by Christopher Check
Imagine needing the grace of the confessional yet unable to find a priest. Imagine being unable to find a priest to baptize your baby or to witness your marriage. Imagine a country without confirmations or ordinations. Imagine longing to receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, but having no Mass at which to assist. Indeed, Mass is not simply unavailable, it is against the law.
If you can imagine this nightmare, then you will have some sense of the profound evil that gripped Mexico just a century ago. In 1910, Marxist and Masonic revolutionaries declared war on Mexico, seized control of the government, and, seven years later, drafted a socialist constitution packed with anticlerical laws the intent of which was to drive the Catholic Church from Mexican soil. Catholic priests lost their legal identity and were forbidden to express their political opinions, even in private. Church property was confiscated. Clerical attire in public was outlawed. Foreign clergy were deported.
Throughout Mexico’s 31 states, these laws were unevenly enforced until the introduction in 1926 of the “Calles Law.” Named for Mexico’s ruthlessly anti-Catholic president, Plutarco Calles, the law added teeth to the Mexican penal code and threatened government officials with severe fines and sentences should they fail to enforce the anticlerical articles of the 1917 Constitution. The persecution of the Church grew more intense and widespread. Churches were desecrated, nuns outraged, and priests unwilling to submit to state governments’ clerical-quota registers were hunted down and executed.
A nonviolent reaction by the faithful was led by Anacleto Gonzales Flores’ Union Popular and by Capistran Garza’s National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty. As petitions, boycotts, and street demonstrations went ignored, however, a military solution sprang forth in Mexico’s western central states: Zacatecas, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Durango, Michoacán, and Colima. Individual platoons of rancheros, sharecroppers, and land-owning peasants eventually united into a powerful Catholic army that went on to defeat federal forces in large campaigns on the plains of Jalisco and in guerilla operations in the mountains of Durango. The Catholics erected alternative local governments in the villages and regions they liberated. Steadily the Catholic soldiers—the Cristeros, as they came to be called—inspired by Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quas Primas, began to reconquer Mexico for Christ the King.
United under the command of General Enrique Gorostieta, who had earlier distinguished himself while fighting with Huerta against Zapata, the Cristeros were winning their war for the soul of Mexico until a complex negotiation involving the Holy See, the Mexican Episcopal Committee, the Mexican Government, and brokered by the United States Department of State, brought an inconclusive end to the war. The Cristeros, who were never invited to the bargaining table, were asked to put down their arms, and, in obedience to the Church, this they did. Promised amnesty, Cristero soldiers were instead hunted down and executed as late as the 1950s when Mexico’s persecution of the Church flared again.
Never heard this story?
Neither have most Mexicans.
Mexican schoolchildren, to the extent that they know the story of the Cristeros, know only the Marxist spin. Well into the 1970s, Catholic schools endured regular inspections to ensure use of government textbooks. In the public schools teachers took an oath to teach against the Catholic Church.
It wasn’t until the 1980s before the anticlerical articles were repealed. (Indeed, when Blessed John Paul II visited Mexico in his white cassock he was breaking the law!) Not until the late 1990s, with the beatifications and canonizations of the martyrs of the Mexican Revolution by John Paul II and, in 2005, by Benedict XVI, did a sympathetic public awareness of the Cristeros resurface.
Today, thanks to first-time director Dean Wright, the story of the Cristero War can be well known throughout Mexico and the United States. For Greater Glory, which opened on June 1, is a spectacular, big-budget production, shot in Mexico, starring Andy Garcia as General Enrique Gorostieta. Part sweeping John Ford, part gritty Sergio Leone, For Greater Glory delivers in two-and-a-half hours a sometimes breathtaking, sometimes tear-jerking, and in-the-main, an accurate account of what was nothing less than a crusade in defense of the Catholic Faith just south of our border.
Garcia as Gorostieta is convincing as a retired battlefield hero reduced at the beginning of the film to helming a Monterrey soap factory. His life is comfortable, but he clearly misses the whiff of another kind of powder. Reading at his desk a headline of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, he feels emasculated.
(The headline selection must be deliberate on director Wright’s part, for it was Lucky Lindy’s father-in-law, J.P. Morgan banker Dwight Morrow, well played, with just a hint of the sinister, by Bruce Greenwood, who imposes the will of American empire on events.)
Like the actual Gorostieta, Garcia’s is a nonbeliever motivated by a high paycheck and the thrill of combat. He nonetheless develops a sympathy and respect for his Cristero soldiers and the Faith that inspires their actions. Wright’s film probably takes some historical license with a possible conversion story. Nonetheless the real Gorostieta, like the Garcia version, did hold that a nation without freedom of worship would suffer moral decay.
The film somewhat overplays this religious-freedom angle. Gorostieta’s wife, ably played by Eva Longoria, asks how he can fight for a cause in which he does not believe. He replies that he believes in religious freedom. Later he delivers to his troops the same kind of anachronistic speeches that mar Mel Gibson epics. “Freedom is our lives!” he declares, and at one point he proclaims that the Cristeros will not stop fighting until they have a democratically elected government. Well, the fact is that democracy was doubtless part of the problem in early twentieth-century Mexico. Indeed, as Rubén Blades, in one of the film’s stronger performances as Plutarco Calles, points out in a fictionalized meeting between the general and the president, the people of Mexico did vote him into office.
The religious freedom theme has served the marketers of the picture well given the growing number of Catholics reacting to the Obama Administration’s mandate that Catholic institutions offer contraceptive coverage for their employees. The difficulty with making too much of religious freedom when telling the story of La Cristiada—as the Cristero War came to be called—is that the Cristeros in the field, surely to the man, were not fighting for religious freedom. They were fighting for the political and social kingship of Jesus Christ.
Religious freedom can be a good, but it is not an absolute good, and the “absolute freedom” that Garcia defends as General Gorostieta (and in media interviews as well) is problematic outside the context of Christianity.
It was the Catholic Faith, the Seven Sacraments, the Mass, Christ the King, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, for which the Cristeros took up arms. Their battle cry was “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King,” not “Religious Freedom for all!” The martyrs in the Circus of Nero did not die for religious freedom, and neither did the Cristeros.
Fortunately, Dean Wright’s picture, its periodic dips into the politically didactic notwithstanding, makes clear the motives in the hearts of the Cristeros. Abundant use of sacramental’s (especially St. Benedict Crucifixes), faithfully staged liturgies, emphasis on the merits of Confession, and beautifully shot urban scenes revealing the glory of colonial, in other words, Spanish Catholic Mexico, underscore an atmosphere suffused with Catholic devotion. Male viewers will find themselves longing to mount up rifle in hand with the Cristero cavalry; ladies will be inspired by the accurate portrayal of the courageous young women of the Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc (regrettably not named in the film) who, at great personal risk, kept the Cristeros supplied with ammunition and provisions, tended their wounded, and couriered tactical and strategic intelligence.
The film’s treatment of the American involvement in the war is remarkably faithful to history, but for a miscasting of the rotund Bruce McGill as Calvin Coolidge. Bruce Greenwood’s Dwight Morrow is the man whose diplomatic skill at last brings an end to the fighting, but his and his president’s motives could not be clearer: internecine strife in Mexico is bad for American oil business.
America’s explicit support of the Mexican federal army against the Catholic soldiers is not sugarcoated in the film, and we learn that America supplied warplanes to the Calles administration. (In fact, though not mentioned in the film, American pilots flew air support against the Cristeros in at least one battle.)
Knights of Columbus will be proud to hear their organization named in the film as a source of pressure on the Coolidge administration to seek a resolution to the war. This they did. And it is heartening to see Supreme Knight Carl Anderson listed as an executive producer of a film that so unequivocally supports the armed uprising, given that the Knights’ involvement at the time of the war was somewhat different.
While it is true that American Knights raised one million dollars, these funds were deliberately not given to the Cristero army. Supreme Knight Flaherty, reported the New York Times of November 6, 1926, was publicly explicit that the money was to aid exiled Mexican priests and religious and to support a propaganda campaign on both sides of the border. He added that the Knights in America were definitely not helping to support an armed rebellion in Mexico. Of course, the position of the Knights was little different from that of most of the American Episcopacy who were unwilling to support an armed rebellion against a (Marxist) government that enjoyed full diplomatic recognition of the United States. “Iron Mike” Curley of Baltimore and Francis Kelly of Oklahoma were two notable exceptions.
Was the armed uprising moral? Dean Wright’s conclusion must be yes, so sympathetically does he portray the Cristeros. But observers then and now were and are less certain. Pope Pius XI was never clear. Rueben Quezada, who has written a fine summary of the conflict for Ignatius Press, recently stated in an interview with National Catholic Register Radio that he believes that the Cristeros’ action did not meet the criteria for just war.
I believe, however, that the revolt was justified because Plutarco Calles, by his tyranny, had lost his claim to rule. According to Bellarmine and Suarez, in such a case, sovereignty reverts to the people in whom it always dwells. (Cf. Right and Reason Austin Fagothey, chapter 30.)
It is true that the Cristeros—and Wright does not hide this—did cross the ius in bellum line. Vengeance inspired a brutal train robbery in which civilians were killed. Moreover, one of the film’s heroes is a bandoleer wearing, pistol-packing priest, Father Reyes Vega played by Santiago Cabrera. St. Thomas is explicit that priests should not bear arms, and the sympathetic portrayal of Vega, who in real life seems to have been a gunslinger in more ways than one, is morally problematic. Another partial whitewash is Oscar Isaac’s “El Catorce”, so called because he singlehandedly killed fourteen federal soldiers. The real El Catorce, Victoriano Ramirez, killed fourteen guards escaping from a jail where he was awaiting a murder trial.
Some closing thoughts. Eduardo Verástegui is underused in the role of Blessed Anacleto Gonzales Flores. Peter O’Toole as Father Christopher does well setting in motion the theme of redemption that leavens and anchors the film. Like the best things in Christianity, the redemption begins with a small act of charity, in this case, forgiveness.
Newcomer Mauricio Kuri as the boy martyr Jose Sanchez del Rio, starts off the picture perhaps too cute but develops well to the point that we believe his courage and devotion in the face of a diabolically brutal death.
Costuming and sets have been obviously and meticulously inspired by the abundant photographic record of the war. Indeed, one of the picture’s minor heroes is a martyred photographer. Stay seated for the final credits for a slideshow of some of these images. The score, alas, is heavy handed and emotional, no surprise from the pen of Titanic scorer James Horner.
Finally, the R-rating is wholly undeserved. I polled folks leaving the theater and not one thought it deserved an R-rating. It makes one wonder whose side the MPAA is on.
Well, not really.
I think we know, and it’s not the side of Christ the King. All the more reason to go see this picture, which is nothing less than a gem in the mire of Hollywood.
Christopher Check is executive Vice President of The Rockford Institute, publisher of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, www.ChroniclesMagazine.org. A former captain in the Marine Corps, he writes and lectures on Church and military history. His recorded lecture on the Cristero War is available from Angelus Press: http://angeluspress.org/Audio-Video/Lepanto-Lectures