Role of Catholicism for Mexicans

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Catholicism has played an important role in Mexico since its introduction to present day. With a majority of Mexican people being catholic, 85% in 2010 according to a study done by the Pew foundation (Liu). Mexico’s catholic population is second in the world only behind Brazil which leads with a catholic population of roughly 126,750,000 while Mexico has a Catholic population of roughly 96,450,000. Catholicism was first introduced to Mexico through Spanish conquistadors or conquerors in their conquest of the Aztec kingdom. From 1519 to 1521 the Aztecs to preserve their way of life and the Spaniards in the hopes of winning land for the Spanish crown, gold, and lastly, to spread their faith.

The Aztecs were easily defeated by the Spanish who were led by Hernan Cortes and had guns and military technology. The Spanish then began the gradual process of converting the Aztecs to Christianity. This was not an easy process for the Spanish as the Aztecs understandably did not want to replace their long-standing culture and religion for a new religion imposed by a cruel and foreign European rule. However, ultimately the resistance weakened and Christianity began to spread throughout the newly named Mexico. The question of how the Aztecs were converted is a complicated question which is not easily answered. Some claim that the Aztecs believed the Spanish to be gods and were more complacent in being converted because of this. While this was one of the many reasons why the Spanish were able to conquer the Aztecs easily, it is not clear if this perceived power had the same effect on converting indigenous peoples. Another theory which explained the Aztec conversion was that their conversion was mostly forced. This is more plausible given the harsh and brutal nature of the Spanish.

This is easily seen when the conquistadors branched out from Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, to “tame” the indigenous peoples. In the process, they spread death and destruction throughout Mexico both through the brutal massacre of the native peoples and through the spread of European diseases that took the lives of an estimated two-thirds of Mexico’s population. Cortes, sensing a resistance by the Aztecs to convert, also destroyed Aztec idols and temples. From this destruction came the concept of building churches on or near the site of Aztec temples which enabled them to continue their pilgrimages. This leads me to my next and arguably most convincing factor to how the Aztecs “agreed” to be converted: that missionaries aided the adaptation of native Mexican culture to European Spanish Catholicism which made Christianity seem less imposing to the Aztecs. This theory of adaptation and mixture of Spanish and Aztec culture and religion is perhaps best represented in the story of the Lady or Virgin Guadalupe. She appeared to a 57 year old indigenous man who a recent convert to Christianity had changed his name from Cuauhtlatohuac to Juan Diego. He was on his way to a nearby barrio, or neighborhood to attend mass, when on his way past a hill called Tepeyac he heard beautiful music. A radiant cloud appeared and within it stood a Indigenous woman dressed like an Aztec princess.

She spoke to him in his native language and sent him to the Franciscan bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga, who was to build a chapel where she had appeared. The bishop asked Juan to have the angelic woman send him a sign, and at the same time Juan’s uncle became seriously ill. (ibid.) Juan tried to avoid the woman thinking she was responsible for his uncle’s sickness but she appeared to him once again with the assurance that his uncle would recover. She gave him roses for Juan to carry in his cape and give to the Bishop. On December 12 when Juan opened his cloak before the bishop the roses the woman had given him fell to the ground and on the cape where the roses had appeared there was an image of Mary as he had appeared to Juan on the hill of Tepeyac. Coincidentally near the site of the hill where there had been an Aztec temple to the goddess Tonantzin. This was a turning point in the influence of Catholicism in Mexico.

The native people of Mexico once deterred by Christianity now came in droves, and as a result 9 million indigenous Mexicans became Catholic in a very short period of time. Undoubtedly our Lady of Guadalupe would become one of the most import symbols in Mexican Catholicism and national identity. The image of the brown-skinned “Virgencita” standing on a crescent moon surrounding by golden rays with her head covered in a familiar blue-green cloak has become iconic in Mexican culture. One reason why she was so successful in converting native Mexicans was that the Lady of Guadalupe or the “dark” virgin was able to relate to the native people. With her dark skin and relation to the Aztec gods as she was dressed like an Aztec goddess and appeared near the old site of an Aztec goddess temple. This led historians to claim that she blended native Mexican culture with Spanish Catholicism and evolved from the Aztec goddess Tonantzin (Agren). This combination which was able to convert masses went on to develop a new and unique form of Mexican Catholicism where religious piety was emphasized and freely expressed, with the sacramental and social side taking more of a back seat (Agren). If the intention of the Lady Guadalupe was to unite Mexican and Spanish culture, the vision was certainly a success and it’s reverberations would be felt throughout Mexican history.

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For example, Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, considered the “father” of Mexican independence in 1810, used the flag with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to ignite the people’s rage against oppression since it was the only graphic symbol he could find that identified with the whole Mexican nation both indigenous (indigenous Mexicans) and mestizos. She was declared the Patroness of the Americas by Pope John Paul II and the basicillia built for her located in Mexico City draws hundreds of thousands of who people to travel to worship at her shrine. Our Lady of Guadalupe symbolizes that God’s love and identification with the poor is an age-old truth that stems from the gospel itself. This message would support the Mexican Revolution against its antiquated serf-like economic system. Our Lady of Guadalupe would ironically become the symbol of a revolution which would ultimately suppress Catholicism in Mexico.

Originally, the church enjoyed a privileged position in the newly liberated Mexico, where only Catholics were counted as citizens. However this would soon change and, although Mexico had and has a strong Catholic identity, the church would be outlawed for most of the 19th century. This harsh and tense relationship between church and state began in the 1850s with the rise of liberals and the indigenous president Benito Juárez. Juárez adopted a policy of anticlericalism which was a movement in opposition to the Catholic Church’s dominant power in Mexico, both as the largest landowner and majority religion of the people. Juárez passed laws which confiscated church property, subordinated church courts to civil authority and prohibited priests from wearing clerical dress in public. Mexico’s first religious civil war was fought between 1857 and 1860 in reaction to this legislation. (Mexico - Religion) Anti-clericism would play a role in various revolutions throughout history in predominantly Catholic countries such as France, Mexico, Spain, and Portugal as well as communist countries who viewed religion as a form of capitalist oppression. The revolution of 1910 and the New Mexican Constitution took on an even stricter anti-cleric policy. The New Mexican constitution called for secular education and prohibited the Catholic Church from engaging in primary education, outlawed the monastic order, forbade public worship outside of churches (Anti-Clericalism). It also placed restriction on the right of religious organizations to hold property. The most restrictive article by far was article 130 which deprived the clergy of basic political rights. These restrictions grew as the country’s new leader feared that religion would hold back progress and passed even stricter anti clerical laws. One such law was the banning of any preaching relating to politics in churches. This prompted Pope Pius to write an encyclical in 1926 claiming that the new Mexican government had placed priests in the same category as the “criminals and the insane”.

This conduct highlighted the difference between secularism and anti-clericalism. While secularism simply highlights a distinction between church and state, anticlericalism calls for a, “complete subordination of the church to state.” (Jim Tuck) The strictest enforcement of these laws came in the late 1920s under the presidency of President Callas. While he was in power Mexicans were imprisoned simply for wearing religious items and for saying “adios” or “with God” in public. Public worship was a crime punishable by death, either by hanging or firing squad. It was during this period from 1926-1929 that the Cristero Rebellion took place. After a decree was passed which required the registration of priests and the confiscation of church property, Mexico’s Catholic bishops made the decision to close churches and go underground. In opposition to this, the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty (LNDLR) was founded in March of 1925. LNDLR reversed its previous strategy of passive resistance and called for action, which was answered the following year. The sounds of rebellion first broke out in with the Mexican rallying cry “Viva Cristo Rey!” meaning 'Live Christ the King!'. This began the Cristero rebellions, with the Mexican rebels amasing a force of 50,000 cristeros, or soldiers of Christ. The uprising left a shortage of priests however a faithful following who developed a new form of Mexican Catholicism where they practiced in private, praying the rosary, venerating the virgin Mary and their chosen saints, and baptising their children though not attending mass or receiving the sacraments. The revolution ended in 1929 with over 90,000 killed. This was the end of any major religious revolt in Mexico although Cristero diehards would appear sporadically and unsuccessfully through the 30s. Butler 1929 also saw a new clerical authority over the laity with the Rome endorsed ACM or Mexican Catholic Action which reconfigured previous Catholic associations into 4 controlled groups. Under the surveillance of this group, the state, and the Catholic church, lay people would be directed to apolitical, pious and catechetical projects. The enforcement of anti-catholic laws lessened to some extent and there was a slight decrease in tension, but the church remained in fierce opposition of the state’s policy of socialist education, which was largely anti-catholic.

This ended in the 1940s when the education system changed and restrictions lessened. In 1945, the Guadalupan anniversary showcased a new Christian rooted pan-Americanism which was further when the Virgin of Guadalupe was declared the Patroness of the Americas. In the 1960s, a new relationship developed between the Catholic Church and the state. The church became increasingly more vocal as a critic of the state, antagonizing both the Institutional Revolutionary Party failing socioeconomic model and, especially in the 1980s, its authoritarian political practices. In places, radical strains of Liberation Theology helped to guide indigenous and urban protests against the regime, while also posing an internal, ecclesial problem for the church itself. Although Mexico had remained a Catholic majority throughout this time ,it was not until 1992 that the church was restored as a religious entity in Mexico. Mexico despite it’s strange and tense relationship with the church, has a larger majority of Catholics than many other Latin American countries.

A decline in Catholicism had been sweeping across Latin America with the portion of people who identify as Catholic declining considerably in recent decades, from at least 90% in the 1960s to 69% in 2014. This is most likely due to the increase in protestant denominations as well as some leaving the religion altogether. However in Mexico this trend is less pronounced with 81% of adults identifying as Catholic today, compared with 90% who say they were raised Catholic, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report. Mexicans continue to practice religious and cultural traditions mixing Aztec and Catholic traditions such as Day of the Dead. Another important holiday in mexico is the day of the Virgen de Guadalupe which became a national holiday in Mexico in 1859. People from all over Mexico gather each year on Dec. 12 at Mexico City’s Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe to celebrate the patron saint’s birthday.

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Role of Catholicism for Mexicans. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from
“Role of Catholicism for Mexicans.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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