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Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in Oaxaca, 1887-1934. By Edward Wright-Rios. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 362. Maps. Figures. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper.

This is a book about Catholic survival and resurgence in a Mexico increasingly characterized by secular and anti-Catholic political and cultural elites who put statecraft and nation building above all other considerations. The War of the Reform (1858-1860) and the French Intervention and Second Empire under Maximilian of Hapsburg (1862-1867) created a deepening rift between the Catholic hierarchy and its allies on the one hand, and liberal or eventually anarcho-socialist or socialist elites, on the other. [End Page 405]

For self-proclaimed Catholics, or political Catholics, a sense of Mexicanness and the links of fraternity and nationhood among Mexicans could only be explained by the deep roots of Catholicism, which had founded a nation wrought out of and placed above colonial conquest and the social conflict so readily and logically associated with it. Mexico was a special home to Christ and his virgin mother, and the liturgy, public rituals and social modalities of Catholicism were the sinews of national union.

Gradually, however, this view of a nation forged out of conquest was insufficient for nation builders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In their eyes, Mexico must become a progressive and prosperous nation in the competitive world of modern capitalism and science, of socialism and social reform. The Catholic clergy and clerical wealth, even the orientation of Catholic education, became bones of contention between the 1820s and the 1850s. The Constitution of 1857, with its inclination toward religious toleration and increased state powers, precipitated tensions into open conflict. Things would never quite be the same thereafter.

It is not at all uncommon among modernizing Mexican intellectuals to relegate the Catholic Church to Mexico's past, or perhaps to certain prevailing local customs in towns or plebeian areas of cities. When brought into current history, a vocal and active Catholic Church is looked on as a threat, or at best a nuisance. The associations between certain economic and social elites and militant Catholicism are a source of concern. Persistent Catholic devotion is often considered a passive and recessive aspect of Mexican life, which may indicate where Mexico is coming from, but will scarcely show you where it is heading.

Increasingly however, such a view of Catholicism in Mexico has come to seem limited, prejudiced and narrow. Catholic influence has been felt in contrary political movements, and the heterogeneous characteristics of Mexican Catholics have only become more and more visible over time. Edward Wright-Rios has found an engaging and exciting way to approach this complex history. He has done so by interweaving separate but interconnected narratives: the episcopal reforms of Catholic practices under bishop Eulogio Gillow (1887-1922) and two indigenous rural Catholic revival movements (ca. 1911-1950 and 1928-1934). This has allowed him to embrace major issues of Church-State relations during the liberal dictatorship of General Porfirio Díaz and then under the revolutionary governments arising after 1910, but at the same time subtly deal with tensions between urban and rural Catholicism, between episcopal intent and popular understandings, and between modernization's pretense and its reach into more marginal geographies.

These three interconnected stories are fascinating in themselves and intriguing when they converge. Bishop Gillow, a combination of traditional aristocrat and modern bourgeois, educated in Mexico, England, Belgium and Rome, appears committed to modernizing Mexico but bringing along a robust Vatican-inspired Church as part of the enterprise. He combined the man of vision and the ultimate pragmatist while his reforms connected both with Bourbon religious interests in a personal ethical religiosity of absolute orthodoxy and hierarchical ordering, and late nineteenth-century Catholic and Vatican resentment at displacement. Central to his endeavors were a restructured liturgy and modern devotionalism, along with an active Catholic press and popular organizations, which would both [End Page 406] intensify the religious experience among believers and tie all Catholics clearly to the Church hierarchy. Vatican actions and directives, as well as the broad and deep sweep of nineteenth-century apparitionism were central to his plans and ultimately related to the limits of their implementation. Wright-Rios shows that the bishop had more control over Oaxaca City, its Church activities and seminary-trained priests than he had over the autochthonous beliefs and practices of his rural parishioners who, ultimately caught up in the ambiguities of modernization but clinging to longstanding apparitionist traditions of their own, responded to the clash between secularism and religious revival in complex ways. The author argues that all the levels of society and Catholicism were connected and in significant communication, but the pretense of top-down revivalism was at least partially subverted by local, popular initiative and relative autonomy vis-à-vis clerical preference.

Gillow had to contend with this inveterate religious localism and its vibrant community organizations in his devotional and liturgical reforms. But he and other diocesan authorities would face even stronger manifestations of the same in the persons of Barola Bolaños and Matilde Narváez, convinced advocates of sacred apparitions in two distinct parishes. It is through their stories that Wright-Rios graphically points up the partially centrifugal tendencies of Oaxaca's Catholic pueblos, but also highlights the inherent tensions to the increasing lay and especially female presence in the spiritual associations and spirit of Catholic revival. With distinctly different outcomes, Bolaños and Narváez championed local apparitions and their conversion into regional devotional movements. Bolaños successfully navigated the clerical and organizational complexities necessary to success. But Narváez did not. These stories are wonderfully recounted and brought to bear on the whole question of the Mexican Church and its successful, if accident-filled, response to secular nation-state building and the perils of state-led development.

Wright-Rios has produced an elegantly written book that reflects a deep knowledge of colonial and national Mexican and Mexicanist historiography. This carefully researched and thoughtfully articulated study is a major contribution to the rethinking of Mexican Catholicism and Mexican Catholics in a country whose formal constitutions (1857, 1917) and political elites have been prevalently oriented to secular liberalism, national development and social reform since the mid-nineteenth century, and especially after the revolution of 1910.

Brian Connaughton
Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana
Mexico City, D.F., Mexico