A Review of For Christ and Country, Militant Catholic Youth in Post- Revolutionary Mexico

by | Jul 2, 2021

For Christ and Country, Militant Catholic Youth in Post- Revolutionary Mexico by Robert Weis, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 200 pages.

In the opening scene of Robert Weis’s superb For Christ and Country, Militant Catholic Youth in Post-Revolutionary Mexico,a young man named José de León Toral treks up a hill in Mexico City with a borrowed pistol, sets up a newspaper as a target, aims, fires and misses, over and over.  

It seems a real miracle that a week later, in July 1928, he was able to shoot and kill the caudillo Álvaro Obregón in a bustling Mexico City restaurant. Toral felt he had placed himself in the hands of God, who proved a better marksman. Brought to trial, Toral was prosecuted as a violent fanatic and convicted formurder, the latter a change he never disputed.  He was executed by the new Mexican state, one proud of its modern legal system.

Both despite and because of his subsequent popularity as religious martyr in a Catholic country where many had fought for the Revolution under the banner of the Virgen of Guadalupe, the official narrative has treated Toral as an isolated and delusional fanatic. Weis’s argument against this stance is a lucid antidote to the outrageously common use of a fearinducingdiscourse that uses charges of fanaticism and terrorism to justify the mass destruction of people and places in today’s world-wide wars.

 In his tothepoint introduction, Weis breaks down fanaticism as an analytical category.              He writes that fanaticism is an “imposed label that delegitimizes. . .(it) is not a substantive force. It has no power beyond tautology: León Toral killed Obregón because he was a fanatic/ León Toral was a fanatic because he killed Obregón. Its circular logic forecloses inquiry. Fanaticism attributes internal motivations to actions and thus detaches them from historical factors. . . The insistence on León Toral’s fanaticism is not an accident; it is a partisan sleight of hand. Without it, we would have to break the circularity and connect his actions and beliefs to his historical context.” ( page 5). The accusation of the fanaticism absolves Obregon who thus would remain the victim of a madman who had no qualities but lunacy. In other words, there were no sane reasons to kill Obregón. Weis argues there were: Toral killed Obregón because the latter was an anti-clerical tyrant who had usurped political power, corrupted the nation and sabotaged the possibility of Christ’s reign on earth.

Weis underscores that this argument acknowledges two hes.The circles that each occupied—politics and religionare nolonger separate.”   Weis presents Toral to the reader as the life-sized protagonist of a generation that had grown up in war and was not looking backwards.  The youth of Weis title were serious religious militants steeped in the ideals of a reinvigorated Catholicism.  They felt the now or never urgency of their mission. Did Mexico’s destiny belong to weaselly secular political operators like Obregón or to advocates of Christ’s social doctrine?  Whether one agrees with this religious passion or not, dismissing it as fanaticism and sidelining it as a timeless monolith phenomenon makes wide swarths of human history incomprehensible, and meeting points between people impossible.

Written in clear-cut vivid prose,  For Christ and Country’s  six chapters, introduction and  conclusion lay out the history of Catholics and the state from mid 19thcentury La Reforma until the dramatic days that proceeded and followed Toral’s efficacious shot in the late 1920s. The three chapters establish the historical setting and depict the people,organizations, and events that framed Toral’s determination. The last three chapters are a page turning “history from below” of the militant young Catholics “combative righteousness” (page 96.)  

Proclaiming La Reforma the death of the nation’s quintessence, the Church declared its opposition to it on both nationalist and religious grounds. Yet it took no unified actions against the state: members of the Catholic hierarchy supported aspects of Liberal rule and saw openings within the process of modernization. On a broader scale, Pope Leo 13’s 1891 Revum Novarum had a profound impact in Mexico and elsewhere because it urged Catholics to respond to poverty and the disruptions of modernization with a new Catholic activism that promoted social programs, unions, philanthropy and educationwithout being confrontational.

Weis describes how the years before and after the Mexican Revolution, many young stewards of Rerum Novarum in Mexico City become frustrated with what they perceived as the Church’s pusillanimity. Encouraging them to take an uncompromising approach, the Jesuits started the Asociación Católica de Juventud Mexicana (ACJM), a key organizational tool among youth in Mexico City’s aspiring middleclass neighborhoods such as the new colonia of Santa Maria la Ribera where many Catholic activists lived.

In 1926 the Calles government seized church property, shut down monasteries, convents and religious schools, and authorized broad intrusions into private life.  Mexico City police, who ran gambling rackets and collected bribes from opium dens and brothels, closed down convents, hunted down and removed religious icons from hospital and schools, arrested foreign priests, stripped nuns of their habits, paraded them in the streets and barged into homes in Mexico City searching for and often finding clandestine chapels  and illegal convents. They left no stone unturned. With an eye for illuminating details, Weis tells of a state agent rushing through a house and up to itsrooftop to detain a 14-year-old girl in a “lilac colored dress and holding a string ” ( page 27) because the Interior Ministry had ordered the prevention of the release of balloons that contained anti-government propaganda. And there was a balloon campaign, as well as a growing network of homes where laity took responsibility to ensure secret spaces for the sustaining rituals of baptisms, communion and last rites. It was the religious populace, not the Church hierarchy, that set up these grassroots battle lines.

Sugar Catholics added fuel to the fire of ardent Catholics. Sugar Catholics were youth who enjoyed the new loosening of Catholic norms of behavior and the sweet pleasures modernity broughtHollywood movies, jazz, the shimmy, shortskirts and bobsthat from the Church’s perspective threated morality and female virtue. In addition to this, the new state nationalism that claimed the pre-Conquest past as the parent of modern Mexico wreaked havoc with the Church’s narrative that celebrated the country’s roots in the Conquest and colonial periods.

Anticlericism, Sugar Catholics, the rewrite of national history, the Cristeros in the countryside, the modernizing city—all added up to a fast-moving configuration in which lived young women and men such as Toral who studiously attended mass, read the Bible and fervently believed in bringing Christ’s reign to Mexico. They were galvanized by the dramatic Callesordered 1927 execution without trial of urban ACJM activists who had attempted to kill Obregón, and included the well- known Jesuit Padre José Pro, who shouted Viva Cristo Rey!” in the face of death. Increasingly seeing redemption in violence, by April 1928 a group of these activists were meeting in the clandestine convent of the militant Capuchin nun Madre Conchita in Santa Maria la Ribera to plot Obregón’s assassination and their own escapes. Their imaginative plans repeatedly failed.

Although aware of these activities, Toral was not directly involved in them.  Catholic militancy posed moral challenges to this modest peaceloving man. He had to think his way intoaccepting that he could kill Obregón. He opposed murder but he reasoned that the death of one man would save the lives of many; he did not want to see Obregón’s children orphaned but killing him would protect many more from that fate; he did not want others to suffer from his actions. He decided to kill Obregón on his own and deliberately not escape. With the frameof martyrdom, he would murder out of love for Christ, and Obregóns death would flow from that love, and not from hate. He assumed he would be killed on the spot, and thus Obregónand he both would die together because of love for Christ. He would be a moral hero, and not a criminal any more than was Judith when she cut off the head of Holofernes.

Weis recounts the anxiety that proceeded the murder: borrowing the gun; trying to learn to use it; a botched first attempt of shooting at Obregón at a fair; a new resolve the following day; farewell to his wife; communion at Madre Conchita’s; and on it goes in breathtaking detail until the shot that brings the tyrant down. To his surprise he was not immediately plummeted to death. He was captured, tortured and thereafter left to sit in jail for months in what he called his “sobre-vida in which he clarified his understanding of religious martyrdom. He read, wrote and conversed with his many visitors, one of whom was Calles himself.

In the context of the summary 1927 executions of Catholic activists, the November trial was meant to showcase that Mexico had a modern rational legal system that did not persecute political or religious opponents. Toral was given the right to defend himself to a jury, a crowded courtroom, the national and international press and the hundreds who stood outside and followed the proceeding through a loudspeaker.   With no reason to deny the obvious fact that he had intentionally murdered Obregón, Toral made a concise  case for why he did. Disavowing the label of criminal, he explained that Obregón’s death would bring “ peace in Mexico through justice and charity, things that are far from Mexico today. That is what is called the reign of Christ, the reign of justice and charity. (p. 154) Given this forthright religious claim, the prosecution had to prove Toral was a fanatic and not a “real” Catholic. It constantly tripped over its feet. It maintained that the leaders of the Revolution were the“real” spiritual Catholics who opposed the abusive fanatical materialist Church and its dupes, such as Toral. The former was not coherent argument, and the latter could not be shown to be true. Moreover, Toral had the moral high ground because from the stand and to the world he described the police tortures he had endured.  An illustrator by trade, he showed drawings of being hung in excruciating positions, even hung from his testicles. This created an uproar, and many jumped into the fraythe Church, the shocked public and Calles’ political opponents. The regime responded by hastening its messy legal case, accelerating its rhetoric of institutionality, and leaving police violence in place, a farseeing move. Found guilty, and sentenced to death, he faced the firing squad echoing Padre Pro’s “Viva Cristo Rey!”   As he had wanted,  he died a martyr and not a criminal. Notwithstanding his naivete about what it might take to create a reign of justice and peace in Mexico, it was the justice and reasonability of tyrannicide that he conveyed, and not fanaticism, that represented a threat.

In his conclusion, Weis explains that although urban Catholic militancy declined following Toral’s execution, it would prove difficult to strip Mexico’s national and political identity of Catholicism. He writes that the unintended political qualities of the young Catholic militants actions should not overshadow  “how religious manifestations reflect visions of societies’ connections to the divine.  Religious movements take on political characteristics and political movements take on religious characteristics because of their connections to transcendence are also prescriptive. To paraphrase León Toral, God restrains the devil, but not the president“ ( p182)  

A first- rate scholar who knows how to stay close to primary documents, Weis is careful to be historically specific. At the same time For Christ and Country, Militant Catholic Youth in Post- Revolutionary Mexico does well to challenge the everyday liberal assumptions that institutionality and violence are opposites, and that passion is not reasonable.

Deborah T. Levenson is a Boston College Professor of History Emerita.  She has written extensively about Guatemala.  Her work has included studies of youth  and social activism.

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