American Catholics and the Mexican Revolution, 1924-1936 by Matthew A. Redinger
|Reviewed By:||Don M. Coerver|
|Reviewed in:||Diplomatic History|
|Date accepted online:||02/11/2007|
|Published in print:||Volume 31, Issue 03, Pages 575-578|
Book Review: Church, State, and Civil War in Revolutionary Mexico
Throughout the history of modern Mexico, the relationship between church and state has been at the center of Mexican politics and much of Mexican historiography. The Catholic church has been a major political player as well as a continuous political target since the revolution of 1910, especially after the passage of a radical constitution in 1917 which drastically restricted the economic, social, political, and educational activities of the church. Between 1917 and 1924, there was growing political friction between the revolutionary administrations and the church, but that friction was largely kept under control by limited enforcement of the constitution. The arrival in the presidency in 1924 of the anticlerical Plutarco Elías Calles brought a major confrontation between church and state as Calles began to enforce strictly the anticlerical provisions of the constitution of 1917. In response, the Catholic church went on "strike" in 1926, officially suspending religious services and the sacraments. Civil war soon developed, the Cristero Rebellion, which lasted from 1926 to 1929 and received its name from the rebels' cry of
Matthew Redinger's work helps to fill this gap in historiography by analyzing the efforts made by American Catholics as an interest group to change U.S. government policy, primarily by influencing public opinion in the United States. The author acknowledges the diversity of opinion within the American Catholic church and the indifference of many American Catholics, focusing on "those activist Catholics who felt moved into action by Mexican anticlericalism" (p. xi). Professor Redinger also recognizes the difficulty of trying to draw a direct connection between public opinion and public policy.
The author begins with a discussion of the immediate background to the violent confrontation between church and state in Mexico in the mid-1920s. He sees a growing self-assuredness and activism on the part of American Catholics after World War I. As an "immigrant church" (p. 2), the American Catholic church lacked unity but was sensitive to issues of religious oppression, both at home and abroad. American Catholics also operated on mistaken notions about the nature of and the historic role of the Catholic church in Mexico.
The basic organization of the work revolves around the individuals and organizations trying to influence U.S. policy. The author begins with an examination of the actions of the American Catholic hierarchy as a whole. The U.S. church hierarchy was united in its condemnation of the persecution of Catholics in Mexico but was divided over how to respond. American bishops as a group made few responses to the events in Mexico. When Calles began his crackdown in 1926, the American bishops replied by issuing a "letter of sympathy" to their fellow Catholics in Mexico in September 1926. In December 1926-with the Cristero Rebellion under way-the American bishops issued a pastoral letter condemning the use of force in the controversy and explicitly stating that they were not trying to get the U.S. government to intervene in the internal affairs of Mexico to protect the Catholic church. While the bishops made few pronouncements as a group, they could express their continuing concern about the Mexican situation through the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), established by the bishops in 1919. The NCWC issued public statements denouncing the Calles regime, organized public protests, and even lobbied President Calvin Coolidge.
After examining the efforts of the American hierarchy as a whole, Professor Redinger in Chapter 3 analyzes the individual activities of some of the church leaders. Individually, church leaders reflected the diversity of opinion in the American Catholic church. This lack of a united front led to mixed signals being sent to a succession of U.S. presidential administrations, with the author concluding that "the larger goals of evoking immediate shifts in policy remained mostly unfulfilled" (p. 62). The author then devotes an entire chapter to the role played by Father John J. Burke, general secretary of the NCWC. Burke played a key role in the establishment of the NCWC, and his position as general secretary led many Catholics to believe incorrectly that he was spokesman for the Catholic hierarchy. Burke helped to form the National Committee for the Protection of Religious Rights in Mexico and worked with U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow and President Calles to reach a settlement ending the Cristero Rebellion in 1929. In Chapter 5, Professor Redinger discusses the activities of five individual activist priests who tried to influence public opinion and policy on the treatment of Catholics in Mexico. The five selected once again demonstrate the diversity existing among American Catholics in regard to philosophies and tactics.
In Chapter 6, the author turns his attention to the Knights of Columbus, the largest national Catholic organization trying to influence government policy. The Knights had an ambitious agenda. They pressured the Coolidge administration to withdraw recognition of the Mexican government; they lobbied for the recall of Franklin Roosevelt's ambassador to Mexico, Josephus Daniels; and they attempted to promote an official Senate investigation of the Mexican treatment of the Catholic church. Although the Knights failed to achieve these specific goals, the author concludes that the educational efforts of the Knights helped to "create an informed public opinion that could be mobilized to influence public policy" (p. 143).
Professor Redinger ends his survey of the different Catholic individuals and agencies trying to influence public opinion and policy by examining the activities of Catholic lay persons and lay organizations. This category includes members of the U.S. Congress who introduced fourteen resolutions in the House of Representatives relating to the persecution in Mexico in the first six months of 1935 alone. Once again the author concludes that these individuals and groups mostly failed to achieve their specific goals but did succeed in educating the American public about the religious situation in Mexico.
This well-researched and mildly revisionist work demonstrates why it was impossible to develop a monolithic response in the American Catholic church to what was going on in Mexico.
Jean A. Meyer,
For an insight into how two other foreign interest groups-the oil and mining companies-tried to influence revolutionary policy in Mexico, see Lorenzo Meyer's