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History of Roman Catholicism in Mexico

This article deals with the history of Roman Catholicism in post-independence Mexico (1821- ). The United Mexican States is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States of America; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Covering almost two million square kilometres (over 760,000 sq mi), Mexico is the fifth largest country in the Americas by total area and the thirteenth largest independent nation in the world. The 2010 census by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía gave Roman Catholicism as the main religion, with 82.7% of the population.

Benito Juárez

Following the revolution of 1860, Freemason President Benito Juárez issued a decree nationalizing Church property, separating Church and state, and suppressing religious institutes.


The Mexican Constitution of 1824 had required the Republic to prohibit the exercise of any religion other than the Roman Catholic and Apostolic faith.[1]

Reform War

Main article: Reform War

Starting in 1855, US-backed President[citation needed] Benito Juárez issued decrees nationalizing church property, separating church and state, and suppressing religious institutes. Church properties were confiscated and basic civil and political rights were denied to religious institutes and the clergy. The Church supported the regime of Juárez's successor, Porfirio Diaz, who was opposed to land reform.

The first of the Liberal Reform Laws were passed in 1855. The Juárez Law, named after Benito Juárez, restricted clerical privileges, specifically the authority of Church courts,[2] by subverting their authority to civil law. It was conceived of as a moderate measure, rather than abolish church courts altogether. However, the move opened latent divisions in the country. Archbishop Lázaro de la Garza in Mexico City condemned the Law as an attack on the Church itself, and clerics went into rebellion in the city of Puebla in 1855-56.[3] Other laws attacked the privileges traditionally enjoyed by the military, which was significant since the military had been instrumental in putting and keeping Mexican governments in office since Emperor Agustín de Iturbide in the 1820s.[2]

The next Reform Law was called the Lerdo Law, after Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. Under this new law, the government began to confiscate Church land.[2] This proved to be considerably more controversial than the Juárez Law. The purpose of the law was to convert lands held by corporate entities such as the Church into private property, favoring those who already lived on it. It was thought that such would encourage development and the government could raise revenue by taxing the process.[3] Lerdo de Tejada was the Minister of Finance and required that the Church sell much of its urban and rural land at reduced prices. If the Church did not comply, the government would hold public auctions. The Law also stated that the Church could not gain possession of properties in the future. However, the Lerdo Law did not apply only to the Church. It stated that no corporate body could own land. Broadly defined, this would include ejidos, or communal land owned by Indian villages. Initially, these ejidos were exempt from the law, but eventually these Indian communities suffered and extensive loss of land.[2]

By 1857, additional anti-clerical legislation, such as the Iglesias Law (named after José María Iglesias) regulated the collection of clerical fees from the poor and prohibited clerics from charging for baptisms, marriages, or funeral services.[4] Marriage became a civil contract, although no provision for divorce was authorized. Registry of births, marriages and deaths became a civil affair, with President Benito Juárez registering his newly-born son in Veracruz. The number of religious holidays was reduced and several holidays to commemorate national events introduced. Religious celebrations outside churches was forbidden, use of church bells restricted and clerical dress was prohibited in public.[5]

One other significant Reform Law was the Law for the Nationalization of Ecclesiastical Properties, which would eventually secularize nearly all of the country’s monasteries and convents. The government had hoped that this law would bring in enough revenue to secure a loan from the United States but sales would prove disappointing from the time it was passed all the way to the early 20th century.[5]

Porfirio Diaz

During the period of 1876 to 1911, relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Mexican government were stable.

Porfirio Díaz, the President of Mexico during most of this period, was worried about the United States expansionist threat. Díaz has been quoted as saying:

“Persecution of the Church, whether or not the clergy enters into the matter, means war, and such a war, the Government can win it only against its own people through the humiliating, despotic, costly and dangerous support of the United States. Without its religion, Mexico is irretrievably lost.”

Díaz strengthened the Mexican government ties with the Catholic Church with an agreement formulated in 1905. The Church’s influence over Mexico transcended due to the amount of changes that occurred while Díaz was in power. These institutional reforms included: administrative reorganization, improved training of the laity, the expansion of the Catholic press, an expansion of Roman Catholic education, and the growth of Church’s influence in rural areas. The lack of enforcement of anti-clerical laws by Díaz can also be attributed to the profound influence of his wife, who was a devout Catholic.

Mexican Revolution

Main article: Mexican Revolution

Early Stages

After Francisco Madero’s victory over Porfirio Díaz, he continued to have close ties with the Catholic Church. As the Mexican Revolution progressed, the Constitutionalists of Venustiano Carranza denounced clerical involvement in Mexican governmental affairs. They protested that they were not persecuting the Catholic religion but wanted to reduce the Church’s political influence. The Constitutionalists did not at first take any formal action.

Constitutionalists take action (1914)

Álvaro Obregón and the Constitutionalists eventually took active measures to reduce the profound influence of the Catholic Church. On 19 May 1914, Obregón's forces sentenced Bishop Andrés Segura and other clerical officials to jail for eight years because of their participation in a revolt. While Obregón was in control of Mexico City during February 1915, he ordered the Church to pay 500,000 pesos to alleviate the suffering of poor Mexicans.

Venustiano Carranza assumed the presidency on 1 May 1915. Carranza and his followers felt that the clergy was turning people against him by spreading propaganda. Soon after, Carranaza took total control of Mexico and developed a new Constitution with the intention of diminishing the Church’s political sway and power within Mexico.

Mexican National Catholic Church

[citation needed]

Distinct from the nation’s Roman Catholic Church, the Mexican National Church emerged during the Revolution, when antagonisms against the Church of Rome were aroused in reaction to its historic association with the Spanish colonialists. Some of the first laws of the new Mexican Republic were antireligious. In 1917, all Church properties were nationalized, many churches were closed, monasteries were abolished and the communities dispersed, and clergymen were required to obtain licenses to function—measures not unlike those imposed at the same time as a result of the Russian Revolution. Several attempts were made to establish a “national church.” In 1926, a Roman Catholic priest, with government support, was made head of the Independent Old Catholic Church of North America, and the Mexican National Catholic Church was founded.

The community thrived under the patronage of the government, and at once extended its jurisdiction to Mexican communities in Texas. The National Church continued as an “Old Catholic” community until Father José Cortes y Olmos was appointed its bishop in 1961. He and his clergy gradually became convinced, through study and reflection, that the Old Catholic ecclesiological principles did not conform to the criteria of the One, True, Catholic Church. They came to identify with Orthodox Holy Tradition, and adopted the designation “Iglesia Ortodoxa Catolica en Mexicao” (Orthodox Church in Mexico).

In 1965, Bishop José and his clergy contacted the then-rector of Saint Seraphim Church in Dallas, TX, Father Dmitri Royster, who had been instrumental in converting many Mexicans to Orthodoxy and was translating Orthodox liturgical services into Spanish. After Father Dimitri’s consecration to the episcopacy in 1969 and the granting of autocephaly the following year, Bishop Dmitri presented the case of the Orthodox Church in Mexico to the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church in America. As a result of numerous exchanges and visits, the Holy Synod sent Bishop Dmitri to visit Mexico officially and to report on his findings. This report was studied by the OCA’s Department of Canonical Affairs, which recommended acceptance of the Mexican communities into the Orthodox Church.

In 1971, Bishop José petitioned for the acceptance of his community into the Orthodox Church in America. He and other priests of his community were received in their Roman Catholic rank of priest, while an estimated ten to twenty thousand faithful were also received into the Orthodox Christian faith.

1917 Mexican Constitution

File:Escena de Viernes Santo en pleno siglo XX, del archivo del Presbítero mexicano Jesús María Rodríguez †.jpg
"Good Friday scene in the midst of the 20th century," from the archive of the Mexican priest Jesús María Rodríguez.

Following the revolution of 1910, anti-clerical elements were included in 1917 Mexican Constitution. Five elements in the Constitution were aimed at reducing the Catholic Church’s influence in Mexican domestic affairs. Article 3 enforced secular education in Mexican schools. Monastic vows and institutes were outlawed in Article 5. Article 24 prevented public worship outside the confines of the Church buildings. According to article 27, "religious institutions were denied the right to acquire, hold, or administer real property." Furthermore, all real estate held by religious institutions through third parties like hospitals, schools, was declared national property. Finally, in article 130, it declared all basic civil responsibilities like voting or commenting on public affairs was taken away from Church officials. The Mexican government was extremely harsh in their attempt to eliminate the Catholic Church’s legal existence in Mexico. The stern premises of the 1917 Constitution contributed to the rise of resentment between the church and state.

Cristero War

Main article: Cristero War

Following the revolution of 1910, the new Mexican Constitution of 1917 contained further anti-clerical provisions. Article 3 called for secular education in the schools and prohibited the Church from engaging in primary education; Article 5 outlawed monastic orders; Article 24 forbade public worship outside the confines of churches; and Article 27 placed restrictions on the right of religious organizations to hold property. Most obnoxious to Catholics was Article 130, which deprived clergy members of basic political rights.

For eight years after these provisions were instituted, they were not rigorously enforced by the Mexican government. This changed in 1926 when Plutarco Elías Calles reinforced laws to decrease clerical power. In June 1926, Calles recognized a decree often referred to as “Calles Law.” Under this provision, Article 130 of the 1917 Mexican Constitution was re-established. Church officials were upset by the suddenness of Calles’ decision. The regulation, which annoyed the Catholic Church, was Article 19, which decreed the compulsory registration of the clergy, for it allowed the Government to hand over churches.

More severe laws called Calles Law during the rule of atheist Plutarco Elías Calles eventually led to the Cristero War.[6]

The suppression of the Church included the closing of many churches and the killing and forced marriage of priests. The persecution was most severe in Tabasco under the atheist governor Tomás Garrido Canabal.

Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles's enforcement of previous anti-Catholic legislation denying priests' rights, enacted as the Calles Law, prompted the Mexican Episcopate to suspend all Catholic worship in Mexico from 1 August 1926 and sparked the bloody Cristero War of 1926–1929, in which some 50,000 peasants took up arms against the government. Their slogan was "Viva Cristo Rey!" ("Long live Christ the King!").

The Catholic Church took a stand against the Mexican government. The internal political dissension became a concern for all Mexicans since the regulations imposed by Calles reduced the Catholic Church's influence. The disagreement turned violent when over five thousand Cristeros initiated an armed rebellion. The Mexican government and the Catholic Church engaged in bloody battle which lasted for a three-year period.

Some of the Catholic casualties of this struggle are known as the Saints of the Cristero War.[7][8] Events relating to this were famously portrayed in the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.[9][10] The persecution of Catholics was most severe in the state of Tabasco under the Governor Tomás Garrido Canabal[citation needed]. Under the rule of Garrido many priests were killed, all Churches in the state were closed and priests who still survived were forced to marry or flee at risk of losing their lives[citation needed].

The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed.[7] Between 1926 and 1934, over 3,000 priests were exiled or assassinated.[11][12]

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 15 million people, the rest having been eliminated by emigration, expulsion, and assassination.[7][13] The persecution was such that by 1935, 17 states were left with no priests at all.[14]

In an effort to prove that "God would not defend the Church", Calles ordered "hideous desecration of churches ... there were parodies of (church) services, nuns were raped and any priests captured ... were shot ...".[6] Calles presidential period ended[6] and despite the persecution, the Church in Mexico continued to grow. A 2000 census reported that 88 percent of Mexicans identify as Catholic.[15]


  1. ^ Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States (1824) Article 3.
  2. ^ a b c d Kirkwood, Burton (2000). History of Mexico. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-4039-6258-4. 
  3. ^ a b Hamnett, Brian R (1999). Concise History of Mexico. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press. p. 162. ISBN 0-521-58120-6. 
  4. ^ Kirkwood, Burton (2000). History of Mexico. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated. pp. 101–192. ISBN 978-1-4039-6258-4. 
  5. ^ a b Hamnett, Brian R (1999). Concise History of Mexico. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press. pp. 163–164. ISBN 0-521-58120-6. 
  6. ^ a b c Chadwick, A History of Christianity (1995), pp. 264–5
  7. ^ a b c Van Hove, Brian Blood-Drenched Altars Faith & Reason 1994
  8. ^ Mark Almond (1996) Revolution: 500 Years of Struggle For Change: 136-7
  9. ^ Barbara A. Tenenbaum and Georgette M. Dorn (eds.), Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture (New York: Scribner's, 1996).
  10. ^ Stan Ridgeway, "Monoculture, Monopoly, and the Mexican Revolution" Mexican Studies / Estudios Mexicanos 17.1 (Winter, 2001): 143.
  11. ^ Scheina, Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo (2003), p. 33
  12. ^ Van Hove, Brian (1994). "Blood Drenched Altars". EWTN. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  13. ^ Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899 p. 33 (2003 Brassey's) ISBN 1-57488-452-2
  14. ^ Ruiz, Ramón Eduardo Triumphs and Tragedy: A History of the Mexican People p.393 (1993 W. W. Norton & Company) ISBN 0-393-31066-3
  15. ^ "International Religious Freedom Report 2001" (PDF). US Department of State. 2001. Retrieved 2008-03-13.