Religious Freedom and State Power in the Latin American Experience

The recent appearance of a number of Christian historical movies, such as There Be Dragons, on the sufferings of Catholics during the Spanish Civil War; Of Gods and Men, on a massacre of Trappist monks by Muslim fighters in 1996; and For the Greater Glory, on the Cristiada War in Mexico, makes John Lynch’s New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America curiously timed.  This excellent book gives a panoramic description of the rise, ups and downs, and present state of religion in Latin America.  It covers the different Christian churches, Judaism, Vodou, Santeria, and Amerindian religions.  However, it justifiably focuses on the Catholic Church, for as the author makes clear, Catholicism has been for five centuries “the defining religion of Latin America.” 

The book reads like an adventure story, with the Catholic Church as its flawed, but charismatic hero.  We are reminded that a succession of popes, in agreement with a number of Catholic theologians since the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, spoke against slavery.  Pius II in 1492 condemned the slave trade as a great crime, censuring Christians who enslaved Black Africans.  Paul III in 1536, Urban VIII in 1639, and Benedict XIV in 1741 defended the liberty of the Indians.

Before Pius II, none of the legal authorities of the other great monotheistic religions had condemned the slavery, not only of their coreligionists (which Islam and Judaism did), but also of their non-coreligionists (which Islam and Judaism did not).  In Islamic lands, in fact, the enslavement of whites, blacks, and Asians acquired unheard-of proportions, with slaves found everywhere, from state bureaucracies and armies to private households and the harems of sexual slaves.  Robert C. Davis has estimated that in Islamic lands just from the 1530s to the 1780s, of white slaves alone, between 1 million and 1.25 million people were traded–men, women, and children, taken from the Mediterranean coasts, Greece, the Balkans, Armenia, Persia, and Slavic lands.

However, not until Benedict XIV and Gregory XVI did popes after Pius II condemn the trade of Black Africans.  Moreover, although the famous Bishop of Chiapas, Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, vigorously defended the liberty of the Indians, he suggested in 1516 the importation of Black Africans into the New World in order to spare the Indians from slavery—an idea from which he eventually repented.  Thus Las Casas, the “Protector of the Indians,” bears responsibility for a trade that had ominous consequences.

We are also reminded that the Vatican’s record in Latin America includes its less than sterling treatment of some of its most devout followers in a particularly sad episode of the continent’s checkered history: the Cristiada, or Cristero War.  The progressive Mexican Constitution of 1917  forbade all religious education and schools (as Carlos Perez Vazquez translates, “educational services shall be secular and, therefore, free of any religious orientation…The educational services shall be based on scientific progress and shall fight against ignorance, ignorance’s effects, servitudes, fanaticism and prejudice.”).  It forbade Catholic worship outside church buildings, gave sole power to the State to determine the number of churches and priests in Mexico, and denied priests the right to vote (“the State and the churches are separated entities from each other. Churches and religious congregations shall be organized under the law”).  The government forbade religious publications to comment on public affairs.  It outlawed religious orders.  It prohibited confession (thereby effectively prohibiting communion), fasting, abstinence, religious vows, wearing clerical garb publicly, and Church ownership of property.  After 1926, the government forced priests to register before being allowed to perform their duties.  Echoing the French Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Marxism-Leninism, politicians in the Mexican Congress called priests “vermin,” “foul and treacherous vampires,” and “insatiable vultures.”  Eventually, churches were sacked, Church property seized, confessionals burned, and bishops, priests, and nuns were jailed or exiled.  These events and the ensuing Catholic rebellion are still glossed over in Mexican schools and Mexican history books, or presented as the result of the actions of superstitious peasants led by fanatical priests and nuns.  Some works in English (such as The Inveterate Dreamer) even misrepresent the Cristero tragedy as an “anti-Church feeling (known in Mexico as La Cristiada).”

On 11 April 1920 a huge procession of Catholics went to the center of Mexico to inaugurate a statue to Christ the King.  This statue would soon be blown up by the government, but it became the symbol of the Cristo Rey, the Cristiada rebellion.  In the hinterland, bands of Catholics attacked government buildings and burned government schools.  Cristero forces were made up mostly of young men, “raised in family piety, who prayed and received the sacraments, and many were married according to canon though not civil law; they included workers as well as peasants, and women’s brigades provided logistical support.”  “Some of the Cristero groups were led by priests who acted as fighters as well as chaplains.”

Though under-armed, the Cristeros beat Federal troops in guerrilla engagements and pitched battles in Jalisco and Durango because of superior morale.  They controlled much of the states of Zacatecas and Michoacan, inflicting over 60,000 casualties on government troops.  However, the Federal army had the power of the Mexican State behind it and the logistical and diplomatic support of the United States.  Although the government could not defeat the Cristeros, the Cristeros could not defeat the government.

For the Cristeros, fighting for “Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe was inherently just.”  However, “Rome did not share these views, convinced as it was that armed force would not succeed and would compromise the Church in future.  At the end of 1927 it ordered the Mexican bishops to distance themselves from the rebellion and work for a negotiated settlement.”

These Catholics were, in effect, left out to dry by Pope Pius XI.  As they deposed their arms in obedience, the rebels were massacred.  In a manhunt, all Cristero leaders and many of their followers were rounded up and executed, for a total of 5,000 killed between 1929 and 1935 alone.  A total of over 40,000 Catholics died during the rebellion.  It would not be the first, or, for that matter, the last time that the Vatican would do nothing of substance to help devout Christians and even devout Catholics (the Orthodox have not forgotten A.D. 1204 and 1453; and the terrorizing and killing of Catholic men, women, and children in the Middle East, Africa, and Indonesia continue today without the Vatican doing anything of a practical—not to mention military—nature to help them).

The “negotiated settlement” of the Cristero War gained little for Catholics in Mexico. Lynch summarizes the scene:

As the rebels demobilized, the government pressed harder.  Catholics gained a minimal freedom to practice their religion but no other rights, and the anti-Catholic religious legislation remained in place unchanged in the slightest degree.  The government presented this as the surrender of the Church, and so it was.  The revolution had apparently crushed Catholicism and driven it back inside the churches, and there it stayed, throughout the 1930’s and beyond, preserved by the sheer religiosity of the Mexican people, while the government, dedicated to perpetual revolution, repeated its anti-clerical clichés and reinforced its anti-religious ideology.

Pius XI lacked the resolve of such popes as St. Pius V, organizer of the Catholic coalition which defeated the Muslim Turks at Lepanto in 1571and which momentarily interrupted their conquest of Christian Europe.  All Pius XI did was issue a series of encyclicals.  Pius XI, in fact, presided during the years of that “Terrible Triangle” of atheist states which persecuted and killed Christians in  the twentieth century–not only Catholics in Mexico and in Spain under the Spanish Republic, but also millions of Orthodox Christians in Russia under Marxism-Leninism.

It took the Church more than sixty years to beatify the most famous martyr of the Cristeros: Father Miguel Pro.  Scheduled for 1987, Father Pro’s beatification was postponed because it would have coincided with an election year in Mexico, and the party in power, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, happened to be the governing party during the Cristiada.  In fact, General Plutarco Elias Calles, the atheist Mexican President who ordered the shooting, without trial, of Father Pro, was also the founder of the PRI, and is still considered a national hero.  The Church was afraid that Catholic celebrations would anger the PRI.  However, when Pope John Paul II finally beatified Father Pro on September 25 1988, the ceremony took place on the birthday of long-dead Calles.  The Church claimed it was a coincidence.

The least convincing in this otherwise excellent book are those pages dedicated to the native cultures, which are treated with the utmost delicacy.  No mention is made of the thousands of people killed every year by the Mexica (the “Aztecs”) and obtained as captives in a yearly ritual war (the Guerra Florida).  No mention is made of the chilling account by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who was rather sympathetic to Moctezuma because the Mexica emperor had granted him a number of beautiful females: according to Bernal, one delicacy Moctezuma enjoyed was the flesh of babies.

In fact, the Mexica empire was what one might call a vampiric empire, since it lived off the tribute, in goods, and in men, women, and children, exacted from other Amerindian nations as slaves and victims.  When seen under this light, and especially when one takes into account that other Amerindian nations gladly joined Hernan Cortes in his destruction of the Mexica empire, the conquest of Mexico by the Catholic Spaniards begins to look less like the destruction of a charming native civilization and more like the liberation of a land long oppressed and bloodied by a hellish religion.

A similarly politically correct treatment, not unusual among modern anthropologists, is given to the Maya religion.  All we read about its bloodiness is that “the Maya underworld is peopled by deities placated by human sacrifice.”  But the entire Maya world, not just the “underworld,” was peopled by horrendously looking deities, who were not only “placated” by—but actually dependent on—human blood for their continuing support of the universe.

This support required the self-bleeding of their genitals and tongues by Maya kings and queens (carried out with thorns attached to ropes, and stingrays), as well as the more abundant blood obtained through the ingenious torturing (pulling nails was one frequently used method) and eventual killing of captives.  After the Catholic Spaniards destroyed the power of this horrific religion, which was one of the bases of Maya culture, the Maya stopped their internecine wars and their torturing, bleeding, and killing of humans for religious purposes.  Instead of using people, these days Maya priests use chickens, ritually beheaded and bled in colorful ceremonies which tourists and anthropologists admire and even film enthusiastically in complete safety—chicken blood being a less powerful means of appeasing the native deities, to be sure, but one safer, at least for human beings.  No mention is made, either, of the fact that Maya cities, which often spoke languages unintelligible to each other (the eventual universal adoption of Spanish made a previously difficult communication among the several Maya nations easy), engaged in endemic bloody wars, with captives taken as slaves or sacrificial victims.

The more unsavory aspects of Inca culture are also prudently left out in this book.  We read nothing of the Inca’s conquest and, in some cases, extermination of other Amerindian nations, the destruction of their religions, the imposition of the Inca cult of the Sun and the Inca Emperor, and the use of ethnic cleansing as an effective means of conquest.  No mention is made of the Inca religious sacrifice of children and young women on the mountain peaks of the Andes either.

Nonetheless, this readable and learned book is probably the best available one-volume account of religious phenomena, and especially of the trajectory of the Catholic Church, in Latin America.

Dario Fernandez-Morera blogs at dariofernandez-morera.blogspot.com/.