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Cristero War

Related subjects Military History and War

Dead fighters in Manzanillo, Colima
Dead fighters in Manzanillo, Colima

The Cristero War (also known as the Cristiada) of 1926 to 1929 was an uprising and counter-revolution against the anti-Catholic Mexican government of the time, set off specifically by the anti-clerical provisions of the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

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

The 1917 Constitution

The Cristero War was brought about in reaction to the anti-clerical laws of the Constitution of 1917, and its anti-clerical interpretation by Plutarco Elías Calles
The Cristero War was brought about in reaction to the anti-clerical laws of the Constitution of 1917, and its anti-clerical interpretation by Plutarco Elías Calles

The 1917 Constitution of Mexico, resulting from the Mexican Revolution, as well as a similar one instituted by Benito Juarez in 1857 ( 1857 Constitution of Mexico), reflected a longstanding discontent among some Mexican leaders about what they considered abuses by the Catholic clergy. They believed that the Catholic hierarchy had a history of alignment with the wealthy classes at the expense of the poorest classes. This cause of the lower classes was one of the issues that generated the Mexican Revolution.

Five articles of the 1917 Constitution were particularly aimed at suppression of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican political and civil life. Article 3 mandated secular education in schools. Article 5 outlawed monastic religious orders. Article 24 forbade public religious worship outside temples (which included churches), while Article 27 restricted religious organizations' rights to own property. Finally, Article 130 took away basic civil rights of members of the clergy: priests and religious leaders were prevented from wearing their religious garb in public, were denied the right to vote, and were not permitted to comment on public affairs in the press.

The government's anticlerical position extended to secularizing place names. For instance, the state of Vera Cruz (true cross) was renamed Veracruz.

Background to rebellion

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

This uneasy "truce" between the government and the Church ended with the 1924 election of Plutarco Elías Calles, a strident atheist. Calles applied the anti-clerical laws stringently throughout the country and added his own anti-clerical legislation. In June 1926, he signed the "Law for Reforming the Penal Code", known unofficially as the " Calles Law". This provided specific penalties for priests and individuals who violated the provisions of the 1917 Constitution. For instance, wearing clerical garb in public (i.e., outside Church buildings) earned a fine of 500 pesos (approximately 250 U.S. dollars at the time); a priest who criticized the government could be imprisoned for five years. Some states enacted oppressive measures. Chihuahua, for example, enacted a law permitting only a single priest to serve the entire Catholic congregation of the state. Calles seized church property, expelled all foreign priests, and closed the monasteries, convents and religious schools.

Calles was also a Freemason. One scholar has written that on May 28, 1926, the Masons awarded him a medal of merit for his persecution of Catholics. On July 12, 1926, the following communique appeared in the press:

"International Masonry accepts responsibility for everything that is happening in Mexico, and is preparing to mobilize all its forces for the methodic, integral application of the agreed upon program for this country."

Peaceful resistance

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

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

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

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

Escalation of violence

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

The following day, August 4, in Sahuayo, Michoacán, 240 government soldiers stormed the parish church. The parish priest and his vicar were killed in the ensuing violence. On August 14, government agents staged a purge of the Chalchihuites, Zacatecas, chapter of the Association of Catholic Youth and executed their spiritual adviser Father Luis Bátiz Sainz. This execution caused a band of ranchers, led by Pedro Quintanar, to seize the local treasury and declare themselves in rebellion. At the height of their rebellion, they held a region including the entire northern part of Jalisco.

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

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

The Cristero war

The formal rebellion began on January 1, 1927 with a manifesto sent by Garza on New Year's Day, titled A la Nación (To the Nation). This declared that "the hour of battle has sounded" and "the hour of victory belongs to God". With the declaration, the state of Jalisco, which had seemed to be quiet since the Guadalajara church uprising, exploded. Bands of rebels moving in the "Los Altos" region northeast of Guadalajara began seizing villages, often armed with only ancient muskets and clubs. The Cristeros' battle cry was ¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! ("Long live Christ the King! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!"). The rebels were an unusual army in that they had no logistical supplies, and relied heavily on raids to towns, trains and ranches in order to supply themselves with money, horses, ammunition and food.

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

However, these rebels, who had had no previous military experience for the most part, planned their battles well. The most successful rebel leaders were Jesús Degollado (a druggist), Victoriano Ramírez (a ranch hand), and two priests, Aristeo Pedroza and José Reyes Vega. At least five priests took up arms, while many more supported them in various ways.

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

Whether the Cristeros' actions were or were not supported by the episcopate or the Pope has been a subject of controversy. Officially, the Mexican episcopate never supported the rebellion, but by several accounts, the rebels had the episcopate's acknowledgement that their cause was legitimate. The episcopate did not, in any event, condemn the rebels. Bishop José Francisco Orozco of Guadalajara remained with the rebels; while formally rejecting armed rebellion, he was unwilling to leave his flock. Many modern historians consider him to have been the real head of the movement.

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

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

The rebellion was given new life by the efforts of Victoriano Ramírez, generally known as "El Catorce" (the fourteen). Legend has it the nickname originated because during jailbreak he killed all fourteen members of the posse sent after him. He then sent a message to the mayor—his uncle—telling him that in the future he should send more men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diplomacy and the uprising

Before and after the successes had by the rebels and the support of Bishop Orozco, the Mexican bishops supported the Cristeros (this is in dispute- the only comprehensive history of this movement, "The Cristero Rebellion" indicates that with a couple of exceptions the episcopacy was hostile to the movement). The bishops were expelled from Mexico after Father Vega's attack on the train, but they continued to try to influence the war's outcome from outside the country.

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

Calles' term as president was coming to an end and president-elect Álvaro Obregón was scheduled to take office on December 1, 1927. Two weeks after his election, Obregón was assassinated by a Catholic radical, an event that gravely damaged the peace process.

Congress named Emilio Portes interim president in September 1928, with an election to be held in November 1929. Portes was more open to the Church than Calles had been, allowing Morrow and Burke to reinitiate their peace initiative. Portes told a foreign correspondent on May 1 that "the Catholic clergy, when they wish, may renew the exercise of their rites with only one obligation, that they respect the laws of the land."

The next day, exiled Archbishop Leopoldo Ruíz y Flores issued a statement the bishops would not demand the repeal of the laws, only their more lenient application.

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

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

The end of the Cristero War affected emigration to the United States. "In the aftermath of their defeat, many of the Cristeros — by some estimates as much as 5 percent of Mexico's population — fled to America. Many of them made their way to Los Angeles, where they found a protector in John Joseph Cantwell, the bishop of what was then the Los Angeles-San Diego diocese." (Rieff, David. "Nuevo Catholics." The New York Times Magazine, 24 Dec. 2006.) The officers, fearing that they would be tried as traitors, tried to keep the rebellion alive. This attempt failed and many were captured and shot, while others escaped to San Luis Potosí, where General Saturnino Cedillo gave them refuge.

On June 27, 1929, the church bells rang in Mexico for the first time in almost three years. The war had claimed the lives of some 90,000 people: 56,882 on the federal side, 30,000 Cristeros, and numerous civilians and Cristeros who were killed in anticlerical raids after the war's end. As promised by Portes Gil, the Calles Law remained on the books, but no organized federal attempts to enforce it took place. Nonetheless, in several localities, officials continued persecution of Catholic priests based on their interpretation of the law. As of 2008, the anticlerical provisions of the Constitution remain although they are no longer implemented.

Toll on the Church

The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. Where there were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, in 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people. The rest had been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination. By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all.

Cristero War saints

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

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

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

The Catholic Church has declared thirteen additional victims of the anti-Catholic regime as martyrs, thus paving the way to their beatification. This group was mostly lay people, including the 14-year-old José Sánchez del Río. Since they were lay people, they were considered able to have taken up arms, but their histories had to show that they armed in self-defense. On November 20, 2005 at Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins celebrated the beatification of these 13 martyrs.

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