|Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Baltimore's Archbishop Michael Joseph Curley, Oklahoma's
Bishop Francis Clement Kelley and the Mexican Affair: 1934-1936
Today we are accustomed to believe that the Catholic Church in Mexico is
on relatively good terms with the government, especially after 1992 when
the Holy See concluded diplomatic relations which at long last permitted
the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church to register and assume legal
existence. On May 24, 1993, the murder of the cardinal-archbishop of
Guadalajara, Juan Jesús Posadas, was not generally suspicioned to have
been instigated by the government, as might have been the case sixty
years ago. Without opposition Pope John Paul II personally visited
Mexico as recently as last August before going to Denver for World Youth
Day. It would have been unthinkable during the reign of "Papa Ratti,"
Pope Pius XI.
Thus the persecution which the Church in Mexico endured, especially
during the first forty years of this century, might well be reviewed in
order to see how the change between then and now has taken place.
Two of the most intense years of suffering for the Church were between
1934 and 1936 when Archbishop Michael Joseph Curley of Baltimore,
Maryland spoke out in defense of the repressed. Since 1921 when he
succeeded James Cardinal Gibbons, Irish-born "Iron Mike" Curley never
kept his thoughts secret. They were printed in the official diocesan
newspaper, still in existence today, by his alter ego, Mr. Vincent de
Paul Fitzpatrick, managing editor of The Baltimore Catholic Review
(BCR). In that period, moreover, the Baltimore archdiocese included the
District of Columbia.
The capital city itself, Washington, became a separate archdiocese in
1939, equal to Baltimore. Only after Curley died in 1947 did the
Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., along with five counties in southern
Maryland, receive its first resident archbishop. Curley was the
archbishop of two archdioceses, in other words. This meant that the
Review surely would not escape notice by the political establishment
And if anybody was "anti-establishment," it was Curley. Unlike
Cardinal Mundelein, an ardent Roosevelt supporter, Curley had no use for
either mainstream America or for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
He dismissed liberalism in every form.
Furthermore, more than any other of Baltimore's archbishops, Curley's
private and official papers were preserved.1 In addition to
the original issues of the Review itself, collected in the
library of the Catholic University of America, this documentation is now
found in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore (AAB), and they
have been consulted specifically for this essay. One entire uncatalogued
carton is marked "Mexico (Unclassified)." Unfortunately, Catholic
University of America Professor Christopher J. Kauffman informs us that
the archives on Mexico maintained by the American bishops remain closed
for the present.
Curley's friend, Bishop Francis Clement Kelley, second bishop of
Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, would be perhaps the only other
American bishop to work with him in an energetic and forceful manner on
this issue. After John Lancaster Spalding who died in 1916, Kelley was
surely the most intellectually sophisticated bishop since the nation's
very first was ordained in England in 1790. At one point he nearly
became rector of the Catholic University, and he was the author of
seventeen books. No one of less reputation than the anti-Roosevelt
secularist and "Sage of Baltimore," H. L. Mencken, was an admirer of his
writing style. Although Oklahoma was remote
very remote, with a sparse (under 3%) Catholic population
Kelley and Curley maintained a lively correspondence and worked
tirelessly together on the Mexican question.
The revolution which brought the National or "Institutional"
Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power in the United States of Mexico
occurred in stages. But the Constitution which would regulate the
relations between church and state was finalized in 1917. It is hard to
say what "revolution" really meant in the long run
it certainly didn't mean democracy for Mexico
but it was a type of social upheaval accompanied by ideological rhetoric
which rejected the order of the past. One might allude to the
Constitution of 1857, or the revolutionary events of 1910 and
thereafter. But the Constitution of 1917 is the most fitting point of
departure for us presently since the authorities claimed it as the legal
basis for the renewed attacks on the Catholic Church after some
intermittent periods of relative calm.2
A book by the British Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh nicely captured the
spirit of the times with the title: Mexico: Robbery Under Law.
The Jesuit editor of America, Wilfrid Parsons, aptly entitled his
1936 book on the subject Mexican Martyrdom.
In 1926 there was a rebellion of Mexican Catholics against the regime
which had been kept in power by military means and the will of the
ruling National Revolutionary Party. The Party, an amalgam of Masons,
Socialists, Communists, and greedy opportunists, had interpreted the
anti-clerical laws arbitrarily and severely. This led to the killing of
priests and the confiscation of churches, schools, religious houses of
all kinds, and other properties. The Catholics who fought against the
government were called "Cristeros," and today Jean Meyer, a French
historian, is researching this phenomenon from his base in Mexico City.
The Cristeros had few means of their own, and only got their weapons
after overcoming the enemy and taking theirs. They represented the
overwhelmingly Catholic majority of the country's population, but they
only took to arms out of desperation. At one time the Cristeros were
said to have thirty thousand men loyal to their cause. The record shows
they were never defeated.
An exiled Mexican Catholic lawyer, Octavio Elizonde, wrote in a letter
dated January 21, 1935, that he had completed a Memorandum for Curley
which was a detailed report concerning the events since 1929. He also
asked for an interview that week. Subsequently, in a letter to Mr.
Vincent Fitzpatrick, Curley confirmed that the twelve-page text "is
about the best thing I have seen on the recent situation since 1929. The
analysis it gives of the so-called peace made in that year is
Elizonde states that between 1926 and 1929 an armed struggle was carried
on in behalf of the Catholic cause by the rebels known as Cristeros.
This army was poised to deliver the final blow when the Mexican
hierarchy, at the wish of the Holy See, requested them to disarm and to
accept the offer of the Mexican government under President Plutarco
Calles to establish a modus vivendi in regard to the religious
question. Out of duty and obedience the Cristeros laid down their arms
and thereupon, in the words of the BCR:
The first things (sic) Calles did after peace had been made was to shoot
down 500 Cristero leaders. The six years of the entente Cordiale between
Calles and the Church have been the six bloodiest years in the history
Actually, Elizonde puts the figure at 400, but perhaps the exact number
will never be known. Calles was responsible for the killing. Plutarco
Elías Calles, President of Mexico from 1924 to 1928, was depicted in the
BCR the way Nicolai Ceausescu was in the popular press of 1989.
When Calles left office in 1928 he controlled the government from behind
the scenes, and he dominated the life of the country until 1934 when his
rival Lázaro Cárdenas won out. How did Calles control the whole country
for so long? Very simple
by owning the army. Cárdenas prevented him from making a final comeback
in 1936. No one has ever been able to explain adequately Calles' extreme
and irrational hatred for the Church. Perhaps it was a combination of
greed and Jacobin ideology. In any case, Cárdenas also hated the Church,
but his fanaticism was more pragmatic and times had changed by the
The BCR described the 1929 revenge upon the Catholic "freedom
fighters" more fully by setting the figure at 500 leaders and 5,000
ordinary men who were shot, often in their homes in front of their
families. Their property was then seized, leaving the survivors
destitute. Elizonde clearly says that the obedience of the Mexican
Catholics to the request of the Holy See was a disaster for the Church,
and ended only in betrayal. The American Jesuit Wilfrid Parsons, on the
other hand, claims Archbishop Pascual Díaz, SJ, of Mexico City,
disagreed with those of Elizonde's persuasion, and thought the decision
to seek a military solution was mistaken in the first place.5
Furthermore, Father John Burke's biographer, John B. Sheerin, adds:
Almost the entire Mexican hierarchy gathered in Mexico City on November
26th (1926) at the home of Bishop Pascual Díaz, the Jesuit who acted as
secretary of the episcopal committee but was suspected of being a pliant
ecclesiastical opportunist. The hierarchy met with lay leaders to
discuss the Liga's plans for revolution. Díaz told the lay leaders that
the bishops had examined the plans but could not give their approval to
use of arms. Priests could serve the rebel forces but could not join the
fighting. Although in sympathy with the rebels and unwilling to condemn
their armed rebellion, the bishops did not sanction armed revolt. As the
prelates had not actually forbidden the Liga to join the Cristeros in
their fight, the Liga leaders felt that Díaz had given his
quasi-blessing to the rebellion and they set to work organizing the
rebellion more eagerly. Díaz had given his quasi-blessing to the
rebellion and they set to work organizing the rebellion more eagerly.
Díaz himself was arrested for allegedly directing Cristero military
activities but was exiled rather than jailed. Deported, he journeyed to
New York. At the administrative committee meeting on April 26, 1927,
Burke informed the committee that Díaz had made clear to him that the
Mexican hierarchy did not want the NCWC to countenance in any way the
promotion of armed resistance in Mexico.6
Undoubtedly the BCR was merely reflecting the Elizonde
Memorandum. In that document, he had said:
And notwithstanding the fact that an immense majority of all the
Catholics of action who had been struggling for a long time and with all
lawful means against the tyrants of the Mexican people, felt a deep
rooted doubt as to the success of an agreement arrived at under such
circumstances and on such bases, we accepted, sincerely, and in all
discipline, through our love for the Church and respect for His Holiness
Pope Pius XI, the situation created by the so-called agreements and made
ourselves ready to struggle within the terms of the "modus vivendi" to
reconquer our lost liberties; not without a feeling, on the part of the
great mass of the people, of profound discouragement and frustration
upon the abrupt ending thus brought to the heroic and bloody movement of
defense carried on during the years 1926 to 1929 (AAB,
Memorandum, p. 2).7
Curley advised his editor to correct the English, given above in the
original, since it was done by a Mexican whose stylistic skills in
American English were limited.
The BCR of August 23, 1935 printed the following figures for its
American readers. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed.
Miguel Augustín Pro, SJ, had been summarily shot on November 23, 1927.
Pro was later to be beatified in 1988. There were 2,500 priests in
hiding, many of them in the Federal District, the State of San Luis
Potosí (where the local governor received priests and nuns, despite
federal laws) or in exile. The Apostolic Delegate and Archbishop of
Morelia, himself a Mexican, and five additional bishops had been exiled.
Twelve bishops were impeded from their dioceses, and four were arrested
but later released. In 1934 there were 334 priests licensed to practice
their ministry by the government for fifteen million people, whereas in
1926 there were 3,000 serving the people.8
As early as the year of rebellion itself, 1926, the U.S. Catholic
hierarchy issued a Bishops' Pastoral on the Mexican Situation: A
Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Episcopate of the United States on the
Religious Situation in Mexico. It claimed not to be an appeal for
political intervention of any kind or for action of any sort.9
The Mexican Constitution of 1917 contains various articles regulating
church property, church schools, and the quotas of priests or other
clergy which would be allowed and duly licensed. It did not specify any
one religion to be restricted, but made the laws applicable to all
religions. In Mexico, the number of Protestants or Jews or those of
other religions was quite small at the time. Therefore it was no secret
that the Catholic Church was the true target for this federal
legislation. Between 90% and 95% of the population was Catholic, and the
Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was one of the most popular in the
In 1935 the BCR mentioned that a law in one of the Mexican states
forbade the registration, to obtain a license for practice of the
ministry, of priests who were celibate.10 This is one example
of the restrictions, but it typifies the anti-Catholic nature of some of
the legal provisions even when the Catholic Church was never mentioned
by name. We are all familiar with the cowardly Whiskey Priest who lived
in concubinage and dereliction as portrayed in Graham Greene's The
Power and the Glory.
A small sign of hope in 1935 was the annulment by President Lázaro
Cárdenas of the decree censoring foreign religious mail coming into
which had to that point included, of course, the BCR.11
In that same year, Archbishop Curley had considered setting up a Bureau
for Mexican Affairs in Baltimore. On January 4, 1935, he wrote to the
exiled Apostolic Delegate to Mexico, Archbishop Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores.
The Delegate since 1932 had been living across the border in San
It is very largely a matter of money, and just how we are going to get
the money I do not see for the moment. Other Dioceses may not be as
interested in Mexican affairs as is this, and it is a difficult thing at
this time, on account of financial conditions, to get them interested.12
Curley is referring, of course, to the total collapse of the economy
which created the dire conditions of The Great Depression. The lack of
funds for special projects such as aid to the Church in Mexico was
obviously acute. Even the state of the BCR as it has survived up
to the present moment suggests they were using the least expensive paper
available. There is still some reason to believe other bishops besides
Kelley were sympathetic, although unable, to help.
On April 2, 1935, Kelley wrote to Curley:
It was mighty kind of you to send one hundred dollars. I can do a lot
with that. In fact I have enough now to cover the whole Senate and part
of the House. I have written to John Burke asking him if he will take
care of the distribution in Washington.13
The matter being discussed by this letter is the financing and
distributing of copies of Blood-Drenched Altars for the members
of Congress who were deliberating over the Borah Resolution whose point
was to condemn religious persecution in Mexico. The book had been
published under Bishop Kelley's name, and hastily researched for him by
Eber Cole Byam:
This volume of more than 500 pages, which made no pretense at being a
detached treatise, defies an adequate summary. Its mass of facts,
contentions, and scholarly references were bound together by a single
proposition, supported by two cosmic themes running through the book.
Kelley's objective was to present to a pluralistic America the idea that
religious oppression was beyond narrow sectarian interest. The
persecution in Mexico was a tragedy that should concern all men and
women, whether or not they were sympathetic to or affiliated with the
It has endured the test of time, was praised in 1950 after Kelley's
death by Frank Tannenbaum, sympathetic historian of the revolution, and
was even recently republished. To prove it was taken seriously, we have
evidence that it was reviewed by the Mexican government's Department of
Publicity of the Ministry of Foreign Relations.15 The name
given was deliberate:
Kelley's choice of title, Blood-Drenched Altars, referred to the
savage pre-Christian rites of human sacrifice which greeted the
conquistadors and padres. Yet in this primitive environment these
pioneers had built cathedrals, universities, hospitals, schools,
— relics of a noble civilization which preceded in antiquity and
rivaled in splendor the institutions that evolved in North America. The
revolution in Mexico, Kelley went on, had thus targeted its attack on
the two pillars of this way of life, first driving Spain back to Europe
and, a century later, threatening to crush the church.16
Bishop Francis Clement Kelley would certainly not have followed the
fashion, so common lately, of denouncing Columbus for bringing Spanish
civilization to the New World. The human sacrifice represented by the
Aztec "blood-drenched altars" was, to him, even comparable to the
slaughter of the Catholics at the hands of the Mexican government
between 1926 and 1936, except the altars were Catholic, not Aztec.
Curley's chosen investigator and historian of the Mexican persecution
was Georgetown University's Father Michael Kenny, SJ, who surely agreed
with Curley when the following translation of a smuggled Mexican
document appeared in the BCR, July 3, 1936:
As many, if not most, of the evils we now endure have been caused
directly or indirectly by United States influence, and there is
undoubtedly a debt of restitution, an obligation to repair the resultant
evils of oppression and suppression of liberties that a tyrant minority
inflicts, and can only inflict by the favor of our all-powerful North
American neighbor. We submit that the neighborhood of our countries and
the evils that we are suffering, materially as well as morally, largely
through United States
influence, imposes on the honest people of the United States the duty of
aiding us in averting impending disaster.17
Curley was forever frustrated that he and the Church could not affect
the Roosevelt Administration to do more for the sufferings of Mexican
Catholics, even in such a simple thing as the recall of an ambassador
who was perceived as inimical to this cause, or at best, a bungler in
the effort to help. That frustration was spoken of by Bishop Francis
Clement Kelley in a letter to Curley:
I do not understand the President. I had heard that he made a promise.
Surely he had enough visits from ecclesiastical dignitaries to
understand the situation. I am afraid that some of those who went to see
him, by avoiding the subject of Mexico, gave him the idea that we are
divided about it.18
If Kelley didn't understand the president, we may assume Cardinal
Mundelein did. Historian David J. O'Brien says:
Mundelein soon became the President's closest friend in the hierarchy.
In 1935, when Catholics were incensed by Roosevelt's Mexican policy, the
Cardinal heaped praise on him in ceremonies at Notre Dame.19
The incident over the recall of the American ambassador deserves special
note. It was the result of the clash between the suppression of Catholic
education in Mexico, even after the modus vivendi of 1929, and
the introduction of "Socialist" education in its place.
Promises made in 1929 were never honored by the government of Mexico.
Perhaps this is because the arrangement rested on a "gentlemen's
agreement" no more solid than oral assurances between President Emilio
Portes Gil (described by the BCR as a callista)20
and the American Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow. The BCR never
considered any of them gentlemen, either. In the "modus vivendi" the
Catholics were supposed to be respected. They were to be allowed to use
every democratic means to effect a constitutional change: the "vote,
written and spoken propaganda, appeals before judicial authorities,
petitions to Congress, etc."21 Elizonde maintains that the
Church was lied to, and the American ambassador had economic interests
and the American business community to please above all else. The
struggle which finished the alleged truce was the educational issue when
the government strove to impose a complete monopoly and install a
Elizonde in the Memorandum is shocked and at a loss when he says there
is no explanation for the absence of any protocols on the question of
education in the 1929 agreements.
Bishop Kelley had written in Blood-Drenched Altars:
The new Constitution prohibited any minister of religion from teaching
in a school, public or private. Article 3 prohibited religious
corporations or ministers of any religious creed from establishing or
directing primary schools. Article 130 went further and ordered the
confiscation of any school erected for the purpose of teaching religion.
It provided likewise that in all primary-school matters the curriculum,
teachers, etc., be under the direction of the Federal government. Not
only were clergymen forbidden to teach, but they were even forbidden to
maintain any institution of scientific research. Nevertheless Article 3
begins with the words "Instruction is free."22
It was the school issue which strained the consciences of Mexican
Catholics when the "atheistic brainwashing" of the revolutionary
curriculum was applied to their children. This schooling had been
invested with the content of an alien ideology, contrary to the faith of
Mexican Catholics. The January 24, 1936 edition of the BCR stated
that the Mexican Hierarchy in a formal pastoral letter had condemned the
socialistic education curriculum explicitly. Parents were not permitted
to send their children to these state schools under pain of mortal sin,
and no Catholic was permitted to teach in them. They had to give up
their jobs if this was necessary. No Catholic was permitted to be a
socialist under any condition. Socialism here, according to the BCR,
was just communism using the name "socialism."23
On one occasion President Lázaro Cárdenas, who had succeeded Calles,
tried to defend socialist education. Sacrilegiously speaking from the
Catholic church pulpit in Ciudad González, he is reported to have said:
It is untrue that Socialistic education may lead to the dissolution of
the home; and it is also untrue that it perverts children and separates
them from their parents. Socialist education prepares the child so that,
when he becomes a man, he may comply with his obligations of solidarity
in a spirit of fraternity for his class companions.24
He went on to challenge the men to support the revolutionary
process, and basically said religion should be left to women.
They, the women, if they had these religious sentiments could believe in
Catholic things if they wished, and the revolutionary government would
promise not to infringe upon their rights. This is somewhat
contradictory because part of the National Revolutionary Party's
rhetoric was in favor of a version of the class-struggle theory which
included women as a special part of the proletariat. He insulted the
local priest and said he must be careful to obey the laws set by the
government.25 One can only imagine how Curley took such an
attack on the priesthood and on simple Mexican peons. He was thinking,
no doubt, that the federal president's words in Ciudad González were
aimed at the eight archdioceses, twenty-two dioceses, and one vicariate
apostolic of all Mexico. And it was no secret that the revolutionary
school system was inculcating atheism. Its program of "sex-education"
was crude and laughable in today's terms. And it was certainly offensive
to Mexican standards of decency. One might also add that the whole
persecution was crude because it only served to enrage the vast
multitudes of the population.
If Elizonde repudiated the role of American Ambassador Morrow in the
"modus vivendi" of 1929, Curley did the same for Ambassador Josephus
Daniels who represented the American Government in these years of
Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. Daniels, precisely at the time of
the educational conflict mentioned above, gave a short talk in the
American embassy in Mexico City, July, 1934, which praised the Mexican
government's efforts in the educational field.
Daniels quoted President Calles favorably, and the key line was: "We
must enter and take possession of the mind of childhood, the mind of
youth."26 The BCR headline read "Josephus Daniels
Offends 330,000,000 Catholics."27 Curley was furious, as were
many others, even though Daniels maintained his words were innocent and
had been taken out of context by the Catholic press in the United States
and by Mexican Catholics themselves. It does seem that the BCR
was making this into an artificial "cause célèbre."
An exiled Mexican priest writing in the BCR quoted Governor
Arnulfo Pérez of the State of Tabasco who approved of the following song
in the school curriculum:
God did not create mankind; the latter created God. There is no God
except in petrified hearts and books. The priests are like bartenders
who exploit mankind.28
We might look at the comparison with Baltimore. At this same time
Curley's archdiocesan newspaper carried numerous articles on the
situation of Catholic education in Baltimore. New schools were opening
and old ones were praised for their efforts. Girls and boys were
photographed at wholesome social and athletic functions, and there was
much interest in youth generally. Curley's friend Bishop Kelley was
chairman of the Bishops' Committee of the Boy Scouts of America.29
Mr. Vincent de Paul Fitzpatrick in 1929 had written the Life of
Archbishop Curley: Champion of Catholic Education. The contrast with
the situation in Mexico was sharp.
Ambassador Josephus Daniels, a Protestant, was a native of Raleigh,
North Carolina. On April 29, 1935, he paid a visit lasting an hour with
the Catholic Bishop of Raleigh, William J. Hafey. Hafey immediately
wrote to Curley. A number of points were considered, but it was Hafey's
judgment that Daniels was worried and that he, Hafey, had done his part
to encourage him to resign "and ultimately he might also decide that
Raleigh, little town that it is, might be preferable to Mexico City."30
But the urgency of Hafey's letter was due to Daniels. The ambassador was
asking him to serve as an intermediary in requesting an appointment with
Curley within ten days. Curley loaned the letter to a Jesuit friend and
wrote "Please return" at the top. He also wrote in the upper right-hand
corner: "I feel I should not see Mr. Daniels."31
The BCR, a weekly, had an inflammatory tenor and tone in
referring to Daniels that would surely be unacceptable by today's
standards of journalism. It was so harsh and severe as to make the
expression "flayed alive" seem the only one of sufficient strength to
describe what they were doing to poor Ambassador Daniels. The paper
often used the device of "open questions" rhetorically and sarcastically
directed to Mr. Daniels. Hafey in his letter also adds his visit with
Daniels was concluded thus: "He departed with a copy of the Baltimore
Catholic Review under his arm and is probably now thinking up the
answers to the questions contained therein."32
Thomas W. Spalding summarizes all of this:
After a brief respite, the persecution in Mexico was resumed. In 1934
Curley was roused to action again when the ambassador to Mexico,
Josephus Daniels, injudiciously praised the remark of a Mexican leader
to the effect that it was the aim of his government "to take possession
of the mind of children." Curley had the Catholic Review address
a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt calling for Daniel's
resignation. The Review asked the president to read its "exposé
of the bestial, pederastic and sodomistic campaign of socialistic
education which has gone on in alliance with the other methods of
warfare against God, Religion and Common Decency in Mexico."33
Daniels never did resign, though he issued a bland statement defending
the idea of religious freedom. Roosevelt issued a similar statement.
Eventually the Borah Resolution fizzled. None of this pleased Curley or
the Knights of Columbus whose Supreme Knight, Martin H. Carmody, had
warmly praised Curley on many occasions, especially after the thundering
speech the archbishop had made in Washington, March 25, 1935. More than
the bishops, the Knights took a strong stand on the Mexican persecution
and the need for the United States to do something to help.
The year 1936 saw a good many changes. Father John J. Burke, CSP,
secretary of the NCWC, died October 29. Father Wilfrid Parsons, SJ was
replaced as editor-in-chief of America. Archbishop Pascual Díaz y
Barreto, SJ, thirty-sixth Archbishop of Mexico City and a full-blooded
Indian, and Archbishop Francisco Orozco y Jiménez of Guadalajara who at
one time had dressed as a peon and hid out in the mountains, both died
that year. Mexican Catholics swarmed to their funerals in unprecedented
numbers. The idealistic President Lázaro Cárdenas
who seems really to have believed in the socialist-revolutionary
rhetoric of the Party
began to soften on the interpretation and implementation of the
anti-religious sections of the Constitution of 1917. A relaxation was
gradually introduced, though sometimes it was two steps forward and then
Since there always had been a two-tiered mechanism of enforcement, one
federal and the other exercised by the governors of the states, Cárdenas
could sometimes hide behind an explanation of interference on the part
of local authorities against his intentions in the matter of church
closings and the like. This approach worked especially well when the
federal administration had to explain things to the foreign press.
Cárdenas may have been more sensitive to foreign opinions than we are
Persecution continued in Mexico, but also relaxation in many areas began
to be reported more and more. The BCR reflected these
developments, although it usually urged caution in welcoming good news
as true. We must not forget that Curley, and thus his newspaper, was the
destination of samizdat documentation and it also had a
correspondent stationed in Mexico City. Even so, priests returned, were
given licenses, and churches re-opened. It was uneven and contradictory.
Mexico is not a country which always handles its affairs in an entirely
tidy manner, although the Mexican propaganda machine did seem to have an
effect on quieting the fears of the secular press in the United States.
There had been international embarrassment in the anti-religious
campaigns, and the Cárdenas government was anxious for it to be
explained away. President Cárdenas also may have wished to prevent
Roosevelt from being further embarrassed by enraged American Catholics
such as Curley and Kelley. Diplomats of the period might have worked
quietly for a level of understanding that was not known even to Curley
who had so many special sources of information. The pages of the BCR,
by 1935-1936, tended to focus on Germany and Spain more than on Mexico.
Especially the atrocities of the Reds in Spain attracted the attention
of the Catholic world, and Curley was naturally annoyed at the
Baltimore Sun for siding in with the Loyalists who were murdering so
many priests. Curley always like a good fight, we are not with
difficulty able to conclude.
Since the Mexican Church had been dispossessed of so much property and
resources, there was not much they could do to repay the kindness of the
American bishops. What arrived
and it was the express wish of Archbishop Pascual Díaz before his death
was an illuminated, parchment spiritual bouquet from Mexican Catholics
who had prayed for the Americans. The subheading in the BCR of
January 15, 1937 read "Prelates Send on their Behalf Spiritual Bouquet
to American Hierarchy."34 Besides a scrapper, Curley was deep
down ever the sentimental Irishman, and we may assume he appreciated the
spiritual bouquet more than silver or gold.
To this day the problem with the National Revolutionary Party in Mexico
has never been fully resolved. The old Constitution of 1917 is still
valid, though it is enforced in a mild way and parts may soon be
changed. Bribes were always more forceful than principles in
neutralizing its worst elements anyway. Mexican Catholic shrines bring
in tourist dollars, and who would wish to spoil such a good thing as
that? The Party has never completely given up its monopoly on power or
its rhetoric or its control of the army. But their situation is eroding.
Recent state elections have given some posts to the opposition, however,
and the PRI's tactics of fraud are less and less acceptable in a world
more conscious of human rights.
The Church never fully recovered either from the savagery of "El Turco"
(Calles) or from the renewed persecution in the first years of the
Roosevelt Administration. The swift advance of the U.S.-based
Fundamentalists and Protestant sects in later decades showed how much
Catholicism had been weakened, especially with the destruction of
Catholic schools, though the Catholic Legionaries of Christ are hoping
to reverse this. A dechristianization had occurred gradually through the
long years of ideological contest and suffering. But following the
relaxation of 1936 and thereafter came Cárdenas's chosen successor in
1940, President Manuel Avila Camacho. He was president until 1946 and
was described as "a believing Roman Catholic."35
With the outbreak of World War II, little attention was possible for
anyone in the United States to give to the problems of Mexico. After
tensions eased in 1940, Curley and Kelley must have felt they had done
their best for God. Kelley died in Oklahoma City on February 1, 1948 and
Curley died in Baltimore on May 16, 1947.
Brian Van Hove, S.J. received a PhD in ecclesiastical history from
the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
1 In 1929 Fitzpatrick wrote the only partial biography we
have of Curley. It was entitled Life of Archbishop Curley: Champion
of Catholic Education. Father Michael J. Roach of Mount St. Mary's
Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD is preparing the full biography of Curley, but
it has not yet appeared. Therefore no complete account of Curley's
Mexican "crusade" exists outside some remarks by Thomas W. Spalding in
his ecclesiastical history of the archdiocese, The Premier See: A
History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 1789-1989 (Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
2 From the point of view of ecclesiastical history, a summary
of the early phases of the revolution and the oppression which resulted
are found in the chapter "Mexico's 'Guardian Angel'," in James P. Gaffey,
Francis Clement Kelley and the American Catholic Dream, vol. II
(Bensenville, IL: The Heritage Foundation, 1980), pp. 3-57.
3 Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore (hereafter AAB),
Mexico (Unclassified), Elizonde to Curley (Memorandum) (copy) and letter
(copy), January 21, 1935; also Curley to Fitzpatrick (copy), February 6,
4 The Baltimore Catholic Review (hereafter BCR), April
19, 1935, p. 1, col. 1 ff.
5 See Wilfrid Parsons, SJ, Mexican Martyrdom (New
York: The Macmillan Company, 1936), p. 100.
6 John B. Sheerin, Never Look Back: The Career and
Concerns of John J. Burke (New York: The Paulist Press, 1975), pp.
7 AAB, Curley to Fitzpatrick (copy), February 6, 1935.
8 BCR, August 23, 1935, p. 3, col. 1.
9 AAB, ibid., Bishops' Pastoral on the Mexican Situation:
1926 Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Episcopate of the United States on
the Religious Situation in Mexico. Official edition published by the
Committee of the American Episcopate, NCWC. See Part II, #31.
10 BCR, April 9, 1935, p. 2, col. 2.
11 Ibid., July 5, 1935, p. 1, col. 6.
12 AAB, ibid., Curley to Ruiz y Flores (copy), January 4,
1935, p. 1. Ruiz y Flores was deported in October 1932 by order of the
Mexican congress. His successor, Archbishop
Girolamo Prigione, Apostolic Nuncio to Mexico, is the one who registered
the Church with the government after the accords of 1992.
13 AAB, ibid., Kelley to Curley (copy), April 2, 1935, p. 1.
John Burke, CSP was the first General Secretary of the National Catholic
Welfare Conference, established in 1919, just after the First World War.
He held that post until his death in 1936. The NCWC was the predecessor
to the current NCCB/USCC, established after the Second Vatican Council.
The establishment of the NCWC as the consolidated voice of Catholicism
in the land is given in "The National Bishops' Conference: An Analysis
of Its Origins," in Elizabeth McKeown, Modern Catholicism,
1900-1965, ed. Edward R. Kantowicz (New York: Garland Publishing Co.,
1988), pp. 38-56.
14 Gaffey, ibid., p. 87.
15 BCR, September 13, p. 6, col. 1, editorial. The
Mexican government was sending propaganda into the United States free of
charge. The headline read: "Will Mr. Farley Tell Why?" He was
Roosevelt's Postmaster General. Among other points made are the
following: "The Mexican government is now, in its propaganda sheets,
reviewing books on Mexico, including Bishop Francis C. Kelley's
Blood-Drenched Altars. It is also advertising books on Mexico for
16 Gaffey, ibid., Vol. I, p. 88.
17 BCR, July 3, 1936, p. 1, col. 4, and p. 6, col. 1.
18 AAB, ibid., Kelley to Curley (copy), April 2, 1935, p. 1.
19 David J. O'Brien, American Catholics and Social Reform:
The New Deal Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 55.
20 BCR, April 19, 1935, p. 1, col. 1 ff.
21 AAB, Elizonde to Curley (Memorandum) (copy), p. 1.
22 Francis Clement Kelley, Blood-Drenched Altars
(Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1935), p. 261.
23 BCR, January 24, 1936, p. 3, col. 1.
24 Ibid., April 9, 1936, p. 1, col. 7.
25 Ibid., cols. 6-7.
26 Ibid., September 14, 1934, p. 6.
28 Ibid., September 21, 1934, p. 1, col. 1, and p. 6, col. 6.
29 AAB, K-244, Kelley to Curley (copy), November 10, 1934.
30 Ibid., Hafey to Curley (copy), April 29, 1935.
33 Spalding, ibid., p. 350.
34 BCR, January 15, 1937, p. 9, col. 1.
35 Christopher J. Kauffman, Faith and Fraternalism: The
History of the Knights of Columbus, 1882-1982 (New York: Harper and
Row, 1982), p. 314.