Arts & Books

Book review: Blood-soaked years south of the border

A scene from Cristiada, a film about anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico

Catholic Borderlands by Anne Martinez,
University of Nebraska, £44

In 1905, Francis Clement Kelley, a Canadian by birth, founded the Catholic Church Extension Society of the United States of America. Its initial goal was to prevent Protestant missionaries, schoolteachers, agencies and officials from drawing American Catholics away from their faith. The organisation quickly became embroiled in more international matters, however. Mexico was the primary focus of attention.

Revolution and subsequent political chaos, often with a sharp anti-clerical edge, took a huge toll. Kelley’s widely circulated magazine nudged the US government towards intervening in Mexican affairs in the hope that religious freedom might be restored.

It was a story of fitful but not insignificant success. Beyond doubt, Kelley and his colleagues kept reports of anti-Catholic outrages in Mexico in the news cycle during the 1910s and 1920s and had some influence on the policies of the US administration.

This was not always easy because an alarming number of lofty officials held views that were not sympathetic to the Catholic cause.

Ultimately, however, everyone knew that a stable Mexico was good for US business, so sorting out the religion issue made perfect sense. By 1929 this was achieved, after a fashion, and a US ambassador took the lead in brokering the requisite legislation. The Extension Society also took a keen interest in Catholic affairs in Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

The Society’s impact on home-grown US Catholicism was every bit as important. Kelley and his allies reminded the nation that Catholic missionaries had made great strides in the earlier exploration and settlement of the American South and West. Past was tied to present and a variant of US Catholic identity emerged that combined pride in bygone, foundational achievements with full support for a muscular US foreign policy.

US Catholics were thus able to position themselves as “consummate Americans” and this was sometimes challenging in an era during which the embers of 19th-century anti-Catholicism continued to glow.

There is, of course, every reason to frown at some of the assumptions that underpinned this project. That said, Kelley also appears to have been motivated by genuine compassion for his fellow religionists around the world and, purely in terms of political skill and polemical ability, he emerges from these pages as a fascinating figure.

For better or worse, North America has a rare talent for producing such activist priests and Anne Martinez is to be applauded for bringing one of the less well-known examples to our attention.

When it comes to turbulent American Fathers, there is a tendency to focus on those who adopted counter-cultural positions, launched protests and engaged in civil disobedience. Kelley was certainly not happy with every aspect of US policy and he deeply resented the idea that Americanisation should be equated with Protestantisation, but he sought change from within the establishment. Martinez’s book is even-handed, well-researched and brimful of detail.

It reminds us of those terrible years between 1910 and 1929 during which so many Mexican Catholics endured banishment, persecution or worse. If you’d been present at the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress in Chicago you’d have stood a fair chance of rubbing shoulders with one of President Plutarco Elias Calles’s secret policemen.

They were there to keep tabs on Mexicans who disagreed with the regime. Outrageous as it was, such surveillance was small beer compared to the other indignities and cruelties inflicted on Mexican Catholics during those blood-soaked years between 1910 and 1929.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/7/15). Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!