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Church and State in Mexican Education

by Ira W. Howerth - 1937

In feudal Europe the Church accumulated from one fourth to one third of the wealth. But what of it? Institutions rarely pass up opportunities to expand their power, and often in so doing lose or modify the ideas upon which they were founded. Illustrations? Christianity, Buddhism, the order of St. Francis of Assisi, the Jesuits, the governments of Italy, Germany, and, some would add, the Soviet Government of Russia. Lincoln Steffens once said to the writer, "Do you know what I'd do with an idea if I wished to destroy it?" "No," I said, "what?" "I'd institutionalize it," he replied.

IN Egypt under Rameses III, 1200 B. C, the priests possessed 750,000 acres of the arable land, 107,000 slaves—one thirtieth of the population—and half a million head of cattle. They received revenues from 169 towns, and from the Pharaoh every year 185,000 sacks of corn. "The people starved that the gods might eat." In ancient Babylon the priests were immensely wealthy, and laid terrible curses upon all who should touch, un-permitted, the smallest jot of ecclesiastical property. In Jerusalem, in the sixth century B. C, the priests of the second Temple possessed so much wealth that they became more powerful than the king.

In feudal Europe the Church accumulated from one fourth to one third of the wealth. But what of it? Institutions rarely pass up opportunities to expand their power, and often in so doing lose or modify the ideas upon which they were founded. Illustrations? Christianity, Buddhism, the order of St. Francis of Assisi, the Jesuits, the governments of Italy, Germany, and, some would add, the Soviet Government of Russia. Lincoln Steffens once said to the writer, "Do you know what I'd do with an idea if I wished to destroy it?" "No," I said, "what?" "I'd institutionalize it," he replied.


With a population of approximately 21,000,000 in 1930, Spain had only 35,000 non-Catholics. There was one priest for every 900 persons—106,374 persons either in the clergy or in religious orders, 25,474 of them priests, and 81,260 monks and nuns. The Church owned one third of the national wealth. It had long been the country's greatest landowner and the most important industrialist, banker, and educational institution. Until 1857 education was practically its exclusive right. A law passed in that year to promote popular state education became a dead letter owing to clerical opposition. Until the outbreak of the Revolution in 1931 education was in the hands of the religious orders except in the eleven state universities. In the preceding year two of these were permitted to grant their own academic degrees. Only about one half the population could read or write.

The Spanish Constitution of 1812 provided that "The religion of the Spanish people is and shall be perpetually the Apostolic Roman Catholic, the only true one. The nation protects it with wise and just laws and prohibits the exercise of any other." In 1851 an agreement between Church and State reasserted this doctrine in the following words, "the Catholic Apostolic Roman religion, to the exclusion of every other cult, continues to be the sole religion of the Spanish nation and will be conserved always in the dominion of his Catholic Majesty with all the rights and prerogatives which it ought to enjoy according to the law of God and that ordained by the sacred canon." Again in 1869 another Constitution obligated the State to maintain the Catholic religion. Church and State were not separated, even on paper, until 1931.

Of course the privileges and prerogatives of the Church were often contested, but always against bitter and successful clerical opposition. In 1868 an attempt was made to sweep them all away. Four times in the nineteenth century the Catholic orders were legally suppressed. When Church and State were finally separated the Pope issued a special encyclical protesting against it. Members of the Government were excommunicated. The State sought to educate, but the bishops issued a pastoral strictly forbidding attendance of children in state schools. In 1936 all buildings of the religious orders were confiscated by the Loyalists.

The wealth of the Church in Spain is displayed in lands, churches, monasteries, and convents rather than in schools. In a single city, Saragossa, one might have counted in the sixteenth century 1309 churches and 617 convents.

Most of the facts here mentioned in regard to the Church in Spain may be found in Gannes and Repard's book entitled Spain in Revolt. They throw light upon present conditions in that distressed country, why some churches have been destroyed and why the blessings of the Spanish priests are often bestowed upon rebel troops.


If we now turn to Mexico we shall find that history does sometimes repeat itself. The Church in Mexico accumulated an immense amount of wealth—four-fifths of that of the entire, country, some say—became a great landholder, the possessor of many art treasures, as well as churches, cathedrals, schools and colleges {chiefly for tile well-to-do and for religious instruction), monasteries and convents. In the building of churches it almost outdid Spain—365 alone in the town of Cholula. In short, it early became a powerful institution both materially and spiritually. Il was the Church of Spain transplanted in part to America. It had much to conserve, much to lose by any radical change in government or in education.

When, in 1821, Mexico gained her independence from Spain, the rights of the Church, as claimed in the mother country, remained unimpaired. It endeavored indeed to improve its status by claiming that the patronage of the Spanish king devolved upon itself. In the Constitution of 1814 it secured the insertion of a clause providing that the sole religion of the land should be Roman Catholic. This was reiterated in the Constitution of 1824. When the existence of Mexico was threatened by the American invasion of 1847, the Church betrayed little alarm except in regard to its own wealth and privileges. When the Constitution of 1857 was promulgated with its liberal philosophy, declaring that the Church and State were independent of each other, that the Federal authorities should exercise exclusive power in matters of religious worship and outward ecclesiastical forms, that the Congress should not enact any laws establishing or forbidding any religion, and that no religious corporations or institutions of any kind should acquire title to real property or capital, except what was needed for the performance of its own duties, and that monastic orders would no longer be tolerated or recognized, there was immediate and bitter opposition by the clergy.

The Pope was appealed to. He responded as follows: "We make known to the faith in Mexico, and to the Catholic universe, that we energetically condemn every decree that tie Mexican Government has enacted against the Catholic religion, against the Church, against her sacred ministers and pastors, against her laws, rights and property, and against the authority of the Holy See"; and he condemned, reproved and declared null, void, and without any value all such decrees and laws in such contempt of ecclesiastical authority. The issue was squarely joined—which was to be supreme in Mexico, Church or State? Usually the former was strong, the latter weak.


With the triumph of the social revolution, 1910-20, the tables were turned or were beginning to turn. A new constitution was framed containing all the liberal principles found in preceding Mexican constitutions and with important additions. It made plain the fact that the right and power of the Church to control education in Mexico was challenged and in danger of being destroyed. There loomed a fight to the finish. The Church immediately proclaimed through its representatives that it did not recognize the objectionable articles or the laws to enforce them, and called upon the faithful to disregard them. When, later on. by amendments and decrees, the Government made it plain that it meant what it said, and proposed to take full charge of education, the Church made equally plain the fact that it would permit no such thing. The situation in Mexico was that of Spain all over again, in its political, economic and educational aspects.

The doctrines of the Church as asserted in Mexico (liberal Catholics in the United States do not profess to accept them in toto) are that the Church is a self-contained organization with a Divine mission, namely, the saving of souls, and that its canons or laws are sacred and invariable since they are the truth divinely revealed. It holds, too, that the administration of these laws belongs exclusively to itself; that if the laws of the state are at variance with them or contain enactments hurtful to the Church or convey injunctions adverse to the duties imposed by religion, it is the positive duty of the faithful to resist them; to obey them is a crime. In the performance of its sacred religious duties, wide in scope, and to maintain its personnel in a becoming manner, it holds itself to be justly entitled to a vast amount of wealth in land, cathedrals, churches, monasteries, charitable institutions, convents, banks, and bank deposits. It is a great institution and great wealth is necessary to sustain it. "The Catholic Church," says the Mexican Apostolic delegate, "recognizes no human power which can prevent her from doing anything she herself deems necessary for the salvation of souls; therefore, in spiritual matters She is subordinate to no one." In short, the Church claims to rule within its province by Divine Right It recognizes the Civil Power and will uphold its authority, "provided it does not exceed itself in acts" or "interfere in what does not concern it."


But when does the State exceed itself or interfere in what does not concern it? When it separates Church and State? When it appropriates vast wealth, which it claims is the result of clerical exploitation? When it diminishes the number of clergy and forbids them to teach? When it sends out of the country foreign clericals who "having no part or lot in Mexican life, devote their time to fomenting trouble?" When it seeks to raise the level of popular intelligence by a general attack upon ignorance and superstition; that is, to supplant theological dogmas by the more authentic findings of modern science? All these questions the Church answers in the affirmative. But who is to decide just when the State "exceeds itself’? The answer locates the sovereign will. The State claims sovereignty over all, within the limits of the present constitution. "What can and what should the government of a country do," asked General Calles in 1926, "when any association whatsoever, whether its tendencies be religious or otherwise, publicly refuses to acknowledge the Constitution, announces its intention of fighting it, and incites the people to disobey it?" The present Cardenas Government is providing the answer.

In the first place it flatly denies the validity of the contention of the Church. It declares that, to quote the language of the constitutions of 1857 and of 1917, "the national sovereignty is fixed essentially and originally in the people. All public power emanates from the "people and is instituted for their benefit." The preamble of the constitution of 1824 began: "In the name of God and by the authority of the Mexican people." Since the word God is omitted from the present constitution it is in a literal sense, "godless."

Furthermore, the State does not and cannot recognize two independent spheres of national social action, spiritual and material. If there were such spheres they could hardly be clearly defined. There is some point to this contention. What is a spiritual function, and how can souls be saved by spiritual means alone? Is not the saving of a soul, in any sense, a general and unitary process? Is not the State as well as the Church an agency in saving souls when it diminishes poverty, stems the ravages of disease, administers justice, when it combats ignorance, fanaticism, superstition and prejudice, or when it provides for the people sanatoria, orphanages, parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, concerts, and other means of healthful recreation? If the Church is indeed guilty of exploitation and parasitism, "as charged in the indictment," would it not be a spiritual function to lift that burden from the people? At all events, if the State could perform its entire duty to all elements of the population the, sacred mission of the Church would be immensely diminished, there would be few souls to save; unless, of course, salvation is a post mortem eventuality depending mainly upon prayer and supplication. "Fabulous wealth" would hardly be needed for that, and certainly not supreme political power. It would seem that all social institutions should have but one objective, the improvement of man's estate; and should employ but one method, namely, intelligent cooperation to achieve that end. At all events it seems clear that Church and State can never come to satisfactory terms on the ground of separate and inviolable" realms of action. The Church, as long as it exists, may, indeed must, claim a spiritual mission, but the means and methods of its performance are matters closely related to general well being, and must therefore always remain subject to revision and supervision by the sovereign power.


At first view, it may seem that to deprive the Church of its monasteries and convents is unjust. But the constitutions of 1857 and 1917 both demand that "monastic orders shall not be established or recognized." Why? Because of the inalienable Rights of Man. The constitutional language is, "the State shall not permit any contract, covenant or agreement to be carried out having for its object the abridgement, loss or irrevocable sacrifice of the liberty of man, whether by reason of labor, education, or religious vows." Even the Church has no right to demand of any one such covenant or vow. It means the surrender of the crowning dignity of human personality, the alienation of the inalienable. The opposite is the cardinal doctrine of the American Declaration of Independence.

The doctrine of "spheres of influence" gives to the question of education in Mexico the highest importance. The Church claims that teaching is necessary to the fulfillment of its divine mission. It therefore wishes to supervise the schools and other educational agencies, down even to such organizations as the Boy Scouts. The State denies it this privilege, and excludes from the schools the teaching of religious doctrines. To make sure of realizing this objective it prohibits teaching by the clergy. It thinks it must do so as a matter of self-preservation. That, too, is the motive of the Church. In saving the souls of individuals it would naturally save its own. The crucial question is which most truly represents the general good? The democratic answer is, the State. Of course, "State" practically means at any given time the party in power, and the same is true of "Church."

Now, the State, or Government, in Mexico professes collective well being to be its object. It wishes to achieve such well being by bringing about an improvement of material conditions, believing that spiritual advancement will follow. With this view it would be folly to entrust education to any institution that would teach that such aims and beliefs, held by liberals throughout the history of democracy, are wicked and blasphemous. If the social reforms of Mexico are to be achieved, both adults and children must be taught that the reforms are justified by conditions and sound knowledge, that the people themselves and their children constitute an organic element of society and, for their own individual well-being as well as that of the State, they must learn to participate intelligently in promoting the well-being of all. "It is absolutely necessary," says a leading spokesman for the State, "that children should hear in specific and simple words the principles on which rests our non-conformity with our present social organization, which sanctions a disastrous distribution of wealth, in our case aggravated to an extraordinary degree by the policy of organizations which like the Catholic Clergy have retarded our economic and intellectual development, because they enjoyed a monopoly of wealth and culture." It would seem, then, that a compromise between Church and State in Mexico on the matter of education is not a hopeful expectation.


If the question is not looked at in its fundamental aspect, one is likely to think that the State is too drastic, or that it goes too far. But its going has been occasioned by the methods of the opposition, which have at times been violent and often surreptitious. Schools have been occasionally broken up. Teachers have been driven from their work, and in scores of instances have been killed. If such attempts to nullify the work of the Government be attributed to ignorant fanatics, the fact remains that the perpetrators have been encouraged and sometimes directly incited by Church authorities. Religious orders, prohibited by law, have been secretly carried on, defying attempts to suppress them. The Government must go far in order to go at all. But it has been the cry of clerical leaders, and it is the belief of the uninformed, that whenever the privileges and powers of the Church have been attacked "religion" itself is threatened. The Christian world has been called upon, for that reason, for sympathy and the support of the Church. Is that really the issue? Are Religion and the Church identical? Supporters of the Government say, No. The Government, says President Cardenas, is making no attack on religion. A former president declares this contention to be "absolutely false. The Clergy confuses religion with its own privileges, which are all that we are attacking." This reminds one of the complaint of Hidalgo, more than a hundred years ago: "The higher clergy are Catholics out of policy, alone; their God is Mammon, they avail themselves of religion itself to drag it down and destroy it" Former President Calles has said that the State owes respect to all religions and religious beliefs "so long as their ministers do not take part in our political contentions to disparage our laws, nor serve the powerful as instruments to exploit the weak." A former Consul General says, "If the Church hierarchy had confined itself to legitimate spiritual channels," no laws would have been enacted against it. "It has not been war against religion," he contends; "those in each generation who have led the forces against the temporal power of the Church have had nothing but respect for true religion." In the words of Sanchez, "The conflict is not between religion and democracy. It is a clash between the sovereign power of the State and the power of a political and economic organization that threatened the very sovereignty of the State. The bong of contention is political and economic power, not religion."

Of course there are extremists on the side of the State, Some would go so far as to say that if it were a mere struggle between religion and the State, there would be nothing to it; that there is not enough real religion in the Church to sustain a struggle. But we should not hearken to them any more than to extremists on the other side. The real struggle seems to be as expressed by George Sanchez in his excellent book, Mexico: A Revolution by Education—"the Church-State controversy in Mexico is a purely internal question of political and economic supremacy." Are not clashes between rival institutions usually just that?


What is the solution of the Mexican problem? The answer will depend upon the social philosophy you hold. If you believe in theocracy you are likely to hold with the Church; if in democracy, with the Government the theocrat says, "If you can't outvote 'em, deport 'em or kill 'em if necessary; the interests of God must be sustained." The consistent democrat says, "If you can't outvote 'em, submit with a smile and try, try again; the interest of the people must be served." Only when the opposing party resorts to measures that are plainly inimical to the "rights of man" and socially harmful, will he resort to harsh methods, and these must be in accordance with laws enacted by the chosen representatives of the people. Criminations and recriminations, proven atrocities by one side or the other, will have little to do with the case.

One thing, however, stands clearly forth: the Mexicans must settle the problem for themselves. Nothing could be more foolish, dangerous or pernicious than the idea that we should intervene, except in a friendly spirit—"to go down and clean up Mexico," as it has been expressed. If we really desire to "clean up" something, we can find plenty of opportunities within our own borders.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 4 Number 29, 1937, p. 46-49
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13591, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 1:33:02 PM

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