June 15th 2019

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COVER STORY Anthony Albanese: NSW left factional warlord takes charge

EDITORIAL Religious freedom: the political and legislative challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED Will Bill Shorten emerge from the shadows again?

FEDERAL ELECTION Queensland voted for jobs, life and country

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Keating's 'nutters': Don't blame the messenger

ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY Health policy is not immune from neoliberal infection

HUMAN RIGHTS Canada accepts Asia Bibi and family as refugees

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Families keeping the faith: the Benedict and other options

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 1: The context

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 3: More on science and ancient cultures

LIFE ISSUES Families, youth boost crowd at WA Rally for Life

MUSIC Muse of delight: The laugh ascending

CINEMA Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

BOOK REVIEW Pioneering aviator's flights and fancies

BOOK REVIEW Catholic resistance in a forgotten war

BOOK REVIEW AFA patron's long life of public service


NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal, June 5-6, 2019: An account from the live streaming

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Catholic resistance in a forgotten war

News Weekly, June 15, 2019

SAINTS AND SINNERS IN THE CRISTERO WAR: Stories of Martyrdom from Mexico

by Mons James T. Murphy

Ignatius Press, San Francisco
Paperback: 264 pages
Price: AUD$35.95

Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel

As a teenager, I was unable to put down Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, after my school chaplain spoke at length about the protagonist in his weekly reflection.

Greene’s novel explores the complex character of an unnamed priest, known only as “the whiskey priest”, a deeply flawed individual who ministers clandestinely while trying to escape the Mexican authorities, who are ruthlessly trying to hunt him down.

Apart from an abiding interest among the general public in Greene’s novel, the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico in the early decades of the 20th century, particularly the 1920s, is largely unknown. It is for this reason that Monsignor James Murphy, a priest of the diocese of Sacramento, California, has written this work. The only other major work to recount the story of the Cristero rebellion in recent years is the movie For Greater Glory (2012), which, at the time of writing this review, was available for viewing online on SBS On Demand.

As the title suggests, Saints and Sinners explores the heroes and villains in Mexico against the backdrop of the Cristero rebellion.

Murphy begins by explaining the social and historical background. During the colonial period, from the foundation of New Spain in the 1520s until Mexico ultimately gained independence in 1821, the Catholic Church enjoyed considerable prestige and power. However, during the course of the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th century, this position was gradually assailed and curtailed by a series of anti-clerical laws.

For much of the 19th century, there was political instability in Mexico, and Murphy makes the observation that the Catholic Church at critical points, for example in the 1860s, allied itself with short-lived conservative political movements, such as the attempt to install Archduke Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. In such a volatile situation, in which conservative forces vied with those who wanted to implement ideas arising from the Enlightenment and Rationalism, the Church came to be seen as a backward and reactionary organisation that stifled progress, and whose influence needed to be curtailed.

While some political stability was achieved from 1884 to the first decade of the 20th century under the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, the political situation deteriorated in the second decade of the 20th century, as Mexico entered a period of civil war, known as the “War of the Generals” (Guerra de los caudillos).

A certain level of political stability was restored under the presidencies of Carranza and his successor, Obregon, and with the promulgation of the 1917 Constitution. However, the government was extremely anti-clerical. Although anti-clericalism had increased among certain sections of the population, there remained a deep attachment to the Church, particularly in some rural areas.

Furthermore, since the late 19th century, certain members of the Church had actively promoted the social teachings of Pope Leo XIII, particularly those expressed in Rerum Novarum, and this approach not only gained the Church respect among certain sections of society, but was a challenge to anti-clerical propaganda that depicted the Church as a reactionary enemy of progress.

The situation deteriorated under the presidency of Obregon’s successor, Plutarco Calles, one of the “sinners” whom Murphy explores in this volume. A virulent atheist whose hatred of the Catholic Church could only be described as fanatical, Calles sought to enforce the anti-Catholic provisions of the 1917 Constitution that gave, for example, state governments powers to determine how many clergy could minister in their respective states.

The final straw was in 1926, when Calles demanded all ministers of religion be authorised by the government. The hierarchy responded by suspending public worship, effective August 1, 1926, in an attempt to force the government to back down.

This set the scene for the Cristero rebellion, which lasted from 1926 to 1929. Armed rebels, motivated by their faith, took up arms against the government. Poorly trained, lacking coordination and short of supplies, they nonetheless gradually became a force to be reckoned with. In some instances, the rebels controlled a significant amount of territory, and the number of troops the Federal Army was losing per month severely lowered morale within the army.

The fact that the bishops’ committee did not condemn the rebels’ actions, and that bishops were authorising priests prepared to minister to the Cristeros, gave the rebels confidence. With public worship officially suspended, and most of the bishops in exile in the United States, Archbishop Francisco Orozco, the Archbishop of Guadalajara, whose career Murphy recounts in detail, continued to minister in hiding.

Frequently changing his address, he travelled around his diocese, much of which was effectively controlled by the Cristeros, administering confirmations, and even ordinations before he was captured and expelled. Other priests, such as Miguel Pro SJ, whose life and ministry Murphy also recounts, developed a hero status among the people. They celebrated clandestine Masses and administered the sacraments, often just one or two steps ahead of the authorities.

Fr Pro’s execution on November 23, 1927, is often considered to be the turning point. The publication of the photograph of his execution in newspapers around the globe drew international condemnation.

Murphy describes in detail the delicate and secret negotiations undertaken with Calles to secure an amnesty, with key players being Dwight Morrow, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and Rev John Burke, a Paulist priest. The Mexican bishops essentially opposed any compromise with the Mexican government; however, they complied after the Vatican insisted.

Although churches were reopened for public worship, and most of the Cristeros laid down their arms (those who continued fighting were sanctioned by the Church), persecution continued into the early years of the 1930s. Although the Church gradually re-established a modus vivendi, it was not until the early 1990s that the most virulently anti-Catholic clauses of the Constitution were finally revoked.

Although Murphy’s overall account is generally favourable of the Catholic Church’s involvement, and critical of the Mexican government, one of the chief strengths of Saints and Sinners is that it is a balanced analysis. For example, Murphy acknowledges some of Calles’ positive achievements, such as his establishment of a central bank, similar to the U.S. Federal Reserve system, and improvement of the transport system.

Similarly, he is critical of Jose Reyes Vaga, a priest who defied his archbishop’s orders and became a general of the Cristeros.

This is a well-researched and fascinating work that this reviewer found hard to put down.

Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Rev C.J. Winter, former chaplain of Mentone Grammar School.

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