The witness of Knights during the persecution of the Church in Mexico provides lessons as we defend religious freedom today
by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson
Carl A. Anderson
This month’s issue of Columbia magazine explores the history of the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico during the 1920s and ’30s. This history has been hidden from the people of Mexico, and the real causes of the conflict have been ignored by many scholars. One textbook in the United States misleadingly portrays Catholics who fought against religious persecution in this way: “Leaders who emerged from the (Mexican) Constitutionalist movement … fought off a challenge from armed Catholic traditionalists in the countryside. These devout counterrevolutionary peasants were called Cristeros.”
The articles in this issue set the record straight, both as to the real cause of the violence and the peaceful efforts of the Knights of Columbus on both sides of the border to defend religious liberty in Mexico.
The persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico began when the administration of Mexican President Plutarco Calles took punitive measures to silence priests and bishops, confiscate Church property and close Catholic schools. When the archbishop of Mexico City spoke out against such measures, his residence and the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe were bombed.
In his 1926 encyclical concerning the persecution of Catholics in Mexico, titled Iniquis Afflictisque, Pope Pius XI denounced the forces of “barbarism” that led to this violent persecution of Catholics. He praised the peaceful resistance of many lay organizations saying, “First of all we mention the Knights of Columbus which is found in all states of the Republic and fortunately is made up of active and industrious members who, because of their practical lives and open profession of the Faith, as well as by their zeal in assisting the Church, have brought great honor upon themselves.”
Indeed, thousands of Mexican Knights sacrificed much for religious liberty. Many lost their lives, and some of these martyrs both laymen and priests have been beatified or canonized by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Knights in the United States also led a national campaign to end the violence against Catholics in Mexico.
Today in the United States, it is impossible to recall these events without thinking of current threats to religious liberty, including the Obama administration’s insistence that contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs be included in the health insurance programs of Catholic organizations. This federal mandate is backed by the threat of millions of dollars in fines if Catholic organizations refuse to comply as a matter of conscience.
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, earlier this year stated, “We have become certain of two things: religious freedom is under attack, and we will not cease our struggle to protect it.”
As a result of the firestorm of controversy surrounding the mandate, the president announced what he described as an “accommodation” for religious organizations. After studying what the president described as his “concession,” however, constitutional scholars and our bishops concluded that the mandate remained unacceptable, unconstitutional and illegal.
The White House more recently invited representatives of the bishops to meet and discuss the president’s mandate. But when they asked whether the meeting would consider their fundamental concerns about religious liberty, the bishops’ representatives were told that these concerns “are all off the table.”
Thankfully, when our public officials refuse to talk to us, we can have recourse through the courts and the ballot box.
Cardinal Francis E. George, the past president of the bishops’ conference, has concluded from the intransigence of the Obama administration that it wants Catholics to “give up” our schools, hospitals and charitable ministries.
Similarly, Cardinal Dolan has predicted that Catholics will “have to prepare for tough times.” We have already witnessed an increase in hate speech against Catholics and smear campaigns against our leaders. Anti-Catholic bigots and their allies in the media can be expected to increase their attacks.
Recalling the witness of our brother Knights in Mexico, we think of the words of the Prophet Daniel: “The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever” (Dn 12:3).
It would be a mistake to assume that Knights in the United States will be less faithful today. In the words of Cardinal Dolan: “We did not ask for this fight, but we will not run from it.”
Guarding Religious Liberty
In Defense of Conscience and Civility