Term Paper: Catholic Church in Mexico Underscored

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[. . .] Liberals opposed these fueros. Not only was the church the principal lender, it also was exempt from taxation on investments and land holdings. However, neither faction represented the true majority: most conservative land-owners and many liberal industrialists saw the state as an institution that existed to protect their interests by keeping rural peasants and the urban workers under control. In this respect at least, they were similar to their counterparts in Great Britain.

In the aftermath of Mexico's defeat at the hands of the United States that lost the country half of its territory many blamed the conservatives and Santa Anna. Strong criticisms were also leveled at the Church and the military, institutions that were viewed as incapable of responding to the changes needed to stabilize Mexico's economic and political sectors.

Juan Alvarez was Mexico's president when the first of the two classic liberal laws was passed in November 1855. It was at that time that Minister of Justice Juarez pushed through Ley Juarez, a law restricting clerical fueros; specifically the authority of church courts. The attack on corporate fueros spread to Mexico's military, challenging the precedent that the legislature and president answered to the military instead of the other way around. This lead to a backlash against the president: a month later Alvarez named Ignacio Comonfort temporary president and announced his own resignation. However, Comonfort was even more aggressive in his persuit of liberal reforms. Commonfort attacked the traditional privileges of the church, enraging conservatives.

Conservatives struck back against the administration, but not before the long anticipated confiscation of Church land, Ley Lerdo. Commonfort accused conservatives of having used the Church to finance their military campaigns. Under Minister of Finance Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, all urban and rural property owned by the Church had to be sold at reduced prices. If the Church was unable to sell this property, the government would hold public auctions. Ley Lerdo also stipulated that the Church could not own property in the future. This move was designed to effectively transition power away from the church. The system of tithing required everyone to give the church 10% of their wealth, which was well below the rates typical of 19th excise and property taxes. The church did not need to pay any taxes at all, and could sit on vast plots of land awaiting a rise of value.

Essentially Ley Lerdo was opposed to the institutional ownership of land; this included the communal land owned by Indian villages. Actions taken by these administrations lead to a new constitutional debate, which asked whether Mexico would be a federalist or a centralist state. A centralist government was established.

In April 1857 more power was stripped from the Church with the passage of the Iglesias Law (named after Minister of Justice Jose Mar'a Iglesias). Unsurprisingly, a conservative faction decried the new Constitution as invalid, captured Mexico City and forced Commonfort's resignation following his successful election bid. Thereafter another Mexican army general, Felix Zuloaga, occupied the office of the presidency. This government won the full support of the Church and Military; the Commonfort administration's chief opponents. Following the arrest of prominent liberals, Mexico plunged into war.

The Church and military tended to support the conservative faction, but there were exceptions. Some clerics favored liberal reforms for the Church, and in rural areas many landholders also adopted the liberal position because Ley Lerdo represented greater opportunities for them to acquire more land.

The war raged on, and church property became the target of liberal forces' destructive appetites. Clerics who resisted actions carried out by the liberal armies were executed by firing squads. Conservatives also took innocent lives; General Leonardo Marquez ordered his soldiers to execute the medical staff who assisted liberal soldiers.

From the liberal enclave of Veracruz, liberals under Juarez passed more anti-clerical laws designed to ensure the power of the state over the Catholic Church. Such actions included ending the collection of tithes, limiting the number of convents and their membership, and restricting the number of religious holidays and the practice of religious processions. Liberals ostensibly maintained the goal of separating church and state, but in actuality wished to break the church'es grip on Mexico. Meanwhile, the conervatives denounced these laws and openly defied liberals by publicly taking communion. However, following the defeat of the conervative faction and the arrival of would-be king Maximillian, the struggle took on nationalist elements. The church at this point was not nearly as involved in the struggle. After his overthrow and the instatement of arch-nemesis of the Catholic church Benito Juarez, relations with the church hit a low as the church was associated with Conservative elites and foreign interventionists. Juarez was considered one of Mexico's greatest heros, a politician turned warrior who had fought the conservatives and military on their own turf and won.

It was the autocrat that followed Juarez, Porfirio D'az, that would favor the church again. Diaz married a young conservative Catholic, Carmen, who convinced her husband not to uphold some of the more stringent elements of the 1857 constitution. However, under Diaz, many elements in the church would take a socialist turn, pitting themselves against the interests of the wealthy rulers of the country and seeing itself as a champion of the poor. Ironically, similar sentiments had allowed Diaz to assume the presidency. Because capitalism had come to replace aristocracy as the economic system that favored the country's wealthy, empowered elite, many churches responded by turning to the doctrine known as Christian Socialism, a two-tiered program of protection for the workers and preservation of their spiritual needs. This represented dissolution of the tie between the church and conservatives in some areas, notably in Indian communities.

The casual analyst might wonder if this was a method by which the church hoped to re-establish its power following the defeat of conservative interests. All of Mexico's regimes had lasted for many years and been supported by the country's military backbone. The dissolution of the aristocratic-military-church coalition forced the church to look for new options at a time when it was threatened by atheist communists and anarchists. However, there are two arguments to the contrary. First, the socialist pangs of the Catholic church were coming from outside Mexico; indeed, they were coming from Pope Leo XIII. Secondly, it can be argued that the new leader had successfully shielded the Catholic Church from further nationalist encroachment. The Pope, however, was concerned that socialist movements remain Christian ones, in Mexico and elsewhere.

The Catholic Church declared its support for worker activism when, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his papal bull entitled Rerum Novarum. From this call Catholic associations sprang up to counter the influence of communist and anarchist movements. Anarchists in the country were fundamentally anti-clerical, as they associated the church with the static status quo that kept workers at the bottom of society.

One of these organizations was the Partido Liberal Mexicano, which first met in 1905 and argued against the conciliatory position adopted by the government toward the Church. Preceding the formation of this group, however, Catholic congresses first met in 1903 to question the treatment of workers. Such groups continued to meet until 1919, advocating improved wages for urban workers and better workplace conditions. These groups spoke against the practices that contributed to rural indebtedness and opposing the calls for secular education. The Catholic church was still seen as a lender, and as a lender it incurred the same wrath as commercial banks at the hands of socialists who saw a transition of capital from church to state as a logical next step to land reform. However, these groups wished to see the same fate befall all organizations in Mexico.

The belief commonly held by representatives of worker's groups in the PLM and Catholic congresses was that President D'az tacitly supported the oppression of Mexican workers. The events of June 1906 at the Cananea copper mine and the events of January 1907 at the R'o Blanco textile mill in Veracruz reflected this notion. Both events were similar to the Homestead riots in Pittsburgh in which Henry Frick of the U.S. Steel corporation hired a private army to combat striking workers. In the former incident, such an army was recruited in nearby Arizona.

Rebel groups were successful in the next decade in removing Diaz from power. However, in this struggle the groups opposed to the clergy prevailed. In the newly formed constitution, Article 130 re-iterated and strengthened and enforced the anti-clerical language enunciated in the 1857 constitution that had inspired Juarez and been ignored by Diaz. The de facto tolerance of Catholicism and the unwillingness to enforce the provisions of the liberal Constitution of 1857 had been a cornerstone of the relationship between church and state during the Porfiriato regime. This changed, as the new Mexican government established itself as superior in power to the church. The proviso furnished the government the means to control matters of worship, establish rules for clerical… [END OF PREVIEW]

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