What courageous Mexico can teach the Catholic world

Pilgrims camp out under a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (Getty)

Understanding World Christianity: Mexico
By Todd Hartch
Fortress, 268pp, £19.99/$29

The history of Christianity in Mexico is certainly eventful. The Constitution of 1917 placed severe restrictions on the practice of religion, under the guise of separating Church and state. As Todd Hartch makes clear in this lucid, well-researched and informative book, the Constitution (which has since been revised) was not simply secular, but virulently anti-religious.

However, what brought matters to a head were the actions of President Plutarco Elías Calles, in office from 1924 to 1928, who decided to pass legislation that would effectively outlaw Catholicism in Mexico, drawing on the Constitution as his justification. This led to the absurdity, for example, of the state decreeing that the Church only needed one priest for the whole state of Morelia. The result was the Cristero rebellion, from 1926 to 1929, its harsh repression by the state, and hundreds of thousands of deaths. The rebellion succeeded in its aims, though, in that the anti-Catholic laws, though remaining on the books, were no longer enforced, and the slaughter was brought to an end through US mediation.

Events like these would have crushed a less resilient local Church, and it is worth reading Hartch’s account in order to glean just what it was and is that makes Mexican Catholicism so strong. Not every country in Latin America has seen its local Church fend off the challenges of Protestantism and liberal secularism so successfully. Mexico has long been the target of Evangelical missionaries from the US, but their success has been limited.

Hartch gives a fair account of the Presbyterian Church in Mexico, and other more recent arrivals, including the cult-like Light of the World movement. But none of these has swept all before them as they have in nearby countries such as Honduras.

The reasons why Mexican Catholicism has flourished will not be surprising to anyone who is familiar with the decrees of the Council of Trent, or those of the Second Vatican Council. First, the Mexican Church was able to rely on excellent seminary formation, both in Mexico and, when times were tough, in the US, as well as at the Mexican College in Rome. In other words, Mexican seminary training turned out battle-ready clerics, many of whom were martyred, and many of whom were able to work in a hostile climate, which is exactly what Trent (which invented seminaries) had in mind, and Vatican II envisaged in its seminary reform.

The other thing that helped the Mexican Church was strong leadership from its bishops, who, despite a constitutional ban on clergy taking part in politics, were not prepared to accept an agenda dictated by the enemies of the Church. This leadership also encouraged and benefited from some very strong lay participation.

Opposition to Calles, and later activism in the social field, was led by the sort of people whom the government disparagingly termed “fanatics”, and against whom “de-fanaticisation” campaigns were aimed.

Hartch tells the story of Blessed Miguel Pro, a priest and martyr shot without trial, along with his brother Humberto and two other laymen – a good example of how the Mexican Church was by no means clericalist in its outlook or structure. Calles thought the judicial murder of Pro a good idea; in fact, it fuelled resistance and strengthened Catholic fervour – as it does to this day.

Mexico can be seen as a laboratory of the Universal Church. Hovering over every page of the book is the key religious figure in Mexican Christianity: the Virgin of Guadalupe. Contemporary Catholic theology acknowledges the vital importance of inculturation. (Anglicans like to talk of indigenisation, which is the same thing.) This refers to the eternal truths of faith being expressed in a language that the people recognise as their own.

Our Lady of Guadalupe does just that. At her shrine, Mary is hailed as “Morena”, that is to say, brown, of Mexican appearance. In the words of the popular hymn “Desde el cielo” (not quoted here), her face and her bearing are Mexican (“eran mexicanos su porte y su faz”). The hymn concludes that to be a Mexican is to love Our Lady of Guadalupe: “para el mexicano ser guadalupano es algo esencial”.

When the Cristero rebellion broke out, it was clear that it was not Catholicism that was the foreign import, but rather the atheism and liberalism of Calles. In much of the world today, Catholicism is made to feel that it is not at home, and that secularism is the natural state of humanity. Reversing this seems hard, if not impossible, which is why studying the example of Mexico is important, and why this book is essential reading.