associated with John Paul II (i.e., the attrition of authoritarian secular states) than it corresponded to the actual needs of Mexican Catholics. At the very least, the reform strengthened the idea that the government only really needed to deal with Rome and then the Mexican church would fall into line, and so it had a rather concordatory feel. This suspicion was soon confirmed in an ill-tempered public squabble between the archbishopric of Mexico, run by Ernesto Corripio Ahumada (1977–1994), and the apostolic delegation, which fought over registration as Religious Association No. 1.47

Since 1992, nonetheless, the church has been legally freer than at any other time in the period under discussion. Yet with disappointingly few exceptions it has been constrained in the use of that freedom, and has for the most part cleaved to a moralistic and pious agenda that has won it powerful political friends but has seen Catholics, women included, respond in diminishing numbers while exiting the church in rising numbers.48 There have been devotional highs—the canonization of the first so-called cristero martyrs in 2000, and of others subsequently—but also controversies, such as the 2002 canonization of Juan Diego (whose historicity is questioned) and the veritable furor unleashed in 1995 when the then abbot of the Basilica at Tepeyac, Guillermo Schulenberg, himself cast doubt on the veracity of the Guadalupe apparition, while interpreting the 500-year-old devotion as a “permanent miracle of prayer,” that is, a popular miracle.49 If, in an increasingly pluralistic, secularizing society, even the Guadalupan myth no longer provides the kind of unifying solace that it once did, the church has elsewhere seen that its power to mobilize a significant social base has been seriously impaired, especially (as in Mexico City in 2007) when the chosen terrain has been sexual or reproductive morality. In other instances, the church has been mired in scandal. Real nadirs occurred with the mysterious killing of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo at Guadalajara airport in 1993, persistent accusations of serious clerical sexual abuse and coverups, claims of narcolimosnas (alms from drug cartels), and claims of political partisanship and quid pro quo (as in the 2006 and 2012 federal elections). And yet, and yet: there are always new ecclesial shoots, which suggest that Mexican Catholicism will be important in any hoped-for escape from, or reconciliation after, a particularly bleak and violent period in the country’s history. Hope appears in such movements as the reviving indigenous subdeaconate in Chiapas; Javier Sicilia’s Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad; Padre Goyo’s stand against the drug cartels of Pacific Michoacán; the Miguel Pro Human Rights Center; the migrant albergues (shelters) run by Father Solalinde in Tehuantepec; the “Yo soy #132” movement, which began in a Jesuit university; or the pastoral of conciliation being developed in the diocese of Acapulco for victims of cartel violence … 50

Discussion of the Literature

For such a vast and central topic, it comes as a surprise that the history of Catholicism in Mexico since 1910 has been written only patchily. In terms of coverage, for instance, there has long been an overconcentration on the “heroic” period of the 1920s and 1930s, and on the cristero rebellion in particular. Conversely, there has been a considerable underemphasis—as with the historiography of Mexico more generally—on the post-1940 years. This has partly been for empirical reasons, especially that of problematical access to primary archival sources, many of which are still off limits; but as a trend specifically affecting the historiography of religion and therefore Catholicism, it also reflects a presumed and arguable secularization bias within the academy that only began to shift fairly recently, as others historians have well noted.51

In terms of approach, too, the historiography also manifests basic methodological and conceptual flaws. One of these, for a long time, was the ideological tension between liberal and Catholic world views. Exponents of these ideologies typically alit on their preferred topics with polemical or proselytising intent. Another problem, which particularly affected Catholic historiography, was the preference for ecclesiastical over religious history—that is, the reduction (if not the triumphalist reduction) of Catholicism to clerical Catholicism, as has been noted by Miranda Lida, with a concomitant, even total, disregard for popular religion.52 Yet another problem, and one that has been more common in secular academic scholarship, is an inability (or reluctance) to integrate religious ideas, beliefs, and practices meaningfully into the analysis. Hence the worthy economistic and political analyses of the 1970s and 1980s, in which the church appears either as an institutional interest or a kind of political pressure group.53

In sum, the old historiography veers from purely ideological, if doctrinaire, accounts to structuralist and entirely non-ideological readings, in which, as Adrian Bantjes well put it, religion was a mere “epiphenomenon” or function of deeper structural shifts.54 It has taken a long time to produce the kind of “integral” analyses of Mexican Catholicism for which Francisco Miranda called as long ago as 1971, and in which Catholicism is analyzed three-dimensionally as an inescapable and contingent part of Mexican social, cultural, spiritual, and political life.55 It is not easy to write a history of Mexican Catholicism that integrates religion’s transcendental and affective aspirations with the church’s more worldly presence, and of course the task has not always been approached in the same way, but with a variety of historical methodologies and conceptual tools. It must suffice here to signal a few essential stopping points on the historiographical trail and, in tandem, to highlight a few pendientes.

One major innovation has been the expansion of popular religion as an analytical category. This has given historians a culturally, regionally, and ethnically more composite, if sometimes polarized, view of Mexican Catholicism; it has also led them to question the idea of ecclesiastical hegemony and to reinterpret supposedly “counterrevolutionary” convulsions by digging up alternative Catholic worldviews.56 Jean Meyer’s La cristiada (1973–1974), for instance, deployed then innovative oral history techniques to record the religious memoirs of hundreds of ex-cristeros; in so doing it redefined historians’ understanding of the revolt by drawing a sharp distinction between the cristeros’ Christological motives and high-end ecclesiastical realpolitik. For a long time, Meyer’s work was a real outlier. Three decades later, however, Paul Vanderwood’s poetic and much-discussed study of the Tomóchic rebellion in Chihuahua (The Power of God, 1998) rescued the tomochitecos from historiographical oblivion. Instead of fanatics, Vanderwood saw marginal peasants pincered by the Porfirian state and its church, hence seeking refuge, if not apocalyptic freedom, in an anticlerical millennium. In this vein of scholarship, especially through Meyer, the influence of the Annales school and that of the history of mentalities is felt; yet it is very curious that few studies of this kind have focused specifically on indigenous forms of religiosity, though this may now be changing.57

Another major historiographical shift has been the study of mainline Catholic piety and devotionalism, as in the work of Ed Wright-Rios. This line of historiography recaptures the flowering of Catholic ritual practice that occurred in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries, often by appying anthropological and U.S.-style cultural history techniques to the more visible devotional set pieces, such as diocesan pilgrimages and the coronation of icons of the Virgin Mary. In addition to speculating on the religious meaning of such events, this literature has two other clear contributions to make: first, it qualifies the old secularization thesis by providing compelling evidence of re-Catholicization in—indeed as part of—Latin American modernity; second, it brings women’s agency to the fore, in that women’s participation is prioritized and the “feminization of religion” is stressed. If anything, it is the study of Catholic masculinities, among priests and laymen, and in “masculine” devotions such as Cristo Rey, that has lagged behind and needs emphasis in a fully gendered history.

A third recent contribution has been the study of theological/religious concepts and of their reverberations in religious politics. Manuel Ceballos’s study of social Catholicism, though it barely qualifies by period (1891–1911), deserves mention here, as do works that discuss the romanization of the Mexican church.58 So, finally, does Roberto Blancarte’s classic, Historia de la Iglesia católica en México, which departs from a sophisticated understanding of Catholic integralism and applies it across a half-century of Mexican Catholic history from 1929 to 1982, thus drawing out more satisfying historical continuities than the application of secular labels (progressive, conservative) would allow. Here the main outstanding historiographical debt, perhaps, is to pursue the general inquiry after 1940 into the specific, and to provide studies, for instance, of liberation theology in context, or of the dynamic relationship between papal teachings and Mexico. There are of course, many more lacunae, among them the history of ACM, the history of Catholic devotionalism and PRI rule, or the secularization of space and social customs.

Primary Sources

Any discussion of primary sources for studying Mexican Catholicism in the 20th century should begin with the Archivo Histórico del Arzobispado de México, or AHAM (Durango #11, Col. Roma, Mexico City), which contains the historic archive of the see of Mexico from the colonial period to the near present. Organized by episcopal period, the archive can be consulted up to the episcopate of Miguel Darío Miranda (1956–1977). More recent material is generally not accessible, since it forms part of the curia’s working archive. AHAM contains material on a vast range of subjects, though many of the following kinds of documents: correspondence between the ecclesiastical curia and parish clergy, as well as correspondence from laity and religious; reports on religious affairs and files on archdiocesan personnel; and archdiocesan circulars and edicts. This is one of the best-kept archives, ecclesiastical or secular, in Mexico, and as of 2016 is efficiently run by Father Gustavo Watson and a team of professional historians. It should be noted, however, that AHAM does not contain the capitular (cabildo) archive of the see of Mexico, which is a separate entity. For the early part of our period, microfilmed cabildo records are in the Centro de Estudios de Historia de México CARSO (Plaza Federico Gamboa 1, Col. Chimalistac, Mexico City).

Outside Mexico City access to diocesan archives is patchy, but it is certainly possible in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Morelia, Oaxaca, and Zamora, though not in Puebla. The diocesan archive of San Cristóbal Las Casas has been catalogued by Juan Pedro Viqueira Albán.

Parish archives in Mexico are generally limited and often incomplete, and usually contain little more than bound registers of baptisms and marriages. Still, it is worth pointing out that some parish archives are now being rescued by the Apoyo al Desarrollo de Archivos y Bibliotecas de México (ADABI) foundation, whose website is as good a place as any to begin an inquiry, even if permission will probably need to be sought from the relevant diocesan archive, then from the respective parish notary or priest.

Researchers should be aware that few religious congregations and lay associations in Mexico allow access to their archives on anything but a discretionary, ad hoc basis. In recent years in Mexico City, this author has been able to consult selectively those of the Adoración Nocturna Mexicana and the Hermanas de la Cruz del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús; others have been granted access to the Jesuit provincial archive. In some cases, however, access has not been permitted. One important exception is the Archivo del Secretariado Social Mexicano, which can be consulted in Mexico City. A yet more important exception is the Archivo de la Acción Católica Mexicana, which is now accessible in the Universidad Iberoamericana in Santa Fe.

More important still are the cristero archives (those of the Liga Nacional Defensora de la Libertad Religiosa, Aurelio Acevedo, and VITA-México) that have been preserved in the historic archive of the UNAM, specifically in the Instituto de Investigaciones Sobre la Universidad y la Educación (IISUE; Circuito Cultural Universitario, Coyoacán). The ACJM (Antonio Rius Facius) archive can also be consulted in the Centro CARSO, mentioned above.

A critical Catholic source, though again it is not accessible for the whole period (1939 is the cutoff point), is the Vatican Secret Archive (ASV; Cortile del Belvedere, 00120 Città del Vaticano), which was opened to researchers in 2006. Among other things, this archive contains the correspondence between the Mexican ecclesiastical hierarchy and Rome, and is essential for contextualizing Mexican ecclesiastical policy in relation to universal Catholicism.

Given its often conflictual history with the Mexican state, it is not too surprising that Mexican Catholicism can be usefully studied through public archives as well as Catholic ones. A particularly important collection in this regard are the series on public worship (cultos religiosos) that were created by the Secretaría de Gobernación but subsequently entrusted to the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City (AGN; Eduardo Molina #113), at least for the 1920–1960 period. These series, organized by federal entity, are the essential record of religious disputes (e.g. concerning public worship) at the local level. Another series, though it is by no means devoted exclusively to religious topics—Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales (IPS)—also has good material on religious controversies, usually from the perspective of anonymous government spies sent to the localities. It is worth stating, too, that federal entities’ own interior ministries (Secretarías de Gobierno) also created cultos religiosos records, which do not necessarily duplicate, or even correspond with, those found in AGN, meaning both should be read.

Last, it should be stressed that periodical publications and newspapers are an essential source, especially for the second half of the period, when many archival sources are not yet open to researchers. Periodicals such as the Jesuit-produced Christus or Mensajero del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, as well as diocesan gazettes, can help to fill the gap. So can the mainstream secular newspapers, including the national daily press, which did and does comment extrensively on religious, particularly Catholic, affairs. Whole books, and good ones (e.g. Richard Trexler’s study of the Iztapalapa Passion, Reliving Golgotha, 2003) have been written from this reportage.

Further Reading

Andes, Stephen. The Vatican and Catholic Activism in Mexico and Chile: The Politics of Transnational Catholicism, 19201940. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Blancarte, Roberto. Historia de la Iglesia católica en México, 19291982. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992.Find this resource:

Butler, Matthew. Popular Piety and Political Identity in Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion: Michoacán, 19271929. Oxford: British Academy and Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Butler, Matthew, ed. Faith and Impiety in Revolutionary Mexico. New York: Palgrave, 2007.Find this resource:

Camp, Roderic Ai. Crossing Swords: Politics and Religion in Mexico. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Fallaw, Ben. Religion and State Formation in Postrevolutionary Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Loaeza, Soledad. La restauración de la Iglesia católica en la transición mexicana. Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2013.Find this resource:

Meyer, Jean. La cristiada. 3 vols. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1973–1974.Find this resource:

Pacheco, María Martha, ed. Religión y sociedad en México durante el siglo XX. Mexico City: INEHRM, 2007.Find this resource:

Padilla, Yolanda. Después de la tempestad: La reorganización católica en Aguascalientes, 19291950. Zamora: Colegio de Michoacán, 2001.Find this resource:

Romero de Solís, José Miguel. El aguijón del espíritu: Historia contemporánea de la Iglesia en México, 18921992. Mexico City: IMDOSOC, 2006.Find this resource:

Smith, Benjamin T. The Roots of Conservatism in Mexico: Catholicism, Society, and Politics in the Mixteca Baja, 17501962. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Vanderwood, Paul. The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Wright-Rios, Edward. Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in Oaxaca, 18871934. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) The 2013 constitutional reform in religious matters, which is said to have been propelled by an alliance of the resurgent PRI and the Mexican Catholic hierarchy, is a case in point. Depending on perspective, the botched reform of Article 24 either threatens or promises to make the state respectful of the social implications of religious faith, for instance, by implicitly allowing religious proselytism in public educational and electronic media outlets. For Mexican liberals, this is an assault on the lay character of the state itself. For many Catholics, it is a necessary adjustment that brings the Mexican constitution into line with international norms to which Mexico is committed and that protect religious liberty as a human right. For details of the controversy, see Bernardo Barranco, Las batallas del Estado laico: la reforma a la libertad religiosa (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2016).

(2.) For the census and other figures, see Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, Panorama de las religiones en México (Mexico City: INEGI, 2011), 4; and Renée de la Torre and Cristián Gutiérrez Zúñiga, Atlas de la diversidad religiosa en México (Zapopan: Colegio de Jalisco, 2007), 35, 44–45, 139. An ongoing, far more sophisticated IMDOSOC survey, consulted 1 Mar. 2016) challenges the census findings by suggesting that the church is not so much melting under the heat of religious competition as coping better with social secularization than its competitors. According to this survey, 86 percent of Mexicans describe themselves as professing a religion or belonging to a church, but of those respondents 92 percent describe themselves as Catholic, with all non-Catholic Christian denominations still comprising only 7 percent. If this is true, then Catholicism is holding its own among people of religion significantly better than is often thought, while secularization, indexed in the number of Mexicans professing no religion at all (14 percent), is also rising faster than previously thought.

(3.) Widely seen as a dressing down, and originally scheduled as a private event, Francis’s address called for a serious pastoral effort to combat Mexico’s social problems, including narcotráfico, for a church of greater transparency and inclusivity, and for an episcopate of pastors, not princes, that wore itself out evangelically, not in political infighting, resolving its differences like men (“Si tienen que pelearse, peléense; si tienen que decirse cosas, díganselas, pero como hombres, en la cara, como hombres de Dios”).

(4.) That is, religious bodies (such as parish churches) that are legally registered with the Interior Ministry’s section on religious affairs as a consequence of the 1992 constitutional reforms governing religious worship.

(5.) For these statistics, see the sources consulted in note 2.

(6.), consulted 1 Mar. 2016.

(7.) Roderic Ai Camp, “Exercising Political Influence, Religion, Democracy, and the Mexican 2006 Presidential Race,” Journal of Church and State 50.1 (2008): 49–72. See also the earlier findings in Roderic Ai Camp, Crossing Swords: Politics and Religion in Mexico (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

(8.) José Miguel Romero de Solís, El aguijón del espíritu: Historia contemporánea de la Iglesia en México, 1892–1992 (Mexico City: IMDOSOC, 2006), 583–584.

(9.) This definition is borrowed from Roberto Blancarte’s classic study Historia de la Iglesia católica en México, 1929–1982 (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992), 23–25.

(10.) Some specialists, such as Blancarte, Historia de la Iglesia, see the 1950s as a period of “neo-intransigence” and identify a rather shorter church-state modus vivendi, from 1936 to the early 1950s.

(11.) Daniel Levine, “Authority in Church and Society: Latin American Models,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 20.4 (1978): 517–544.

(12.) For two excellent studies, see Edward Wright-Ríos, Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in Oaxaca, 1887–1934 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); and Cecilia Adriana Bautista García, Las disyuntivas del estado y la Iglesia en la consolidación del orden liberal, México, 1856–1910 (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2012).

(13.) See the excellent study by Ricardo Cannelli, Nación católica y estado laico: el conflicto político-religioso en México desde la independencia hasta la revolución (1821–1914) (Mexico City: INEHRM, 2012).

(14.) The classic study is Manuel Ceballos Ramírez, El catolicismo social: Un tercero en discordia; Rerum Novarum, la “cuestión social,” y la movilización de los católicos mexicanos (1891–1911) (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1991).

(15.) Denoting, respectively, the Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana and the Unión de Damas Católicas Mexicanas.

(16.) María Gabriela Aguirre Cristiani, ¿Una historia compartida? Revolución mexicana y catolicismo social, 1913–1914 (Mexico City: IMDOSOC, 2008).

(17.) On this, see Matthew Butler, “Misa a la mexicana: los ritos de la religión revolucionaria,” in México a la luz de sus revoluciones, edited by Laura Rojas and Susan Deeds (2 vols. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2014), ii. 425–457.

(18.) Jean Meyer, La cristiada (3 vols.; Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1973–1974).

(19.) Matthew Butler, Popular Piety and Political Identity in Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion: Michoacán, 1927–1929 (Oxford: British Academy and Oxford University Press, 2004).

(20.) Blancarte, Historia de la Iglesia, 29–62.

(21.) For the Roman connection, see Stephen Andes, The Vatican and Catholic Activism in Mexico and Chile: The Politics of Transnational Catholicism, 1920–1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). Testimonial literature also suggests that a more pragmatic church–state relationship was being planned, and with Rome’s blessing, even as the cristeros waged their war. As a young priest and director of the SSM, Miguel Darío Miranda was charged in 1926 with envisioning the future church of Mexico and preparing a new, post-bellum Catholic project. In Rome, in an audience with Pius XI, Miranda proposed the following: Catholic Action; the founding of an Escuela de Formación Social and a Catholic University, to prepare lay Catholic cadres; and retooling the Catholic labor movement. With the exception of the third goal, which was dropped, this is a fair blueprint of the Catholic Church until the later 1960s, especially if we recall that Cardinal Secretary of State Gasparri wrote Miranda a note approving his plan to prepare a new church “spiritually and scientifically,” while stressing that it must be an apolitical entity. See Francisco María Aguilera González, Cardenal Miguel Darío Miranda: El hombre, el cristiano, el obispo (Mexico City: IMDOSOC, 2005), 131–133.

(22.) Guillermo Schulenberg Prado, Memorias del “último abad de Guadalupe” (Mexico City: Miguel Ángel Porrúa, 2003), 212.

(23.) As Padilla shows, the consolidation of ACM saw the emphasis shift from social action to indoctrination. A theological-social concept of Catholic Action (participation in the hierarchical apostolate) in practice denoted a restricted, highly subordinate mode of institutional action. In Aguascalientes, for example, the ACM organized a campaign of home visits to ensure that Ripalda’s catechism was read daily; there were catechism contests for children, and, from 1938, even Epiphany became “catechism day.” Home enthronements of the Virgin of the Assumption, as well as round-the-clock devotion to the diocese’s Señor San José, were promoted vigorously in the 1940s, while social assistance declined. ACM thus suffered from two imbalances. First, its apolitical, churchy character was a turnoff to male Catholics, who were bored by endless vocation drives, seminary collections, teach-ins, and ceremonials. The second imbalance, derived from its political utility, was ACM’s passive ethos. ACM both exalted and strait-jacketed the figure of the layperson, so to many it felt like a regression after the heady militancy of the 1910s and 1920s. See Yolanda Padilla, Después de la tempestad: La reorganización católica en Aguascalientes, 1929–1950 (Zamora: Colegio de Michoacán, 2001), 68–71, 105–153, 168–171, 256–278.

(24.) Blancarte, Historia de la Iglesia, 63–115.

(25.) Schulenberg, Memorias, 75. It was Alemán, too, who finally struck down the Calles law of 1926.

(26.) Essentially this is the thesis of Blancarte, Historia de la Iglesia, 117–165.

(27.) Aguilera González, Cardenal Miguel Darío Miranda, 317–333.

(28.) Stephen J. C. Andes, “A Catholic Alternative to Revolution: The Survival of Social Catholicism in Postrevolutionary Mexico,” The Americas 68.4 (2012): 529–562. SSM was cut free of ACM in 1948.

(29.) For some fascinating examples, see Miguel J. Hernández Madrid, “Curas de Pueblo y Acción Social Católica en Michoacán, 1940–1960,” in Religión y sociedad en México durante el siglo XX, edited by María Martha Pacheco (Mexico City: INEHRM, 2007), 139–162.

(30.) Miranda had also been Mexico’s representative at CELAM.

(31.) Aguilera González, Cardenal Miguel Darío Miranda, 212–250.

(32.) Manuel Olimón Nolasco, Servidor fiel: El cardenal Adolfo Suárez Rivera (1927–2008) (Mexico City: Miguel Ángel Porrúa, 2013), 121–122.

(33.) Blancarte, Historia de la Iglesia, 203–238.

(34.) Aguilera González, Cardenal Miguel Darío Miranda, 335–358.

(35.) Carta Pastoral del Episcopado Mexicano sobre el desarrollo e integración del país, March 1968, published in Christus 33.390 (May 1968), and cited in Blancarte, Historia de la Iglesia, 232–238.

(36.) Ibid., 239–293.

(37.) Jean Meyer, Samuel Ruiz en San Cristóbal, 1960–2000 (Mexico City: Tusquets, 2000).

(38.) Blancarte, Historia de la Iglesia, 382–384.

(39.) Schulenberg, Memorias del “último abad de Guadalupe,” 70–103.

(40.) Soledad Loaeza, La restauración de la Iglesia católica en la transición mexicana (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2013), 104–105.

(41.) Ibid., 85–118.

(42.) De la Madrid’s advice to an episcopal delegation that mooted the idea of a constitutional reform after the 1979 papal visit was that they should talk with the CTM and—as if reform were decades away—“ir reescribiendo la historia de México, por ejemplo, más allá de Alfonso Toro” (“proceed with rewriting the history of Mexico, beyond Alfonso Toro”); Olimón Nolasco, Servidor fiel, 138–141, 162.

(43.) Andrea Mutolo, “El Cardenal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada y el sismo de 1985 en la Ciudad de México,” Revista Inclusiones 2, special issue (Oct.-Dec. 2015): 55–66.

(44.) On Pro, killed in 1927, see Marisol López-Menéndez, Miguel Pro: Martyrdom and Politics in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

(45.) A foretaste in 1989 was the disarticulation of another cornerstone of liberation theology in Mexico: the Tehuacán-based Seminario Regional del Sureste (SERESURE), which was closed under pressure from Apostolic Delegate Prigione and with the support of Tehuacán’s bishop (later archbishop of Mexico), Norberto Rivera. For details, see Enrique Marroquín, El conflicto religioso en Oaxaca, 1976–1992 (Mexico City: UNAM, 2007), 109–112.

(46.) There were many other choreographed steps. In February 1990, for example, Salinas named a personal representative in Rome, and Pope John Paul II announced that Apostolic Delegate Prigione could be considered his personal representative in Mexico. The pope then made a second visit to Mexico in 1990, in which he called on Mexico to be the bearer of a new world culture of solidarity, not ideological antagonism. Salinas made an official (but not state) visit to Rome in mid-1991, and so on. See Olimón Nolasco, Servidor fiel, 198–213.

(47.) Andrea Mutolo, “La transformación del Arzobispado de México durante la administración de Ernesto Corripio Ahumada (1977–1994),” in Política y religión la Ciudad de México, siglos XIX y XX, edited by Franco Savarino, Berenise Bravo Rubio, and Andrea Mutolo (Mexico City: IMDOSOC, 2014), 404–416.

(48.) Loaeza, La restauración de la Iglesia católica, 245–277, 279–283.

(49.) David Brading, La canonización de Juan Diego (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2009).

(50.) For a sobering, if fictional, contemporary reflection, see Javier Sicilia’s Mexicanized update of Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, in La confesión: El diario de Esteban Martorus (Mexico City: Jus, 2009).

(51.) E.g., Roberto Blancarte, “La iglesia católica en México desde 1929: Introducción crítica a la producción historiográfica, 1969–1988,” Cristianismo y Sociedad 27.101 (1989): 27–42.

(52.) Miranda Lida, “La Iglesia católica en las más recientes historiografías de México y Argentina: Religión, modernidad, y secularización,” Historia Mexicana 56.4 (2007): 1393–1426.

(53.) Matthew O’Hara, “Politics and Piety: The Church in Colonial and Nineteenth-Century Mexico,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 17.1 (2001): 213–231, makes this point in an earlier context.

(54.) Adrian A. Bantjes, “Religion and the Mexican Revolution: Toward a New Historiography,” in Religious Culture in Modern Mexico, edited by Martin Austin Nesvig (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 223–254.

(55.) Francisco Miranda, “Problemática de una historia eclesiástica,” Historia Mexicana 21.2 (1971): 269–284.

(56.) Pamela Voekel and Reinaldo Román, “Popular Religion in Latin American Historiography,” in The Oxford Handbook of Latin American History, edited by José C. Moya (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(57.) E.g., Ben Fallaw, Religion and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

(58.) Ceballos Ramírez, El catolicismo social.