Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Catholic Church and the Mexican Empire

The cause of the Roman Catholic Church was intricately bound up in the entire French intervention and the life and death of the Mexican Empire. In many ways, the Church was a primary factor in bringing about both the rise and the fall of the Empire of Mexico and the relationship between the Church on one side and the French and Emperor Maximilian on the other is marked by frustrating mistakes by both sides. In the internal strife in Mexico and certainly culminating in the Reform War the two sides could generally be categorized as belonging to the clerical party and the anti-clerical party. The Mexicans in Europe who lobbied for the French intervention and the establishment of a monarchy in Mexico, particularly men like Don Jose Maria Gutierrez de Estrada were staunchly in the pro-Church camp. On the other hand, the liberals and Benito Juarez in particular, were zealous in trying to break the power of the Catholic Church in Mexico that had existed since the first Spaniards arrived.

Napoleon III
When Don Jose Hidalgo peaked the interest of his old childhood playmate, now the Empress Eugenie of France, in the cause of Mexico it was very much the cause of the Church. Empress Eugenie was a devout Catholic and it was always her first instinct to rush to the defense of the Catholic Church and this played a part, at least to a certain degree, in the foreign affairs of the Second French Empire. Whether it was in Lebanon, Vietnam, Mexico or sending troops to defend papal rule over Rome the basically moderate-liberal rule of the French Emperor Napoleon III always tried to also play to French conservatives by acting as the defender of the Church when it was in his interests to do so. When Napoleon III began to be pointed toward the idea that it was in his interest to intervene in Mexico some of the loudest voices calling for that were those exiled conservatives of the clerical party. This was the background to the French intervention and the eventual establishment of the Mexican Empire.

Benito Juarez had made himself the enemy of the Church when he came to power and instituted his liberal constitution which seized all Church property, expelled Catholicism from education, secularized marriage and forbid clerical garb in public and so on. At one point, he even tried to establish his own government controlled papacy which fell through. When the French intervened their greatest support came from the pro-Church party in Mexico such as General Juan Almonte and the Bishop of Puebla Pelagio Antonio Labastida, who was living in exile and was soon named Archbishop of Mexico City. After the French had defeated Juarez and taken Mexico City they called an Assembly of Notables, mostly the friends and associates of General Almonte. This body fairly quickly came into opposition with their French benefactors, however, as the French were, well, French and they soon expressed their distaste of the regime and called Almonte a reactionary. The actions of the junta of Mexican conservatives certainly went against what had become the tradition of post-revolutionary France.

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.

At the time of the transfer of power the ruling junta established a council of regency which consisted of General Almonte, General Mariano de Salas and Archbishop Labastida; which formally invited the Archduke Maximilian of Austria to accept the crown of Mexico. Some of those involved on the French side were wary of the presence of Labastida; fearing that he would dominate the council and make Mexico a de facto theocracy. Allegedly it was Labastida himself who suggested Maximilian as a candidate for the throne but it is certain that the archbishop met with Maximilian while in Europe and therein lies one of the first mistakes made by the two factions of Church and Crown. Archduke Maximilian had, from an earlier visit to the Empire of Brazil (which he was much taken with), formed a very low opinion of the Latin American clerics and he did not make much of an effort to hide this opinion from the outset. Given that it was the pro-Catholic faction which was most involved in offering him the Crown of Mexico, this certainly did not bode well for the future that he was making such critical observations of what was to be his power base.

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.

This was not made a secret, however, both Napoleon and Maximilian chose to ignore it since it did not fit in with their own ideals and temperament. Over time there would be no getting around the issue and it would become a stone around the neck of both Maximilian and the Mexican Catholic Church. Once Maximilian had accepted the Mexican Crown, the clerical bank holiday, so to speak, under the regency of General Almonte came to an end and the venerable officer was soon given a grand title and shipped off to Europe. Almost as soon as Maximilian and Carlota arrived in Mexico trouble began brewing with the Church. Empress Carlota was aghast at the ignorance of the native peasants and laid much of the blame for this at the door of poor catechesis on the part of the Church and her feeling was not entirely unfounded. However, as stated, it was surely a little less than prudent to so quickly begin to criticize the most powerful group in Mexico favorable toward the monarchy. On the other side, the hopes of the Church were also quickly disappointed.

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.

Given all that had happened in Mexico prior to the arrival of Maximilian he perhaps should not have been surprised. When the French had refused to restore their property Archbishop Labastida had left the regency council and closed all the churches. The French army forced them to open again but the other bishops followed the example of Labastida and went so far as to refuse the sacraments, even last rites, to men who had purchased former Church lands. On the whole, it seemed as though the Church saw total victory as finally being within their grasp and were not prepared to settle for anything less. However, given the situation on the ground and the trials being faced by the Church in the rest of the world, one cannot help but observe that they seemed to be beating their heads against a brick wall that was not about to come down.

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
That being said, in hindsight it seems especially obvious, but should have been clearly visible even at the time as well, that the Church was being frustratingly unreasonable to the point of choosing to ignore reality rather than budge an inch on their position. In adopting such an all-or-nothing approach the Church practically guaranteed she would emerge with nothing. Given all that had happened in Mexico already and what was even then going on in the rest of the world, the Church should have been able to see that the old days of huge estates and religious monopoly were over and were not going to be coming back. They spurned the offer of being the official religion of Mexico if they could not be the only game in town and as a result hastened the day when they would have no official status at all in the country.

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.

This basic situation seemed impossible to change even as the Mexican Empire fell on ever more hard times. Maximilian, in his desperation, wanted to bring it to an amicable end, however, as the French pulled out he also saw it as ever more vital to win over the liberals and the United States (a lost cause in any event) and if he gave in to the demands of the Church he would surely be labeled as an autocratic villain in the mold of the old myths of the Black Legend. He sent a loyal (though perpetually scheming) priest named Father Fischer to Rome to try direct negotiations with the Vatican but he accomplished nothing other than providing the Emperor with all of the latest gossip from the Roman aristocracy. The Church would not give an inch in their demands and yet Maximilian was more constrained than ever to hold on to his own position as well. With the end of the War Between the States in America it was even more necessary to try to stay on friendly terms with Washington (rather hard given that they had never recognized his government and vowed never to do so) and this also brought about a wave of immigration from the former Confederate States who, being predominately Protestant, would not settle unless religious freedom was assured.

Toward the end of the life of the imperial regime, Maximilian was extremely desperate and sent his strong-willed wife, Empress Carlota, to Europe to lobby for support. After Paris the most important place on her itinerary was the Eternal City of Rome. Empress Carlota had, if anything, an even lower opinion of the Mexican clergy than her husband. Almost as soon as she entered the country she was shocked by the poor state of education, the lack of proper catechesis, widespread religious practices that seemed eerily close to native paganism and other factors which she attributed to a failure on the part of the local clergy. She was also just as frustrated as her husband at the uncompromising attitude of the Church. However, by the time Carlota reached Rome she was already falling victim to the emotional breakdown that was to remain with her for the rest of her life. In order to avoid any embarrassment, the papal Secretary of State, the worldly-wise Cardinal Antonelli (whose name in any book is almost never mentioned without being in association with such terms as clever, cunning, devious and so on) informed the Empress that she should not expect any change in the Church position so long as the Emperor refused to restore all Church property and until Catholicism was made the one and only legal faith in Mexico. It would have been enough to push Carlota over the edge had she not already plummeted over in all likelihood.

The Pope, in any event, was in no position to offer any assistance. He was himself being sustained in Rome only by the presence of French troops. Having the moral support of the Church might have gained Maximilian some more support from the conservatives, but in reality it would have been, by that time, too little too late. Those who were behind Maximilian regardless of his stand-off with the Church would stay with him while those who had drifted away were unlikely to have returned in any great numbers had he obtained an agreement with the Pope since the odds seemed so much against him at that stage and most in Mexico of every social class tended to support whoever appeared to be winning at the time.

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.


  1. Don't know if you have been following the genetics, but here's some interesting data on Mexico:

    "Most Latin American countries seem to have large percentages of non-Europeans. For instance, Brazil is almost 50% black / mulatto; Columbia is 58% mestizo and 14% mulatto; and Guatemala is more than 90% Amerindian and mestizo.

    According to the CIA World Fact Book, Mexico is:

    60% mestizo
    30% Amerindian
    Less than 10% European (mostly Spaniard)

    And what is the ancestry of mestizos? Examining genetic ancestral markers, Rubén Lisker found the average admixture of a lower-income mestizos in Mexico City to be:

    59% Amerindian
    34% European [mostly Spaniard]
    and 6% black"

  2. The commandment against theft is not unreasonable. The Roman Catholic Church could not compromise its profession of faith and morals without becoming a secular state. Should any society give up true principles to appease the mighty? The Emperor Maximilian's decision to stay with his people is the sign that he had paternal love for them and took his calling seriously. Sadly this would mean that his people were not worthy of him and deserved to rule themselves. Can any people who are not worthy of one receive and obey an earthly monarch? Thank you for sharing this political analysis.

    1. Of course 'thou shalt not steal' is not unreasonable but the Church was holding the wrong side responsible. For that matter, I don't doubt Juarez would accuse the Church of having stolen it first, from the natives, at the time of the Spanish conquest. Maximilian had not confiscated the property but he was the one effectively being punished for it. That was also not the only issue, freedom of religion was another point that could not be agreed on. Surely the Catholic Church would have been better off as the official state religion of Mexico with a Catholic Imperial Family along with religious freedom than having no status in a secular, antiCatholic republic which would have freedom of religion too. It's making the perfect the enemy of the good.

  3. An 'in-depth' treatise has been completed by Dave Stevens re: the Life and Times of Maximilian, entitled: "Sin Perdon: Acquiescence with Murder." Mr. Stevens is also currently working on a screenplay (by the same name), to be released (hopefully) within the very near future.


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