The Cristero War

The Cristero War from 1926 to 1929 was a popular uprising against the regime of Mexican strongman Plutarco Calles. Known for his intense anti-Catholic sentiments, Calles took office as president of Mexico in 1924 and began implementing measures that had long been on the books but only sporadically enforced. The most notorious of these prohibited the Church from engaging in primary education, outlawed religious orders, forbade public worship outside the confines of churches, forbade the church from owning property, and deprived clergy of virtually all political rights including trial by jury. These harsh measures were further exacerbated by the so called “Calles Law” of June 1926, that imposed 
harsh fines for “offenses” such as wearing clerical garb in public, threatened priests with punishment of five years in prison for criticizing the 
government, and required church buildings to be placed under control of neighborhood 

The Catholic hierarchy’s initial response was to encourage passive resistance by asking Catholics to abstain from paying selective taxes and launch a petition drive. When compromise with the state proved impossible, the Mexican bishops instructed their priests to suspend public worship throughout the country as a sign of protest beginning July 31, 1926  (the suspension continued for the next three years). Within days of this announcement, violence erupted in Guadalajara between federal troops and Catholic militants who had barricaded 
themselves in the Guadalupe Sanctuary. This was soon followed, by armed uprisings in the states of 
Jalisco, Colima, Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Guanajuato — the Catholic heartland of 
west-central Mexico. The opposition soldiers called themselves “Cristeros,” a name echoed in their battle cry “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). At its peak, the Cristero army totaled over 15,000 men.

The circle on the map of Mexico shows areas of the country caught up in the Cristero War, 1927-1929.

During the two-year war that followed, repression was particularly severe. An estimated 40 priests were executed, and several thousand priests sent into exile. The Cristero War formally ended in June 1929 by diplomatic means when the United States Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Whitney Morrow, the Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate, and a priest-representative of the American Catholic hierarchy brokered an understanding.

The 2012 epic film, “For Greater Glory,” centers on two historic individuals. The first is the rebel leader, a retired Mexican army general. Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, an agnostic, who led the forces of the revolt. Nineteen days before a cessation of hostilities was to take effect, Gorostieta was killed in a military ambush. The movie also portrays the life and tragic martyrdom of Jose Sanchez Del Rio, shown in the film as Gorostieta’s protégé. While fighting against the federal forces, José was captured, asked to denounce his faith, and upon refusing, was executed. The movie’s portrayal of the Mexican boy martyred at the age of 14 is particularly compelling (Jose Del Rio was declared blessed by Pope Benedict XVI on November 20, 2005).

The historical relationship of the Church to the Cristero movement is complex. There can be no doubt that most of those who took part in the conflict did so for religious ideals, but their recourse to violence was controversial. The Mexican bishops (a large number of whom had been forced to leave the country) neither officially supported nor condemned the rebellion. The goals of church leaders varied. A portion of the hierarchy sought to removed the anti-church provisions of the 1917 Constitution; others favored accepting the current government if there were complete separation of church and state. The Vatican ultimately sided with those seeking an accommodation with the government in exchange for the right of the Church to minister and proclaim the Gospel.

The role of the Knights of Columbus in the Cristero War is also multifaceted. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s the national leadership of the Knights of Columbus lobbied successive US Presidents to take a harder line against religious persecution in Mexico. A national assessment yielding over $1,000,000 was taken up and given to the US bishops to provide relief services to Mexican Catholics in exile, and an extensive publicity campaign highlighting the plight of the Mexican Church was conducted during this period.

Jesuit priest Fr. Michael Pro in prayer a few moments before his execution on November 23, 1927.

On the eve of the outbreak, the Mexican Knights of Columbus numbered 6000 members in 51 councils. Under the Calles Law most of these councils were soon disbanded, and many of their members joined the Cristero resistance. When a cessation of hostilities was finally brokered in 1929, there was considerable opposition to the terms of the agreement within the Knights of both the US and Mexico. In public, however, the Knights’ leadership endorsed the 1929 Vatican accords with Mexico. No evidence exists that the American Knights of Columbus funded arms shipments for the Cristero movement.

Sadly, the success of the accords was short-lived. Despite a general amnesty for combatants, executions still took place in some states. In 1932, the governor of Vera Cruz limited the number of priest to one for every 100,000 inhabitants. By the end of the decade all Catholic seminaries in Mexico were closed.

This latter period is the setting for Graham Greene’s powerful novel, “The Power and the Glory.” Set in the Mexican state of Tabasco, the novel tells of a Roman Catholic priest during this era. Green had visited this area in 1938 and years later, acknowledged that it was in Tabasco where the fidelity of the peasants to their Church “assumed such proportions that I couldn’t help being profoundly moved.”

The story of the Cristero War is under-appreciated chapter of Catholic history in the Western Hemisphere. It was a tragic and heroic era, described by author Graham Greene as the “fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.”

Larry Mullaly

June 28, 2012