One of my favorite recent historical films is For Greater Glory starring Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria. The film tells the story of the 1920s Mexican civil war. In the movie, retired Gen. Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) and his wife (Eva Longoria) watch their country degenerate when the government enacts a series of anti-clerical laws, outlawing Catholicism altogether. The retired general is hesitant at first to join the rebels, known as Cristeros until he begins to religious persecution on his countrymen. With the odds stacked against him and the rest of the Cristeros, the general nevertheless transforms a ragtag band of rebels into a formidable fighting force.
Having enjoyed the movie some years ago, the historical event became an item I’ve always wanted to know more about. Specifically, I want to know how a country so rooted in Catholicism, even still, could weather such incredible persecution. With history as a hobby and general interest item, I’ve noticed this happen to various countries: the French, the British, Russia, and the earlier events that re-shaped Christian zones in the Middle East and Africa. What is this force that compels a country to revolutionize religious thought within, almost, a single generation?
That was the reason I picked up Saints and Sinners in the Cristeros War a new title from Ignatius Press written by Fr. James Murphy. Considering European history, I was generally appreciative of the French Revolution and Enlightenment, I picked up on the situation in the early 20th century of Russia, and the decision of Henry VIII made understanding anti-clericalism in Brittan simple. But the situation in Mexico was a little baffling—which left me with a lot of questions as I watched the movie about the Cristeros War.
Saints and Sinners did not disappoint. As a title promises, the book discusses the heroes and the villains of the event, but before the author explores any of that, Fr. Murphy spends almost the first third of the book explaining how Mexico got into the mess at all. I’m prepared to offer you a few spoilers.
- Everything started with abuse in the church—not physical abuse but the profit of the sacraments and other forms of simony.
- Melchor Ocampo, in 1851, opposed this and called for reform when a priest would not say a funeral Mass for his son without being paid.
- In the late 1800s, Mexico’s left and right political groups were already deeply polarized. Enlightenment ideals from France sparked numerous country-wide debates about the utility of religion.
- One anti-clerical politician after the other was elected, always increasing the anti-Church stance.
- Conservatives made a desperate alignment with Napoleon III in order to secure the rule of and Austrian Catholic archduke becoming emperor of Mexico. They selected Ferdinand Maximillian.
- Maximillian turned out to be a liberal who supported the anti-Catholic 1857 Constitution.
- Following the military withdrawal of Maximillian’s trooped from Mexico, the U.S. sent support (limited, due to the start of the Civil War) Juarez, the ruler of Mexico. Maximillian stuck around out of a sense of loyalty.
- Maximillian was found, captured, and executed. Catholics were seen as the faction that opposed Mexican independence, the Conservatives were the “part of cassocks.”
- Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum in 1891 and sparked a social movement across the world, uniting Mexican workers despite their outnumbered opposition
- The generals of the recent revolution in Mexico still advocated the anti-progress nature of the Church, and of most religion.
- 1917 Constitution was framed, outlawing Catholicism. Enforcement of these laws became bloody. Many clergy then moved to the united states to save their lives.
Fr. Murphy does a superb job ramping the reader into the discussion about the saints and sinners. And after my read-through, I found it not just informative to appreciate the recent political history of Mexico prior to reading about the “saints and sinners,” it was vital. Learning that history gave me an invaluable understanding of the layout of political strife in Mexico and the incredible lengths to which many of the clergy and laypeople had to suffer to defend and eventually restore the Catholic Faith in Mexico.
The saintly players in the Cristeros War covered by Fr. Murphy are Anacleto González Flores, whose non-violent demonstrations ended with his death after a day of brutal torture, Archbishop Francisco Orozco y Jiménez, who administered an underground archdiocese on the run from the Mexican government, and Fr. Toribio Romo González, who was shot in his bed one morning all because he was a Catholic priest. And of course, there was Fr. Miguel Pro, who I might call a master of disguise, was the famous Jesuit who continually evaded military police in Mexico City despite being on the “most wanted” list for sixteen months. The book equally explores the four “sinners.” They include Melchor Ocampo, Plutarco Elías Calles, José Reyes Vega, and Tomás Garrido Canabal. Most of these were politicians, but the story of José Reyes Vega particularly struck me. He was a priest who participated in the war on the side of Catholics. He had a sharp mind for military tactics and even designed some of the most decisive victories in the war. However, he had a drinking problem, was a womanizer, and in a fit of rage and revenge, made a scene that caused the death of fifty-one civilians. That event was a hallmark in the minds of the public, turning much support away from the Cristeros.
Saints and Sinners in the Cristeros War is a fantastic book for any history reader, but frankly, should be mandatory reading for many Catholics since it seems this narrative has played out in multiple cultures. If we genuinely want to prevent history from repeating itself, we need to understand that history.