Graham Greene had a yen for dangerous places, and his search for evidence of the rotten spot of the human heart took him to Vietnam, Africa and, in 1939, to Mexico. The persecution of the church had cooled, but he quickly learned to hate the place, largely because of the hate he saw there. He recalled in The Lawless Roads, that hate is the official teaching, “it has superseded love in the school curriculum.” The product of his visit was The Power and the Glory (1940), a novel about a “whiskey” priest who traveled secretly in the turmoil of the persecution to hear confessions and offer Mass in remote villages where the people would shield him. A Greene hero, he was dependent on liquor and had sired a child in one of the villages, and he was more aware of his weaknesses than of his basic courageous saintliness. Like the young Jesuit Miguel Pro, who went before the firing squad in 1927, he proclaimed “Viva Cristo Rey” as he fell.
Last June at the beginning of the “Fortnight for Freedom,” bishops stoked the fire of resentment against the Obama administration which they had accused of denying freedom of religion to American Catholics. One compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin, another of “strangling” the church. Several, including the bishops of Brooklyn and Newark, touted the new Mexican film “For Greater Glory,” about the Cristero War (1926-29) waged by Catholics against the president Plutarco Elias Calles, who had revived the laws against the church which marked the church-state struggle from 1857 to 1940. Calles closed churches, banned clerical dress, and killed priests; and Catholics, joined by others who hated the government and by those who just like to fight, raised money, got guns and ammunition, and fought back.
The Newark diocesan paper the Advocate recommended that all Catholics see this film and return to the parish to discuss how it applies to the church today. In the Brooklyn Tablet (June 16), Bishop Nicolas DiMarzio wrote that the film “accurately captures how one’s rights are not initially seized at gunpoint. Rather, one slowly surrenders freedoms until the world we find ourselves living in a terrible nightmare.” Obviously they intended the viewers to see the similarities between President Obama and the president of Mexico 80 years ago.
I looked for the film, but it had opened on May 31 and quickly disappeared. Finally I got the DVD, read the official background book by Ruben Quezada, and articles and reviews in Commonweal, the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, plus articles on this period in the Britannica and Catholic Encyclopdedias.
Briefly, the plot: Calles announces he will reinstate neglected laws against the church, resistance builds, a beautiful non-violent old English priest (Peter O’Toole) is hanged, a young boy (12) witnesses the killing and joins the rebels, more priests are hanged, the rebels hire an atheist general (Andy Garcia) to lead them. Battles between federal troops and rebels, resembling big shoot-outs in western movies, leave piles of corpses in their wake. The young boy, sent on a dangerous mission by the general, is captured , tortured and dragged like Jesus to the town square where he is stabbed and shot as he forgives his captors. The general goes to confession and dies in battle. The American secretary of state helps broker a peace to protect the interests of the American oil industry.
Some critics said the film was well made, had gorgeous landscapes, etc. But the Globe called it a “total embarrassment.” Julia Young in Commonweal concluded that, “To equate Obama with a 1920s Mexican dictator, or to draw comparisons between the contraception mandate and anti-clerical regime of Calles, is ignorant at best, and demagogic at worst.” For me it is intellectually irresponsible and makes me want to ask whether the bishops had seen the film before they recommended it.
According to the official guide, Catholic bishops, although they approved boycotts, acknowledged that the rebellion did not meet the criteria for a just war. So all these several thousand rebels on horseback were fighting an “immoral war” on behalf of the church? In one scene a rebel hero, attacked at night, single-handedly kills 14 government soldiers. He allows one survivor to leave, then shoots him in the back. A main character is Father Vega who wears his clerical collar into battle, but refuses communion to the general because he has not been to confession. The rebels led by Father Vegas set fire to a railroad train. Vega had briefly asked if the train was empty and acts mildly surprised by the screams of the 51 men, women and children being burned to death.
Graham Greene’s story unfolds against this backdrop. But there’s no evidence that Miguel Pro had anything to do with these violent men; and Greene’s humble, solitary struggler died alone, not realizing that another brave nonviolent priest would emerge from the shadows to continue his work.
Was it moral to pursue a war where the Cristeros lost over 25,000 men and the government lost over 65,000? The total dead on both sides mounted to 200,000. The church canonized or beatified 40, which raises questions about the whole process of canonization. What does this teach us about the contemporary church?
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.