this extremist form of Catholicism was the end result of decades of vicious persecution
The roots of religious extremism in Mexico
An experiment in radical secularism in 1920s Mexico caused a bitter reaction, the effects of which are felt to this day
Earlier during that week in 1994 I had a conversation with the dean of humanities. “Hall,” he asked me, smiling, “What do you think of the holocaust?” “It was terrible crime.” I replied. “Hall,” he said, “you know you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” I was horrified. Who was I working for? Who were these people?
A secret organisation called “the Owls” controlled the university. It was hard at work in my department. In exchange for a waiver of tuition fees one of the teachers had been recruited by the Owls and it was part of his job to report on his colleagues.
And now, I found myself standing in a huge dimly lit hall. Heavy red velvet drapes hung from either side of the stage. Staff, students and parents were on their feet, intoning the university song. They were singing about avenging the death of three murdered students. Hanging down over the stage was a drape – in the middle, the black emblem of a bird.
I had always known that this was a rightwing Catholic university, but what was with the torchlit ceremonies, the secret organisation, a dean of humanities who approved of the Holocaust. It was all too much.
I was head of English at one of the largest and oldest private universities in western central Mexico in 1994. Among other things the university had its very own first-division football team, a large university hospital that educated American citizens for work as doctors in the US, and a regional newspaper.
This was a prestigious and powerful organisation, but it had a secret history of Catholic extremism. Where did this extremism come from?
In 1926, president Plutarcho Elias Calles decided to introduce a new amendment to the constitution, enforcing existing restrictions on the role of religion in public life and limiting the civil rights of the clergy.
The result was an organised Catholic resistance. With the symbol of the Virgin of Guadalaupe as their banner the Catholic insurgents called out: “Viva Cristo Rey. Viva Santa María de Guadalupe!” And the Cristero revolt began in Mexico. And when Miguel Agustín Pro, a Jesuit priest, was accused of sabotage and shot by firing squad, the revolt gathered more momentum. After seven years of civil war and insurrection, as many as 250,000 people had been cruelly killed – most of them in western central Mexico.
Finally, an arrangement was reached and the government allowed the church and cathedrals to be reopened. Although the government killing and persecution of Catholics continued for a while, the civil war eventually tailed off. In 1934, however, Lazaro Cardenas re-opened old wounds when he announced that, from then on, all education in Mexico would be socialist and completely secular.
In the resulting protests against this declaration three students were killed in Guadalajara and this lead to the formation of a breakaway Catholic university: the one I was working in. The university was created in response to the persecution of Catholics by the state, at a time when the strongest opposition to socialism was inspired by fascism. Of course, I left that place as soon as I could and I am ashamed of ever having worked there. But I also left with a clear understanding that this extremist form of Catholicism was the end result of decades of vicious persecution.
The attempt in the 1920s and 1930s to eradicate Catholicism, and “modernise” Mexico from the top downwards backfired badly. It caused lasting damage to the whole of Mexican society, and far from debilitating Catholicism it strengthened it and entrenched it, sometimes in more extreme forms.
Currently, about 90% of the Mexican population describe themselves as Catholics. In May 2000 Mexico acquired 25 brand new saints – they were all martyrs of the Cristero wars.