Religion in Mexico, Catholic Church and Beyond

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Religion in Mexico, Catholic Church and Beyond

One of the most profound and farthest-reaching effects of Spain's Conquest of the New World was the introduction—especially in Mexico—of the Catholic religion and the institution of the Catholic Church. As church scholars readily point out, the Spaniards left more than the Catholic religion; they left a Catholic culture as well. The degree of Catholic influence on various regions within Mexico depended on the value the individual conquistador placed on religion—for example, Cortés, the person most responsible for the initial conquest of New Spain, considered it of primary importance—and the presence of large native populations for whom organized, formal religion was already an essential aspect of their culture.

The relationship between church and state is of signal importance in understanding the role of religion in Mexico. The origins of the church-state relationship in Mexico goes back to the time of the Conquest, the result of papal bulls or pronouncements known at the time as the patronato real. These agreements assigned a number of privileges and roles to the Catholic Church both in the Conquest itself and in the colonization process. In return for its religious monopoly over New Spain, the church also conceded certain administrative rights and decisions to the state. Thus Mexico did not enjoy freedom of religion: the church established a principle of collaboration with the state, rather than pursuing the concept of separation of church and state as in the United States. Given this framework, both the Spanish Crown and its representative, the Viceroy of New Spain, and the Catholic leadership, functioned under hierarchical, authoritarian institutional cultures.

This symbiotic relationship functioned fairly well during the three centuries of colonial rule. Clergy performed a significant role, through the establishment of mission towns, in the expansion of the frontiers, extending into what is today New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Many of the major cities in these states, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Albuquerque, and Tucson, were founded as mission towns. The clergy also performed a political task for civil authorities, acting as Inquisition officials overseeing the censoring of books and other forms of publications promoting revolutionary ideas. Carrying out these traditionally nonreligious tasks often produced conflicts within the church or between religious and civil officials.

The Catholic Church became the privileged church—in effect, the state religion, the only religion legally permitted and financially supported by the Crown. The church helped the state to govern, maintaining its own privileged position with special legal rights for more than three hundred years. Most important, by the early nineteenth century its acquisition of land made it the wealthiest institution in Mexico.

The church's wealth, multiplied through centuries of gifts from its laity, made it a significant economic actor. Because of its privileged institutional position, it became deeply involved in Mexican politics after the country's independence from Spain in 1824. As Mexico evolved into two major political currents in the nineteenth century, liberals and conservatives, the church allied itself with conservative interests, hoping to protect its privileged status. By mid-century the liberals had achieved superiority over their conservative opponents, and after the War of the Reform (1858–1861) they imposed restrictions on the church, forcing it to sell most of its property. These restrictions were eventually incorporated into the 1857 constitution. In response, conservatives and their religious allies sought assistance from outside Mexico to impose a European monarch on the populace, resulting in a lengthy civil war that ended in 1867.

When Porfirio Díaz came to power in 1876, the former liberal negotiated an understanding with the Catholic leadership that retained the 1857 constitutional provisions but did not actively enforce them. During the 1910 Revolution, the church leadership once again allied itself with the status quo and was severely punished by the victors through more severe restrictions in the 1917 constitution, which did not recognize the Catholic Church or its small Protestant counterparts as legal entities. The active enforcement of these restrictions led to the unsuccessful Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929), fueled by resistance among clergy and the religious faithful in rural Mexico. In 1992 some of the 1917 provisions were eliminated, and the church regained legal status.

Given this history, the Catholic Church in the latter half of the twentieth century confined itself to teaching religious dogma and focusing on spiritual and family issues. Protestantism, originally confined to small, traditional groups such as the Methodists, came to be dominated by Evangelicals and began to attract more adherents in the 1970s, growing rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite this dramatic growth, particularly in rural areas, Mexico remains approximately 85 percent Catholic. Religion, and respect for religious institutions, is of great importance in the lives of Mexicans. In survey after survey, Mexicans overwhelmingly report that they believe in God, that religion is important in their lives, and that a majority attend religious services regularly. Mexicans have more confidence in religious institutions than in all other institutions, with the exception of education. The advent of electoral democracy, the 1992 constitutional revisions, and civic respect for clergy have encouraged many clergy to articulate non-religious concerns publicly, including criticisms of human rights violations, exploitation of indigenous cultures, and failures to address economic inequality and poverty. The Catholic leadership played a crucial role in the 1994 and 2000 presidential elections, actively encouraging citizens to participate in the election as both a Christian and civic responsibility. A large minority of laity in Mexico expect their religious leaders to explore broader social and political issues that go beyond traditional religious concerns.

See alsoCatholic Church: The Colonial Period; Catholic Church: The Modern Period; Cristero Rebellion; Díaz, Porfirio; Pernambuco; Protestantism; Protestantismo en México.


Blancarte, Roberto. Historia de la Iglesia Católica en México. Mexico: Colegio Mexiquense, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992.

Camp, Roderic Ai. Crossing Swords: Politics and Religion in Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Legorreta Zepeda, José de Jesús. Cambio religioso y modernidad en México. Mexico: Universidad Iberoamericana, 2003.

"Religiosity in Mexicans and Americans." World Values Surveys 1990, 2000. Available from

Tangeman, Michael. Mexico at the Crossroads: Politics, the Church, and the Poor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995.

                                    Roderic Ai Camp

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Religion in Mexico, Catholic Church and Beyond

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Religion in Mexico, Catholic Church and Beyond