Priests and religious were allowed to wear their habits in public again, marriage became a Church matter again and numerous other laws were decreed including the law which required all people to kneel whenever the Most Blessed Sacrament was being carried in procession. However, the French stood firm on refusing to allow all of the property confiscated by Juarez to be returned to the Church. Part of this was because much of this land was then owned by French nationals; which requires some explanation. When Benito Juarez seized the property of the Church, which some have estimated included about one third of the country, no matter how many anti-clerical laws they passed they could not alter the fact that the vast majority of Mexicans were God fearing Catholics and so when these lands were put up for sale most Mexicans refused to buy them. In their absence, foreign investors stepped in and purchased the properties and in many cases these foreigners were Frenchmen. Dependent as they were on French arms, the conservative junta looked the other way on this and contented themselves with waiting for a formal monarchy of their own to be established.
However, at that early stage, both sides seemed to be looking through rose colored glasses and seeing only the best of possibilities in each other. Maximilian looked at the Church and, as was his habit, saw only the best of intentions and assumed that all were as reasonable and liberal-minded as himself. For her part, the Church tended to look upon Maximilian and, despite some reservations at his liberal tendencies, saw only a Hapsburg archduke, a descendant of Emperor Charles V and the hope of a traditional, Catholic monarchy in the old style. Both, to some degree, saw what they most desired and, as such, both were set up for disappointment. However, all of that was still in the future, and for the time being all parties concerned were focused only on getting Maximilian to Mexico and establishing the Second Mexican Empire. Gutierrez de Estrada made the formal invitation and when Maximilian accepted he and his wife were hailed by the assembled Mexican dignitaries as the Emperor and Empress of Mexico. For the young imperial couple this was to be their chance to put all of their lofty ideals into practice and establish a new era in the history of monarchy. For the Church, they saw this as their opportunity to restore the old order and put right all that Juarez had put wrong. Archbishop Labastida made it very clear to the French that, on the key issue involved, Church support for the enterprise was entirely dependent on the restoration of their estates.
Emperor Maximilian shocked and angered the clerical party when he refused to restore the lands confiscated by Juarez to the Church. He did repeal the other oppressive laws and offered to make Catholicism the official religion of Mexico, however, he also insisted on full freedom of religion. Maximilian saw this as a totally reasonable position and could not believe that he, a practicing Catholic who had been warmly received by the Pope upon leaving for Mexico, would not be acclaimed by the Church. However, to put it succinctly, the Church found this proposal totally unacceptable. They demanded that all their property be restored to them and that the Catholic faith be the only legal religion in the Mexican Empire. Essentially, they were holding fast to their goal to have a total restoration of their previous position in the Spanish period and the early years of independent Mexico. They viewed the position of Maximilian as almost a betrayal of his core supporters whereas the Emperor viewed their demand for the return of all lands and their opposition to freedom of religion as an archaic and bigoted attitude.
Emperor Maximilian, with his winning personality, tried to reassure Church leaders that he was on their side and most meetings were friendly enough but in the end settled nothing. Maximilian did not want to be seen as being tied to the clerical party and even used his policy of religious tolerance to try to win over the United States which continued to support Benito Juarez. On this and other issues the Emperor seemed to learn only too late that there was absolutely nothing he could have done to win favor in Washington and the Church hierarchy was rapidly losing patience in dealing with him. When it became clear that Maximilian would not relent on his insistence for religious tolerance and the property issue the papal nuncio, Pedro Francisco Meglia, was recalled and the Church-state relationship that had been at a standoff turned almost into open hostility.
Many Mexican conservative elites more or less withdrew their support at that stage, openly or otherwise. In regards to the Church in Mexico, Emperor Maximilian had basically become bad to know amongst the most zealous members of the clerical faction that had been carrying on the struggle against Juarez and the liberals for so long. In political terms it seemed to be a disastrous policy for Maximilian. Those who would have been his core supporters often became lukewarm or occasionally hostile to the monarchy whereas no liberals were won over to the imperial cause because of it. They may have appreciated such a policy, but then, the most radical liberals often said that Maximilian was impossible to dislike, however, for those opposed to monarchy on principle and those who opposed a foreign-born monarch no matter how good a man he was or what his policies were, nothing Maximilian could ever do would manage to win them over. In short, he lost a lot and gained nothing.
|Max, Carla & Pio IX|
The bishops seemed to be ignoring the basic reality that, in the conflict that existed at that time, their only choices were Juarez or Maximilian; one of which had already proven himself openly hostile to their cause and the other who was willing to give them pride of place but not everything they asked for. By turning their backs on Maximilian the hierarchy, intentionally or not, only helped the cause of Juarez. This was increased by the fact that there was a tradition in Mexico for the lower clergy to sometimes be as radically liberal as the hierarchy was reactionary. The case of the famous Father Miguel Hidalgo is a prime example of this and eventually, after the Church seemed to withdraw its official support for Maximilian, one could find local priests throughout the country speaking of anyone killed by the imperialist side as a martyr. The fact that the cause these men were dying for, that of Benito Juarez, was an anti-clerical secularist cause which had tried to totally dominate if not stamp out the Church in Mexico seemed lost to them.
Father Augustin Fischer was probably the most prominent cleric to remain with Maximilian almost to the bitter end (he did not follow him to Queretaro) and while he is almost invariably vilified in books about Max and the empire he is also invariably credited with being the driving force behind convincing Maximilian to stay in Mexico and try to carry on the imperial enterprise without the support of the French army. Of course, it all ended in noble, tragic failure and the relations between the Church and Maximilian are perhaps best represented by the scene just prior to the Emperor being led away to his execution which has been immortalized in print, on canvas and on film; the image of Maximilian, the condemned man, comforting the priest who had been sent to prepare him. In the end, Maximilian did himself no favors by being so critical of the clergy in Mexico and seemed to rather take for granted his conservative base of support. However, especially in light of subsequent history, the attitude of the Church would be hard for even the most zealous Catholic to defend. Their demands were really unreasonable, they turned their back on what would have been a very strong and favorable position and by holding out for everything they ultimately ended up with nothing. The defeat of Maximilian meant that the anti-clerical regime of Juarez was back in power and then with absolutely no real conservative opposition at all things were to get much worse before they got better and even then, as far as the Church in Mexico has come in recent years, it has never even managed to obtain the status once offered by Emperor Maximilian.