Catholicism in Modern Mexico

Brian A. Stauffer is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Before embarking on his Apostolic Visit to Mexico in February of 2016, Pope Francis said, in an interview, he would come “as a pilgrim, to look for something among the Mexican people. I come to seek the wealth of faith that you have.” The statement was notable for how it inverted our notions about the direction of religious influence between Europe and the Americas. If Spanish conquerors framed their sixteenth-century invasion of Mexico as a campaign to bring Christianity to Indians, the first Latin American head of the global Church came to Mexico in search of a faith that is rapidly on the decline in its former European homeland. The Church may be headquartered in Rome, but its heart is in places like Mexico, whose ninety-eight million believers make it the world’s second most Catholic nation, after Brazil.

That Mexican faith is no copy of its European parent religion. In the same February interview, Francis praised Mexican religious “idiosyncrasy.” That idiosyncrasy was forged over a long history associated with the pains of conquest and colonialism, but also with a Mexicanization that allowed Catholicism to withstand repeated institutional and religious crises associated with modernity and the break with Spain in 1821. The faith survived the Reforma, the liberal secularizing program spearheaded by lawyer and president Benito Juárez in the mid-nineteenth century; it weathered Church-state conflict after the Revolution of 1910; and it endured intense state persecution and the bloody Cristero conflict of the 1920s and 1930s. In our time, it has retained its pull on Mexican hearts and minds in the face of Protestant proselytizing, neoliberal social dislocation, and the trudging advance of secularization worldwide, and diasporic Mexican devotions are reshaping religious culture in the U,S.

The books on this list help explain how an imported and imposed religion succeeded, despite its attacks by the Mexican state over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The vast literature on the Mexican Church in the modern period is growing at an impressive clip, stimulated by the opening of ecclesiastical archives to secular historians in the 1990s. This list reveals how a diverse, internally fragmented faith was remarkably inclusive and responsive to local realities. The Catholicism portrayed here is historically dynamic, unlike the backwards and monolithic Church depicted by earlier scholars. The books included focus especially on the realm of belief and practice among ordinary people, for it is among ordinary Mexicans, acolytes of the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe or the miraculous Christ of Chalma, that the pilgrim pope sought his devotional wealth.

Places to Start

The Virgin of Guadalupe is Mexico’s most visible and potent religious icon, and so deeply is the cult entangled with the country’s identity that the term “Guadalupano/a” can be another name for “Mexican.” There are thousands of books about Guadalupe, but Brading’s centuries-spanning theological and intellectual history shows how successive generations of acolytes and skeptics forged, debated, and transformed the Dark Virgin of Tepeyac and continuously remade Mexico in the process.

The Guadalupan shrine at Tepayac is just one node of a larger network of holy places and miraculous images in Mexico, as Taylor’s accessible and important book reminds us. Taylor introduces readers to overlooked devotions like the Cristo Renovado and the Virgen de Remedios, and raises intriguing questions about how historians use images as sources. The essays collected within skew to the colonial period, but their nuanced exploration of sacred immanence in religious icons and their analysis of changes and continuities in the faith after independence excavate the cultural bedrock upon which modern Mexican Catholicism was built.

Digging In

Nineteenth-century Yucatán is commonly remembered as the site of the bloody “Caste War” of 1847-1901, in which indigenous Maya rebels, guided by a speaking crucifix, attempted to throw off the yoke of Ladino (non-Indian) governance and establish an autonomous state based in the fortress/shrine city of Chan Santa Cruz. Yet Terry Rugeley shows that Yucatecan Catholicism also provided a shared cultural edifice, divisible by culture and class but amounting to a larger whole. Urban festive culture and pious associations provided venues for cross-cultural encounter, and Yucatecans of all stripes partook in a cultural system centered on local devotions, miraculous apparitions, and powerful (and potentially enriching) images.

The mid-nineteenth century Reforma dealt a serious blow to the Catholic Church, appropriating clerical wealth and severely restricting the Church’s jurisdiction. Catholic laymen and especially laywomen took up the slack, forming an array of voluntary devotional and charitable associations to revive the faith. If they opposed secularization efforts and liberalism more broadly, pious volunteers nevertheless heralded a new kind of Catholic civil society and forged new social roles for Catholic women. Silvia Arrom’s book reconstructs the history of Mexico’s most influential lay voluntary association, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It demonstrates how these “forgotten pioneers of social welfare” helped prepare the ground for the Social Catholicism of the late-nineteenth century and ultimately for the confessional politics of the Partido Católico Nacional.

In the late 1920s, scores of peasants, rancheros (mestizo small-holders), and middle-class Catholic activists in central-western Mexico confronted the radically anticlerical government of Plutarco Elías Calles and its mobilized peasant allies or agraristas (revolutionary agrarians) in the brutal Cristero war. Butler shows that earlier studies erred in reducing the conflict to a struggle over revolutionary land reform and treating religious belief as homogeneous or besides the point. By comparing four Michoacán communities and mapping their varying responses to the revolutionary state onto Michoacán’s fragmented “religious topography,” Butler’s book reveals that peasant political identities were rooted in specific, and often divergent, religious traditions.

Long dismissed by historians as the creed of self-serving oligarchs, duplicitous clerics, and duped peasants, conservatism is experiencing a renaissance among scholars of Mexico. Smith’s book explains its appeal by zeroing in on the history of Oaxaca’s Mixteca Baja, a region where the indigenous majority faithfully defended their priests and the private property regime against successive generations of liberal and revolutionary reformers. The region’s version of conservatism was built on a moral economy of unequal but reciprocal obligations among mestizo landowners, indigenous nobles, and commoners, and it also relied upon a relatively harmonious relationship between official and indigenous/popular variants of the Catholic faith. This durable material and symbolic system even led Mixtecan peasants to take up arms in the short-lived Catholic revolt knows as the “Last Cristiada” in 1962.

New Moves

Writing popular religious history is hard work, not least of all because sources that speak to the beliefs and practices of ordinary people are often maddeningly scarce, and intriguing archival glimpses often lead to cold trails. In researching his excellent first book, Revolutions in Mexican Catholicism: Reform and Revelation in Oaxaca, 1887-1934 (2009) Edward Wright-Ríos stumbled upon a story that he successfully followed down the historical rabbit hole: that of a late-colonial mystic known as La Madre Matiana whose prophecies of doom captivated Catholic pamphleteers during Mexico’s secularization conflicts of the nineteenth century and who became an archetype of female “fanaticism” in the hands of liberal newspaper editors during the Revolution. This fascinating book turns to interpretation and rigorous contextualization where the historical evidence of Matiana falters, showing that although the prophetess herself was probably apocryphal, she influenced public debates about modernity, gender, and nationhood well into the twentieth century.

Julia Young’s excellent new book reframes the Cristero War as a transnational event, shifting our attention to the thousands of Mexican émigrés who participated in the conflict from various locations in the United States. The religious conflict of the 1920s created a veritable “Cristero diaspora” in the US, among whose numbers were exiled priests and nuns, middle-class activists, and even members of the clerical hierarchy. In their new communities in San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Chicago, Cristero immigrants formed transnational associations, staged marches and acts of spiritual solidarity, planned border rebellions, and ultimately recreated the religious conflict raging back home. Cristiada-related displacement also shaped Mexican American religion, most importantly in the cult of Saint Toribio Romo, a Cristero martyr and patron saint of migrants and border-crossers.

Voices and Lives

The Michoacán cleric Clemente de Jesús Munguía was perhaps the most formidable opponent of the secularizing Reforma of the mid-nineteenth century, but not until Mijangos y González’s book did we have a critical biographical treatment of the man and his contributions. More than a clerical biography, The Lawyer of the Church challenges notions of Catholicism’s timeless conservatism. Eclectic and prolific, Munguía spearheaded the Church’s legal response to anticlerical liberalism, and he re-conceptualized the Church’s place in the modern world. Munguía was intransigent in his defense of the Church’s “rights and liberties,” but Mijangos shows that he was far from reactionary or anti-modern.

Saints’ images are sites of divine presence in the physical world, and Mexican believers often approach their icons as living beings. Scheper Hughes provides a deeply human portrait of the Cristo Aparecido of Totolapan, an image of the crucified Christ that had appeared miraculously in that central Mexican community during the sixteenth century. Augustinian friars from Mexico City “kidnapped” the image shortly after his appearance, but the Cristo ultimately made his way back to Totolapan by way of the Reforma, which nationalized the Augustinian convent where he had been held. The image influenced the villagers’ engagement with the modern world—from liberalism to liberation theology—leading Scheper Hughes to argue that the Cristo himself should be considered a historical agent in Totolapan’s centuries-long drama.