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"To Arouse and Inform": The Knights of Columbus and United States-Mexican Relations, 1924-1937

Article excerpt

When Francisco I. Madero ousted the long-time Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1911, he set into motion a series of events that we have come to know collectively as the Mexican Revolution. This revolution, with its relatively small beginnings, would soon grow and shake the Mexican nation to its roots. The United States, Mexico's overbearing northern neighbor, was not immune to the tremors emanating from south of the Rio Grande. For a significant part of the population of the United States, this revolution presented a challenge to something at their very soul-their Catholicity. Most Catholics in the United States, from the hierarchy's leadership in the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC)1 to devout lay men and women, viewed the challenge that faced the Mexican Church as one that struck at the heart of some of their most deeply held assumptions as American Catholics, i.e., that the freedom of religious expression was an inalienable and universal liberty. To meet this challenge arising from the Mexican Revolution, activist American Catholics-particularly the Knights of Columbus-- struggled to force the United States government to alter its diplomatic relations with that country. This essay will examine the work of the Knights of Columbus to aid their Mexican co-religionists within the context of the Mexican Revolution's assault on the Catholic Church. In this effort, the Knights of Columbus assumed a leadership position within a special interest group comprised of American Catholic hierarchy and laymen, striving to exert some degree of influence over public policy.2

The history of the Knights of Columbus has been a topic of inquiry for a number of scholars. By far the most important work on examining the history of the order is that of Christopher J. Kauffman. In works ranging from journal articles and a coffee-table-book illustrated history to the definitive monograph, Kauffman has traced the development of the Knights of Columbus as a lay group which responded to some of the most important movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: advocacy of fraternalism and Americanism, and opposition to the anti-Catholicism of the period.3 Others have portrayed the growth of the Knights of Columbus as typical of the attraction secret societies-such as the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Order of Foresters-had for men in the late 1800's.(4) Kauffman notes that unlike these other organizations, the Knights represented"a unique blend of popular fraternalism,American Catholic patriotism, and traditional Catholicism."5 None of these scholars, however, have emphasized the Knights of Columbus as an organization active in the effort to influence United States foreign policy, as does this study.

For most American Catholics, the anticlericalism of the Mexican Revolution must have taken them by complete surprise, since most Catholics in the United States assumed that Mexico was one of the most solidly Catholic nations on earth. The Roman Catholic Church, from the earliest days of the colonial period in the sixteenth century, had been a major force in the history of Mexico. Catholic missionaries served the conquistadores on their voyages of exploration and exploitation, not only in their capacity as evangelizers of the "heathen" natives but also as agents of royal control of the colony itself. Serving in this capacity was incredibly lucrative for the Church. Such institutions as tithes on agricultural produce and perpetual liens on land earned for the Church vast wealth. This wealth was contingent, of course, on maintenance of the colonial status quo. It was because of this traditional position in colonial society that the church hierarchy remained loyal to the Spanish crown, bringing all church resources, including its vast wealth, its control of the press, and even the dreaded Inquisition, to bear against the revolutionaries in 1808 in the wars for independence. Because of internal political intrigues in Spain, the independence movement in Mexico was co-opted by such royalists as pro-clerical Colonel Agustin de Iturbide, former officer of the Spanish army in Mexico and future emperor of independent Mexico. …