The Mexican Catholic Church and Constitutional Change since 1929

By Reich, Peter L. | The Historian, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The Mexican Catholic Church and Constitutional Change since 1929


Reich, Peter L., The Historian


In the wake of Mexico's 1910 Revolution, the new Constitution adopted in 1917 reflected the desire of many revolutionaries to limit the Catholic Church's economic power, political activity, and social authority. Education was secularized, the Church was no longer allowed to hold property or administer charitable foundations, and clerics were limited in their freedom to proselytize. Current scholarly interpretation and official Mexican government ideology portray the post-revolutionary period, particularly the 1930s, as a time of intense church-state conflict, when the Constitution's anticlerical provisions were strictly enforced and national leaders on both sides manifested extreme hostility and unwillingness to cooperate with each other. Most historians further assume that a radical anticlericalism pervaded the country at the regional level as well.(1)

However, observers of contemporary Mexico have noticed that though much of the 1917 Constitution remains, its anticlerical provisions are not enforced, and Church and government now publicly support one another on a variety of issues. For example, during Pope John Paul II's visits to Mexico in 1979 and 1990, federal officials overlooked the pontiff's violations of constitutional bans on public religious ceremonies (Article 24) and on officiation by foreign-born priests (Article 130). A 1980 circular from Mexico's Cardinal Archbishop, in turn, instructed the faithful that they would jeopardize their eternal souls if they did not participate in the national census. Such exchanges on numerous topics have occurred between national ecclesiastical leaders and federal authorities, at regional and local levels, and through the medium of Catholic lay associations.(2)

Surprisingly few scholars have investigated the historical roots of church-state accommodation and the subsequent recovery of ecclesiastical influence. Rarely utilized archival materials--Catholic periodicals, private letters of ecclesiastical officials, internal Church questionnaires, and records of Catholic lay organizations--reveal hidden layers of compromise and mutual support that developed over time despite the legal anticlericalism. This paper discusses ideological and legal strategies utilized by the national Episcopal hierarchy, regional cooperation between Church and secular authorities, and the rise of influential Catholic lay groups during the 1930s as the Church adapted to Me)dc&s secularized constitution.(3)

Prior to 1929, the Catholic Church's relations with the Spanish Crown and with successive governments of independent Mexico were characterized by recurrent cycles of conflict and cooperation. During the colonial period in New Spain (1521-182 1), the Crown was authorized by the Vatican under the patronato real (royal patronage) to supervise overseas ecclesiastical administration and to collect tithes. Secular officials winked at such clerical abuses as profiteering and excessive fees, and in return the Church defended Spanish dominion over the Indies as part of the divine natural order. This arrangement was threatened by the Bourbon Reforms of the late eighteenth century when King Charles III attempted to restrict traditional ecclesiastical privileges, including the Church's separate legal jurisdiction and its control over its own invested capital. Yet the reforms proved difficult to enforce, as religious courts continued to operate with state acquiescence and many investments were never seized.(4)

The pattern of accommodation continued after Mexican independence in 1821, despite repeated government moves to reduce Church power. The 1833-35 administration of Valentin Gomez Farias ended civil enforcement of tithes, sharply curtailed the alienation of ecclesiastical property, and mandated secular public education. But as with the Bourbon Reforms, these restrictions were rarely executed.(5)

Far more comprehensive anticlerical measures were incorporated in the 1857 Constitution and the legislation that implemented its provisions, collectively known as the Reform Laws. …

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