The Americas 59.1 (2002) 9-32
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Keeping The Faith In Revolutionary Mexico:
Clerical and Lay Resistance to Religious Persecution, East Michoacan, 1926-1929*
University of Cambridge
This article analyses the character of local religious practice in the archdiocese of Michoacán during Mexico's cristero rebellion, and explores the relationship between 'official' and 'popular' religion under persecution. 1 In particular, it shows how the Catholic clergy and laity reconstructed the religious life at parish level in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the revolutionary state's campaigns against the Church. For a variety of reasons, the significance of such passive resistance to the state, and the complexity of the interaction between the ecclesiastical elite and the Catholic laity, tend to be downplayed in many existing accounts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many historians see cristero violence as the most important response to religious persecution, and therefore study it to the exclusion of alternative, less visible, modes of resistance. 2 As for the Church, the hierarchy's wranglings with the regime similarly tend to overshadow the labours of priests and their parishioners under persecution. 3 But the full range of popular experiences has also been deliberately compressed for ideological [End Page 9] reasons. Many Catholic writers, for instance, seek to exalt the Church by describing a persecution of mythical ferocity. While Calles is likened to Herod, Nero, or Diocletian, the clergy and laity comprise a uniform Church of martyrs designate in revolt against a godless state. To achieve this instructive vision, however, a few exemplary martyrs—such as Father Pro and Anacleto González Flores—are allowed to stand for the whole mass of priests and believers, in the same way that Edmund Campion is revered as the protomartyr of the Elizabethan persecution in England. 4 As a result, a stereotypical but politically serviceable image of a monolithic Church is perpetuated, an image which was recently institutionalised by the canonisation of 25 'cristero' martyrs in May 2000. 5
The complexity of popular resistance to religious persecution also eludes writers sympathetic to the Revolution, who depict a reactionary warrior priesthood leading the people blindly into revolt. This simplistic charge, advanced to shore up the Revolution's legitimist claims, is rightly rejected by Jean Meyer, who stresses that the revolt was the work of the people. Yet Meyer soon falls into traps of his own making. Ever disposed to lionise the cristeros while besmirching the institutional Church, Meyer denies that any meaningful relationship between people and their priests existed under persecution. On the contrary, Meyer accuses a self-serving clergy of 'abandoning' the faithful. According to Meyer, 3,500 parish clergymen fled to the cities during the cristero revolt, while just 110—of whom 90 were martyred—remained in country parishes. 6 If Meyer's figures are correct, then only 20 priests remained in the whole countryside by 1929, which seems unlikely given that similar numbers were ministering in east Michoacán alone at this time. In fact, Meyer's figures are wildly inaccurate, for if few priests donned hair shirts and sought martyrdom with the same desire as Padre Pro, many remained in their parishes and endured persecution as best they could. The case of the archbishop of Guadalajara—who took to the sierra with his missal, typewriter, and revolver 7 —was hardly unique. [End Page 10]
Despite these polemical touches, traditional accounts agree that religion was central to popular opposition to the revolutionary state. The debate, such as it is, concerns the merit of religious belief itself and the positive or negative influence of the Catholic Church in Mexican history. By contrast, recent scholarship plays down the religious factor and explains popular opposition to the state in terms of structural changes affecting rural society. In these accounts, patterns of revolt are mapped on to local changes in agrarian relations and political practice, and matters of religion are relegated to the superstructural realm. Jennie Purnell contends that many cristeros rebelled in defence of village property rights which were threatened by revolutionary agrarianism...