The Catholic Church in Mexico

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church in Mexico

Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review

L' Eglise a deux genres d' ennemis; le premier la persecute, le second s' en detourne. Le second est le plus fort

Julien Green

Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States General Porfirio Diaz, President of Mexico

THE conventional image of Mexican Catholicism is, for many people, that of the whisky priest in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, the novel based on Greene's travel in the southern states of Tabasco and Chiapas in the spring of 1938, his notes of which were later published as The Lawless Roads. Greene claimed that not much imaginative embroidery was needed to turn his experiences into a novel. 'These are all facts, I tell myself. These things really happened to me-or at least to that long dead man who bore the same names on his passport as I do'. Readers can accept that or not, as they please. He prefaces his account, early in the book, of the martyrdom of the Mexican Jesuit, Father Miguel Pro, in 1927 with a reference to that other Jesuit, the English Edmund Campion, in 1581, finding similiarities between the persecution of priests by President Plutarco Calles in Mexico in the 1920s and that in England at the time of Elizabeth I. Calles' persecution however was emotional and reactionary, that of Cecil a matter of cold-blooded policy at a time when England was threatened by foreign enemies and thus, of necessity, a good deal more efficient. The Vatican considered The Power and the Glory subversive since it could be described as a celebration of evil rather than of good. Greene is not the first Catholic to have fallen for this old trick but the Vatican's reservations enhanced the novel's appeal among some Catholic circles in England, almost none of whose members knew anything about Mexico. What they enjoyed was the frisson it offered, the excitement of flirting with danger. The muddle, confusion, casuistry and hypocrisy prevalent in Mexico at the time of Greene's visit, to say nothing of the violence, offered generous scope for someone who liked to shock middle-class opinion. If he believed, as he claimed, that the revolution was a struggle for the soul of the Indian there is little evidence that he cared where that soul ended up.

Any visitor to Mexico, assuming he strays wider than Acapulco and Cancun, will sooner or later be struck by the fact that the country is full of monuments of religion, living and dead. The ruins of indigenous civilisations, Aztec, Zapotec, Mayan, their pyramids, public buildings and temples, stand side by side with the ruins of Catholic churches and convents. There are magnificent cathedrals in Mexico City itself, Guadalajara and Puebla, their beauty enhanced by the superb light when it penetrates the murk of pollution. Even quite modest provincial towns have a wide arcaded square at their centre dominated by a large and graceful church. Some of the most notable are to be found in the state of Oaxaca, on the western seaboard where Mexico narrows out into an isthmus to join the South American continent, pre-eminently the most Indian part of Mexico with Yucatan and Chiapas. They have been carefully documented by Robert Mullen in Dominican Architecture in Sixteenth Century Oaxaca. It is not a title a visitor would automatically select when deciding which book to take with him which is a pity since Dr Mullen did his researches the hard way, travelling on foot or on horseback through difficult countryside. In taking the visitor off the beaten track he offers some insights into the soul of Mexico at a formative period of its history, which Greene tried to do later at an equally critical moment.

What the Dominicans did in building their churches in Oaxaca is, broadly speaking, what the Catholic Church as a whole did throughout Mexico, adapting to different local environments as required. It sometimes benefited from bureaucratic mistakes in far away Spain; thus the splendid cathedral at Merida, which seems wholly out of scale with its surroundings, happens to be there, it is said, because the architectural drawings were sent to the wrong place by the Council of the Indies in Seville, having been destined originally for Lima, a much more prestigious setting. …

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