Tomás Garrido Canabal, Mexico's Marxist minister of agriculture and provincial governor
Hatred of the Catholic Church and its wealth fueled the French Revolution, which replaced Catholicism with atheism, then replaced atheism with a generic religion known as “The Cult of the Supreme Being,” led by its “high priest,” Robespierre. The bloodlust of the Revolution was sated not only the execution of aristocrats but priests and nuns as well.
After Napoleon subverted the Revolution and replaced it with a dictatorship, he took anti-clericalism to the extreme by imprisoning two uncooperative popes in succession. The first papal prisoner, Pius VI, was kept in such harsh conditions he died a year after his imprisonment in 1798.
Less than 100 years later, the Archbishop of Paris was killed by firing squad under the command of the Commune, a proto-communist group that briefly ruled the French capital following the nation’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
Religion kept the oppressed massed from rebelling
Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the people, narcotizing oppressed workers with the promise of better times in the afterlife. The Russian Revolution of 1917 put Marx’s opposition to religion into practice.
Within five years of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, the Soviet Union had put to death 28 bishops and 1,200 priests.
Hitler wanted to return Germany to its distant pagan past
Although baptized a Catholic, Adolf Hitler hated the Church and hoped to replace Christianity with a pagan religion based on Norse myths. But the Catholic Church was too powerful to be wiped out by Hitler and the occultist leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, another “devout” pagan.
When the Nazi regime tried to remove crucifixes from Catholic schools in Bavaria in 1941, the clergy and laity objected so vehemently that the government backed down.
While the lethal opposition to the clergy by the leaders of the French and Russian Revolutions remains well known, anti-clericalism has also existed and thrived in countries famous for the religious devotion of its citizens.
Tourists to Mexico can’t miss the beautiful Spanish Baroque churches erected when Spain ruled Latin America. After the Spanish colonies in the New World colonies rejected their autocratic king and declared independence from Spain, they continued to venerate the Church.
Support for the Church remains after revolutions in Latin America
Unlike their French and Soviet counterparts, the revolutionary leaders of Latin America’s new republics didn’t persecute Catholics because they comprised the majority of the population. Mexico remained supportive of the Catholic Church after it deposed the pro-Catholic general, Augustín Iturbide, who had proclaimed himself emperor in 1822.
The Mexican Constitution of 1824, which followed Iturbide’s ouster, not only made Catholicism the state religion, it outlawed all other faiths.
Friendly relations between Church and state ended with the enactment of the Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States in 1857. The liberal Constitution marked the first conflict between the government and established religion.
Provisions of the Constitution removed Church control of education and confiscated all Church property. Wealthy Mexican landowners formed an alliance with the Church, and both opposed the democratically elected President Benito Juárez, who enforced the Constitution’s anti-Church articles.
After Mexico defaults on foreign loans, the French invade
Due to lack of funds, Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on loans from France and other European nations in 186. Napoleon III used the moratorium as an excuse to invade Mexico, where he hoped to duplicate the military glory of his uncle, the first Napoleon, and cut into the United States’ near monopoly on trade in the Americas.
Emperor Maximilian of Mexico
The conservative establishment comprised of high-ranking members of the clergy and lay landowners supported Napoleon’s invasion. The French Emperor’s troops installed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico following a rigged plebiscite which Maximilian believed expressed the will of the people. The new ruler restored the privileges of the Church which the Constitutions of 1824 and 1857 had outlawed.
Atrocities committed by French troops during Maximilian’s brief reign (1861-1865) tainted the Church by association and generated various degrees of anti-Church sentiment.
The United States engineers the ouster of French troops and Maximilian
After the American Civil War ended in 1865, President Andrew Johnson was able to turn his attention to the French occupation of Mexico, considered a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The President moved troops to the U.S.-Mexican border and blockaded Mexican ports. Under pressure from the U.S., Napoleon withdrew his troops, leaving Maximilian’s shaky government and loyal Mexican troops to fend for themselves.
Following defeat in battle at in 1867, Maximilian was executed in retaliation for his earlier orders to shoot prisoners of war who had fought against him. Despite his backing by the conservative establishment of Mexico, Maximilian preserved many of the liberal legislation of the ousted Juárez regime, including land reform, universal male suffrage, and freedom of religion.
Mexican governments’ love-hate relationship with the Church
Ensuing Mexican governments supported or persecuted the Church. During the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911), the Church was left alone. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 ousted Diaz and replaced him with a liberal democrat, Francisco Madero. He was murdered by the counterrevolutionary leader, Victoriano Huerta, who instituted a violent military dictatorship.
In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to oust Huerta, who fled the country.
Like its alliance with Emperor Maximilian half a century earlier, the Church hierarchy had supported Huerta. After Huerta’s removal, the Constitution of 1917 reflected the new government’s hatred of the alliance between the Church and Huerta’s dictatorship.
The new Constitution, which remains in force today and influenced Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920s, secularized education, forbidding priests and nuns to teach.
Mexico’s atheist president attacks the Church
Plutarco Elias Calles
After a series of coups, Plutarco Elias Calles, an atheist, was elected president in 1924 and put his atheism into practice. Under Calles’ regime, religious objects were desecrated and legislation enacted that persecuted the clergy.
In 1926, Calles intensified his attacks with a series of amendments to the 1917 Constitution that made it illegal to wear clerical garb in public. Freedom of speech was limited and priests who spoke out against anti-Church laws faced prison sentences of five years.
Some states cracked down harder in an attempt to end Church influence altogether. The state of Chihuahua allowed only one priest to minister to Catholics in the region. President Calles went further by seizing church lands, expelling non-native clergy, and shuttering monasteries. Some churches were seized and converted to museums or garages. Bishops were expelled or went underground to escape imprisonment or execution.
The Cristero War erupts
Calles’ repressive measures sparked the rebellion known as the Cristero War in 1927. The rebellion took its name from its call to arms, ¡Viva Cristo Rey! (“Long live Christ the King!”)
The rebels were outnumbered by government forces, resulting in the murder of hundreds of high-ranking clergy as well as poor parish priests. Jesuit historian Edward J. Berbusse has called Calles’ persecution of the Church the worst in Mexico’s history.
A general in charge of suppressing the rebellion summarized the superior forces of the government by characterizing his pursuit of the rebels as “less a campaign than a hunt.”
An observer at the time described Calles’ hatred of the Church and its teachings. “While President Calles is sane on all other matters, he completely loses control of himself when the matter of religion comes up. He becomes livid in the face and pounds the table.”
Two papal encyclicals at the time condemned Calles’ regime.
Atrocities were committed by both sides in the Cristero War. Federal troops slaughtered rebels as well as non-combatants. The rebels tortured and murdered lay teachers who refused to leave their schools. Their corpses were desecrated, earning them the ghastly name of “maestros desoregados” (“teachers without ears”).
The United States mediates peace between Church and state in Mexico
The war ended in 1929 when the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, called together the opposing leaders of the rebellion and persuaded them to lay down their arms. By war’s end, more than 50,000 government troops had died and 30,000 pro-Church rebels. The peace turned out to be a truce which failed to end the excesses of the state against the Church.
Communist rule in Mexico
The worst excesses following the Cristero War were committed in the state of Tabasco by its Marxist governor, Tomás Garrido Canabal. The Governor’s paramilitary troops known as the Camisas Rojas (Red Shirts) because of their uniforms systematically destroyed Tabasco’s magnificent Churches. Another target of the Red Shirts was alcohol because of its toxic effect on Mexico’s indigenous people.
Although some historians consider Garrido Canabal and his Red Shirts fascists, the Governor espoused Marxism and named his son Vladimir Lenin in honor of the founding father of the Russian Revolution. The Red Shirts’s adherence to Communism was also symbolized by its adoption of the Internationale, the anthem of the Russian Revolution, composed by a member of the Paris Commune of 1871.
In a 2006 article in The New Republic, Enrique Krauze called the thuggish Red Shirts “the shock troops of indoctrination for the intense campaign against God and religion.”
As Governor Garrido Canabal and his Red Shirts began to turn Tabasco into a state within a state, Mexico’s president, Lazaro Cardenas, hoped to co-opt Garrido Canabal by naming him minister of agriculture in 1934. The strategy failed when Garrido Canabal showed up in the capital with his troops and resumed his attack on the Church there.
Marxist atrocities in Mexico City
The most violent confrontation took place in December 1934, when the Red Shirts shot and killed five Catholics as they emerged from a church. Garrido Canabal placed the jailed Red Shirts under his protection and sent them a case of champagne.
The atrocity galvanized public opinion, and President Cardenas now felt powerful enough to fire and exile Garrido Canabal and outlaw his Red Shirts.
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene’s classic 1940 novel about an alcoholic, fugitive priest with an illegitimate son, is set in the state of Tabasco during Garrido Canabal’s persecution of Church and clergy.
Servants of the Church nearly wiped out
The clergy neared extinction due to forced emigration and assassination by President Calles and Garrido Canabal. Forty priests were killed during the Mexican reign of terror. At the time of Garrido Canabal’s exile, only 300 priests served 15 million parishioners, while some states had no priests.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 martyred priests executed by federal troops because they refused to leave Mexico.
Berbusse. Edward J., S.J. “The Unofficial Intervention of the United States in Mexico's Religious Crisis, 1926-1930.” The Americas, 1966.
Krauze, Enrique. “The Troubling Roots of Mexico's López Obrador: Tropical Messiah.” The New Republic, June 19, 2006.
Paganel, A. What The Catholic Church Has Done To Mexico (1916). Kessinger Publishing, 2010.
Quirk, Robert. The Mexican Revolution and the Catholic Church, 1910-1929. Greenwood Press, 1986.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders