Friday, May 5


"The ignorant public ... should take no direct part in determining who should be the candidate for public office."

--Francisco I. Madero, Mexican "progressive"

Today is Cinco de Mayo, the commemoration of the battle of Puebla in 1862, when the forces of the anti-clerical government of Benito Juárez turned back an expeditinary force of debt-collecting Frenchmen, at least nominally, on the side of a coalition of disgrunted Mexican Catholics and other conservatives. These in turn would eventually accept the leadership of Maximilian Hapsburg, himself idealistic, slightly out of touch and even liberal on occasion, crowned as a puppet Emperor for the unscrupulous Napoleon III. In time he would come to an extremely tragic end.

It's hard to know what to make of the various misfortunes that have plagued this proud Catholic nation through much of her history. I can't help feeling great sympathy for the doomed, murdered Maximilian, and his even more tragic wife, Carlotta, though their backer, Napoleon III, was a parvenu adventurer of somewhat liberal leanings himself, less concerned with Mexican Catholicism than getting his claws into Latin America, as was purportedly France's manifest destiny. Among his sole redeeming features were his taste for flashy uniforms, having inspired a very funny Offenbach aria, and his exquisite, fashionable young wife, Eugénie de Montijo, herself a far more devout churchgoer than he was.

At the same time, the entire French occupation of Mexico was a disgrace, a foreign intervention that scuttled whatever credibility native Mexican conservatism had left in the wake of the weathervane president Santa Anna, himself alternately liberal and conservative as the wind blew. What can one say about a man who actually staged a coup against himself? Maximilian's execution was barbaric, the whole episode tragic, but also as a Catholic solution to Mexico's woes, it was also breathtakingly misguided. Poor Maximilian didn't realize it until it was too late.

When we consider Mexico's history, in the light of the material success of her more northerly neighbor, there's always the subconscious stereotyped conclusion that her Catholicism brought her to this pass. Protestantism has become so identified with the democratic or parliamentary processes in the popular imagination (despite the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine and the tireless struggle against Communism waged by the late great John Paul), that it's hard to know how to respond. However, the issue's far more complex than such a cop-out to the Black Legend would have it. It is important to realize that it is not the Church that has held back Mexico--but almost always those who held back the Church, on either side of the spectrum, that have held back Mexico.

A hundred years before the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock and imported their peculiarly dour form of culture to North America, there was a great civilization in the Valley of Mexico. Certainly, the Aztecs perpetrated cruelty on a nightmarishly massive scale, and their art shows some of the hardness of their hearts in its disturbing, rectilinear glamour, but to call them backward would miss the point. They were no clod-hoppers. As Chesterton once said of the Maori, their predilection for mass human sacrifice had more to do with the decadent end of a culture rather than its barbaric origins.

That being said, they became fairly good Christians pretty fast. Through Our Lady of Guadalupe they went from 30,000 ritual murders a year to zero. Within a few decades of the Conquest, Mexico City had its own university, a grand cathedral, and a governing elite of Spanish hidalgos and Hispaicized Aztec aristocrats. While Spanish Mexico's apparent caste system of peninsulares, criollos and mixed-race peons on the bottom has attracted much comment (and to say there was equality in New Spain would not be true), in the early days Mexican and Incan nobility were on par in the New World with their Spanish counterparts. Indeed, it's this equality that led to their eventual extinction, intermarrying into the Spanish nobility until they effectively vanished. There's still a Duke of Mocteczuma in Spain, incidentally.

At the height of the viceroyalty, Mexico City was probably the greatest metropolis on the continent. I don't have any statistics, but I doubt anything in America got close to being nearly as culturally exciting until New York really took off during the Industrial Revolution. While isolated by distance and terrain from European culture, it was far more cosmopolitan than one would have expected. Mexico had an excellent crop of scholars and poets such as the nun Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz,who was herself an avid student of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, a scholar of the Roman College and a friend of popes and princes. The composers, theater-managers and choirmasters of Mexico City produced works on par with Handel and Monteverdi (or at least exceptional provincial equivalents) while our Puritan ancestors were still singing rude hymns in clapboard churches. There were plenty of problems, squalor and abuse, for sure, but at the same time, it's a perverse joke to suggest that Mexico's flaws are the result of some spurious "developing nation" status (as if she were born yesterday), or that the Church is somehow the primary factor of holding back that development.

The troubles of 19th and 20th century Mexico are not the result of an over-dominant Catholic culture. It's the whole problem of the ancien regieme in France when a local church, often effectively run by an interfering crowned head, gets roped into supporting the status quo, which may or may not need some measure of low-key quiet reform. Still, the Whig stereotype that it is only Protestantism that has brought democracy and capitalism to the free world neglects the examples of wheeler-dealers like the Venetians and the Medicis, and the popular rights of the free cities of Germany, and even the Magna Carta, a document which outlined rights born out of a purportedly obscurantist feudalism.

It didn't help things in Mexico that Spain had never really had a head for business as a result of being governed for 800 years by a military aristocracy that frowned on work that wasn't done on the battlefield. On top of that, she farmed out her jobs in the New World to Spanish-born nobles who bolted as soon as independence was declared, taking all the government savvy with them. One can hardly blame the Church for either of these.

Mexico's manifold tragedies of the past two hundred years have amost wholly been wrought by agnostics and outright atheists. Santa Anna, who mostly believed not so much in God as in himself and who conservatives only turned to out of despiration, if at all. Porfirio Díaz, the positivist, progressive liberal who thought so much of himself as to step all over the democratic process and sold his country to foreign speculators in a get-rich-quick mentality. There was the dimwitted idealistic oligarch Madero--a mystical Berkely-educated vegetarian. And at last, the disgusting barbarity of the subsequent Mexican Revolution which produced martyrs on an almost Roman scale. We see not Catholics kowtowing to despotic authority, but liberals stepping all over constitutionalism for their own oh-so-enlightened ends. It is rather as if one blamed the Patriarch of Moscow for the rise of Stalin.

Admitted, Maximilian's conservative supporters did not have all the answers and many of the answers they had--including putting a total stranger at the helm of government--would have backfired in the long run. Maximilian himself would have made an odd poster-child for a happy Catholic Mexico. Perhaps a truly constitutional monarchy or a less anti-clerical, more tradition-minded republic might have helped. It's hard to say. At the same time, at least they knew the Church had to figure into the equation. And it is not the Church, but her brutally-suppressed absence as a humanizing force, that has led to the sad, bloody and ultimately preventable epic which has characterized much of Mexico's early twentieth century, and whose ramifications are still being worked out in quieter ways today.

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