This is an excellent paper on our buddies, our heroes, the Cristeros! Miss Scott makes her point: The 'Cristiada' Cristero Rebellion of the 1920s in Mexico was a lay movement. The Catholic Church officially and openly opposed it, even though the movement was dedicated to saving the Church in Mexico.
There is a theme which recurs down thru the centuries....from the common people of the 4th century who joined with Athanasius 'against the world' of Catholic bishops and kept the Church from embracing Arianism, to the English peasants of the 'Pilgrimage of Grace' who stood up for their Faith when priests and Bishops had long since surrendered ...on up to the brave Cristeros of the 1920s who saved the Church in Mexico from complete annihilation: The Church needs the laity, the 'sensus fidelium', to hold her true to her mission, to save her! Do not be discouraged when our bishops and priests are mealy-mouthed or scared or just plain traitors ---better people than we have endured this very same tragedy! And believe it, sisters and brothers.... those people intercede for us now at God's altar!
We need the clergy to get us into heaven, but God does not force them to go there with us! When our leaders wobble then we must do all the more to make the Church's mission and her saving message clear and never, ever expect a pat on the back from some well-heeled cleric.
We must only hope to hear 'well done' from ..............................One!
"“without their [ the Bishops'] permission and without their orders we are throwing ourselves into this blessed struggle for our liberty, and without their permission and without their orders we will go on until we conquer or die.”
(members of the Quintanar brigade, 1928)
Viva Cristo Rey!
The Many Faces of the Cristero Rebellion
Sonya Leigh Scott
Sonya Leigh Scott, a member of Phi Alpha Theta, is a graduate student in history from Champaign, IL.
She wrote this paper for Dr. José Deustua in History 5400, Latin America, during the fall of 2008.
The power struggle simmering between the Catholic Church and the
Mexican national government erupted with Catholic bishops and priests
suspending religious worship in protest of the anticlerical policies of the
Calles administration on July 31, 1926.197 President Plutarco Elias Calles
called for “submission to the law,” known as Calles Law, that implemented
anticlerical conditions set forth in the Constitution of 1917.198 Laws that
controlled property rights in Article 27 of the Constitution forbade Church
ownership of property and limited foreign ownership. All land served the
public interest by the protection of communal rights of indigenous groups
and redistribution of land under control of a strong national government.199
Under Calles’ Law, the government nationalized all church buildings,
outlawed religious houses, banned public religious functions, and required
priests to register in order to avoid severe fines or imprisonment.200
Examination of the Cristero Rebellion as simply a conflict between
church and state misses the many faces, or nuances, that surrounded the
uprising. In the work of historians from Jean Meyer, in the 1970s, to
Ramon Jrade in the 1980s, and more recently the works of Jennie Purnell
and Adrian Bantjes, reveals a multilayered portrait of the rebellion. The
secular nature and the anticlerical position of the Calles administration are
clear. What proves more complex, however, is how the conflict is defined.
Was the rebellion a “holy war” with religious motivations? Was the
conflict based in an economic struggle between a variety of peasant groups
and the policies of a strong national government? Was the rebellion the
culmination of long-standing grievances between the Church and the state?
Or, as Purnell suggests, was the rebellion the articulation of factional
conflicts between various communities that included economic, political,
regional, and community concerns?201
This paper examines the complexities of the Cristero Rebellion,
exploring the motivations of the many factions that emerged on both sides
of the conflict and the many faces of the participants. The rebellion cannot
197 Matthew Butler, “The ‘Liberal’ Cristero: Ladislao Molina and the Cristero Rebellion in
Michoacan, 1927-9.” Journal of Latin American Studies 31, no. 3 (October, 1999): 645; Jennie
Purnell, Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and
Cristeros of Michoacan (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 72.
198 Purnell, 76.
199 Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico (New York and London: W.W. Norton &
Company, 2004), 272; Purnell, 76.
200Matthew Butler, “The Church in ‘Red Mexico’: Michoacan Catholics and the Mexican
Revolution, 1920-1929,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 55, no. 3 (July, 2004): 530.
201 Purnell, 3.
be characterized as purely a battle between two dominating forces. Like
much of Mexican history, the story of the rebellion is one of continuing
struggle for political, economic, and regional autonomy among a variety of
groups. Indeed, the portrait of the Cristero Rebellion has many facets, each
with its own interests, ideologies, hopes, and dreams.
The Face of the State
In 1925, Tobasco cacique Tomas Garrido Canabal criticized
Catholic clerics and stated that “’the cassocked vultures have seized their
prey, digging their talons into the heart of the Indian, who is less prepared
than any other race to resist the seduction of the whole ritual farse.’”202
President Plutarco Elias Calles, like Canabal, believed that the power of the
Church obstructed modernization and that he must eliminate the power of
the Church and its domination of the peasantry.203 Calles wanted absolute
control and was suspicious of the politicization of the Church after the
creation of a fairly successful Catholic Party in 1912. Although the party
had dissolved, Calles sought to rid Mexico of the potential for Church
The origins of the ideology of de-fanaticization were found in
radical liberalism of the nineteenth-century scientific positivism, Marxism,
and Protestantism. Mexican revolutionaries understood the revolution as
more than an economic struggle, but also one of spirituality. They
considered religion, like many of their Russian counterparts, a “drug” and
the “Catholic ritual […] a seductive trick designed to exploit ignorant
peasants ‘hallucinated by floats, adorned with clouds, little angels, chalices
and all the artiface the clergy uses to cheat them out of their last penny.’”204
They clerics accused of sustaining the “backwards” nature of rural
peasantry and presenting an obstacle to the formation of a modern state.
However, the development of a secular state was not the only
motivation for Calles’ actions toward the Church. Following the February
1926 proclamation of the “primate of Mexico” in which he “repeated a 1917
declaration that the Church did not recognize the constitution,” Calles
proceeded to fully implement all the provisions of the Constitution
regarding the Church.205 He called for “submission to the law” that would
be required anywhere and explained that this did not indicate the
‘decatholicisation’ of Mexico.206 The Church antagonized Calles who
202 Manifesto a los obreros organizados de la republica y al elemento revolucionario
(Villehermosa, Tabasco, 1925), 9-10 in Adrian A. Bantjes, “Idolatry and Iconoclasm in
Revolutionary Mexico: The De-Christianization Campaigns, 1929-1940.” Mexican
Studies/Estidios Mexicanos 13, no. 1. (Winter, 1997): 94.
203 Butler, 520.
204Guanajuato Veccinos Moroleon, to Sec. Gob., 31 December 1934, DGG 2.347, exp.
2.347(8)15257, AGN in Bantjes, 96.
205 Butler, Church, 521.
already sought its end, or at least minimizing its strong presence in
The State sought to end what they believed to be the hegemony of
the Church over the Mexican people, in particular, indigenous and rural
populations. In order to modernize, the secular state must rid Mexico of
fanaticism and mysticism that kept the people ‘backwards’ and without a
national identity. The Mexican government wanted absolute control over
the social, cultural, economic, and political lives of the people, and the
Church was considered a significant obstacle.
The Face of the Church
The Catholic Church, although present in the daily life of many
Mexicans and a fixture in many rural communities, was noticeably absent
from the rebellion. The majority of priests, according to Jean Meyer, were
quite hostile to the cristeros. Meyer found that in January 1927, out of 3,600
priests, only five were participated in the rebellion. One hundred priests
were “actively hostile,” sixty-five were neutral but provided support to the
cristeros, forty were “actively favorable,” and 3,600 priests left their
parishes.207 The Vatican had forbade bishops and priests aiding the
insurgents and demanded that they follow the law of the land. Many feared
persecution as priests had been attacked and murdered and so fled to the
cities or went into hiding in the hinterlands of Mexico under the protection
of their parishes.208
Mexican clerics suspended of worship on 31 July, 1926, in order to
encourage private worship. This was “an attempt to put the sacraments
and the clergy beyond the reach of civil law.”209 However, the “majority of
clergy withdrew from rural areas and sought refuge in the big towns under
the control of the Government.”210 Not only did the majority of priests
withdraw from their parishes, they encouraged nonviolence, patience, and
humility. According to Aurelio Acevedo, one of the cristero rebels, “the very
Fathers forbade us to fight for Christ, for the religion our fathers taught us
and then reaffirmed for us in baptism, confirmation and our first
communion.”211 Many priests offered sermons opposing the cristeros, calling
them ‘cattle-thieves’ and discouraging parishioners from participation in
A few priests, such as Fr. Adolfo Arroyo, the vicar of Valparaiso,
stayed with his parishioners and joined the rebellion in defense of the
Church. Fr. Arroyo criticized his fellow priests and wrote, “The
overwhelming majority of the bishops and priests, displaying a criminal
207 Meyer, 75.
208 Ibid. 69.
209 Butler, 531.
210 Meyer, 70.
211 Interview of Meyer with Aurelio Acevedo, in Meyer, Cristeros, 70.
degree of conformism, wallowed in an accursed inertia, all expecting sheer
miracle from Heaven to give liberty to the Church.” They were content to
give exhortations and say a few prayers. The priests had recourse to
theology and, without further consideration, announced the illicit nature of
the violent struggle in defence of the Church.213 Msgr. Gonzalez y
Valencia, Archbishop of Durango wrote in a pastoral letter on February 11,
1927, “We never provoked this armed movement. But now that this
movements exists, and all peaceful means have been exhausted, to our
Catholic sons who have risen in arms for the defence of their social and
religious rights … we must say: be tranquil in your consciences and receive
Because of Vatican-issued orders that bishops and priests abandon
their parishes and spiritual duties, and submit to the mandates of the
Constitution, priests rarely supported the rebellion. Fear of persecution
and death also created a barrier to clerical support, although many priests
found ways to remain with their parishioners as spiritual leaders and
conduct the sacraments covertly. The face of the Church was not
represented among the cristeros, only the presence of a few priests who felt
they could not and would not abandon their charges. If the rebellion was a
conflict between the Church and the state, the Church was missing.
The Faces of the Cristeros
In ideological, socioeconomic, and geographical terms, the cristeros
were the most diverse of all the actors in the rebellion. They were, in other
words, not engaged in a large collective action, rather the cristeros
represented numerous causes and concerns, not all of which were religious.
Jennie Purnell writes that “communities did not rebel en masse during the
cristiada unless revolutionary anticlericalism and agrarianism attacked local
resources, values, and institutions that had been successfully defended until
the revolution itself.”215 In fact, the peasants were deeply divided on the
issue of rebellion and their opinions reflected their economic interests, the
impact of agrarian reform on their villages and towns, and their feelings
toward local authorities. Although various communities and factions
shared religious beliefs, there were differing political viewpoints.216 The
rebellion acquired the name cristero because of the battle cry “¡Viva Cristo
Rey!” and not necessarily because they shared a single view.217
213Archives of Aurelio Acevedo, notes on the religious persecution, armed defense, and
agreements, by Fr. Adolfo Arroyo, MS of 8 pp., 24 January 1934, in Meyer, Cristeros, 69-70.
214 “Outside the Flaminian Gate,” pastoral letter of Msgr. Gonzalez y Valencia, 11 February
1927. Original sheet in the possession of Jean Meyer (double sheet written on recto and verso),
in Meyer, Cristeros, 67.
215 Purnell, 19.
216 Ibid. 8.
217Ramon Jrade, “Inquiries into the Cristero Insurrection against the Mexican Revolution.” Latin
American Research Review 20, no. 2. (1985): 54.
Some cristeros engaged in rebellion for purely political and
economic reasons. Ladislao Molina, a large landowner in Michoacan, did
not demonstrate any religious motivation, and was known to embrace
liberal ideology first, and Catholicism second.218 According to Jose Perez, a
delegate to the National League for the Defence of Religious Liberty
(LNDLR), writing to his superiors, “he is not a cristero: whilst he is a
Catholic, he is also a liberal, and does not fight for the same reasons as the
Catholics. He has his own point of view, but it is personal.”219 In the case of
Molina, and most likely others like him, “Catholicism served as a dissident
ideology for resisting state encroachments on his sphere of influence.”220
Some of the cristeros focused their revolutionary efforts on the local
agraristas who benefited from Cardenas-era land reforms.221 Agrarian land
reform created sporadic problems throughout Mexico as villages and towns
lost territorial autonomy. However, the problem for the cristeros did not
necessarily revolve around the agraristas, it revolved around religion with
political overtones. Cristero Jose Gonzalez Romo wrote in a letter to
agrarista Jesus Morfin, “Tell the agraristas that we are not fighting them
because they are agraristas, but because they support the tyrant who is
trying to wipe out the religion of our country and hand us over to the
Protestant Gringos.”222 Government control over land distribution often
meant foreign ownership and control, the previous statement suggests that
some cristeros saw a connection between elimination of the Catholic Church,
and the introduction of liberal, state-controlled, and foreign-based
Despite the economic and political tones of the rebellion, defense of
religion still motivated many of the cristeros. Because of their commitment
to Church restoration, they often defied the Church’s instruction to obey
the laws and observe restraint and non-violence. In a letter to the parish
priest, the Quintanar Brigade wrote, “without their permission and without
their orders we are throwing ourselves into this blessed struggle for our
liberty, and without their permission and without their orders we will go on
until we conquer or die.”223 Many cristeros “believed they were fighting a
‘holy war’ against an anticlerical government frequently depicted as the
218 Butler, 645.
219 Archivo Aurelio Robles Acevedo, Mexico City, caja 20/expediente 90/foja 14117, Perez to
Guerrero, Morelia, 22 February 1929, in Butler, Molina, 646.
220 Butler, 649.
221 James Krippner-Martinez, “Invoking ‘Tato Vasco’: Vasco de Quiroga, Eighteenth –
Twentieth Centuries,” The Americas 56, no. 3. (January, 2000): 23.
222 Archives of the Society of Jesus, Mexican Province, 9 April 1929 in Meyer, Cristeros, 107.
223 Archives of Aurelio Acevedo; collective letter of the Quintanar Brigade to the parish priest of
Mesquitic, Norberto Reyes, in Meyer, Cristeros, 71.
224 Javier Villa-Flores, “Religion, Politics, and Salvation: Latin American Millenarian
Movements,” Radical History Review Issue 99 (Fall, 2007): 246.
According to Javier Villa-Flores, during periods of “accelerated
cultural, political, and economic change,” increased religious and spiritual
participation is common.225 He suggests that the cristeros, in response to
crisis, mobilized around a religious belief that served as a source of
motivation.226 Alliances and grassroots defense of the Church solidified in
response to the rapid changes the government attempted to impose.227 In
fact, cristeros were not only found in peasant communities and rural villages,
but in urban areas as well, although their character and composition were
In the cities, large urban networks formed. They engaged in
clandestine operations collecting taxes for supplies, obtaining ammunition
and food to sustain the rebels, and formed elaborate communication
networks. Workers and artisans, along with professionals filled the urban
ranks of the cristeros. Women played a critical role as cristeros. They carried
messages, ammunition, obtained and delivered food, among many other
duties, at great peril.228 What united the cristeros was their need to cope
with and respond to government controls over every aspect of their lives.
Government attacks against the Church mobilized the cristeros. The
Church, in many ways, was the symbol of autonomy, of cultural identity, an
institution that sustained the people through decades of turmoil.
The question remains, after this short discussion of the actors of
the Cristero Rebellion, was this a conflict based on religion, or was it more
a conflict between competing factions based on economic and political
interests? We have seen that the Church as an institution played a very
minor role, if any role at all. We have also seen that economics and local
interests figured strongly in mobilizing the cristeros as in the ongoing
conflict between the agraristas and the peasants. Agrarian and land reform
provided much of the fuel for the cristiada.
Religion served as a common denominator mobilizing the lower and
middle class against the elite. Devotion to the church bound diverse antigovernment
sentiments, and the government’s action against the Church
and religious freedom were springboards that propelled the cristiada. In the
Cristero Rebellion a variety of concerns converged, and the Church served
as a symbol and catalyst for anti-government expression. The desire of the
government to inflict its control over Mexican life and create a new
national identity based on secular terms intensified the commitment of
many Catholics to practice their religion, with or without clerical guidance
225 Ibid. 243.
226 Ibid. 242.
227 Butler, 525.
228 Meyer, 95, 128-130.