Dr Matthew Butler (University of Texas, Austin) continued our lecture series on 18 April 2012, with a fascinating examination of radical religious movements in Mexico during the period of political, economic and socio-cultural upheaval after the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century. Having joined our group for the earlier workshop on Liberalism and Religion: Secularisation and the Public Sphere in the Americas, Butler discussed his new work on the schismatic religious movement led by Father Pérez in the 1920s and its relationship to the transformed place of liberalism within Mexican political cultures in the post-revolutionary era. You can watch the full lecture and ensuing discussion session on our youtube channel.
Connecting his lecture to our previous discussions in the workshop, Butler began by explaining that constitutional Catholicism and Church reform movements had long been an integral part of Mexican religious identity at both elite and popular levels of society. Although there had been considerable conflict between more radical liberal governments and the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century – over issues of Church property and clerical fueros in particular – many liberal administrations had adopted more co-operative relationships with the Church and the majority of the population continued to identify strongly with Catholicism in many areas, and the revolutionary governments’ policies towards the Church provoked a violent reaction from Church supporters, known as the Cristero War or the Cristiada (1926-29).
The “schismatic” movement that Butler explored in most of his lecture represented a combined agenda of popular Catholicism, agrarianism, popular liberalism, and anti-clericalism and was centred in the rural regions of Guerrero, Puebla, Chiapas, Veracruz and Tlaxcala during the mid to late 1920s. The anti-clerical aspect of the schismatic body, known as the Mexican Catholic and Apostolic Church, represented not a rejection of religion but a reformulation, being primarily directed against Ultramontanism, seeking to eradicate corruption and abuse of hierarchical authority from the Mexican Church, and creating a more interactive, mutually beneficial relationship between the clergy and their flock.
Not only was the schismatic church an attempt to build a more patriotic and abuse-free church to serve the Mexican people and nation, but the movement also acted to sacralise some aspects of the Revolutionary reform agenda – particularly regarding agrarian reform and social engineering projects seeking to improve the living conditions of the Mexican peasantry and to structure the moral universe of the ordinary population around ideals of citizenship, virtue and patriotism. Butler emphasised that the schismatic church had vibrant popular support in local communities, which strongly shaped how the schismatic church operated at local level. This was partly due to the schismatic body being able to step into the vacuum left by the suspension of official Catholic Church services from 1926, when the episcopate effectively announced a clerical strike in protest against Plutarco Elías Calles’ policies against the Church. But the support for the schismatic church also emanated from the synergy with particular local concerns and with the broader agrarian, community autonomy, and popular religion agendas that were widespread in the areas where the schism took hold. Later in the lecture, Butler explored in considerable detail how this schism impacted at different local levels, comparatively examining communities to the north of Mexico City in the valleys of Texcoco and Teotihuacan and rural areas in the Sierra Norte del Puebla and around Veracruz to the south.
You can listen to the full recording of Butler’s lecture on our youtube channel – and please leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.