Readings: 'For Greater Glory'--Not So Great

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 He recalled in The Lawless Roads, that hate is the official teaching, “it has superseded love in the school curriculum.”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.


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David Pasinski
6 years 4 months ago
Perhaps Graham Greene's first title (and in England's editions, I'm told) of "The Labrythine Ways"( of "The Hound of Heaven ") might better describe this conflicted period so unknown to most in the US. I didn't know ther were some 200,000 deaths... and this is for "the power adn glory"?
Tom Maher
6 years 4 months ago
Why give such esoteric examples of ruthless suppression of religion when history and world affairs shows the suppression of all freedoms happens all the time and everywhere?  And these attacks on freedom are not one man in power such as President Obama acting alone but much broader antii-religious politcal influences that leaders allow and encourage for political reasons sometime unaware or unconcerned that religous freedoms will be harmed. (Actually many writters in America magazine have no strong feelings or concerns about religious freedoms.)

A nice lady who lived down the street when I was a child informed me as part of the civics lesson she gratuitously gave me as a child that Churches should be taxed.  She was a kind, intense, well-meaning, very well-educated  person. But she had no idea of the destructive impacts of some of her secular ideas that she very strongly held. .   She veiwed Churches, as many people do,  very cynically as powerful and wealthy entities that should be taxed like any other powerful and wealthy entity.  There are a lot of ideas out in the public that people just do not think through. And people are greatly impressed by stylish charactures of religion which often they do not have much direct experience with to know better.  However no matter how innocently arrived at, taxing Churches would have a very destructive impact on religion and diretly impacts  freedom of religion.  This power to tax is indeed a power to destroy.  Even as a child I recognized having not been exposed to the secular infuluences as the same way the nice lady was that taxing the Church was not a good idea. But some secular people actually beleive that the governement should have taxing power over Church.  The governemnt is more deserving tax the money the Church may earn such as colletions that the Church is of using the money it earns for its mission.  Fortunately the U.S. Constitution and the overwhelming majority of Americans think otherwise.

But many good people have very secular worldviews that are indifferent or hostile to religion and religious freedoms.   In a politcal conflict secular people will favor the governement goals over the right of "free exercise or religion".  

Many secular people believe that governemnt is all-wise, all-knowing, all-good and transcendent over all other insistuions including religious instituions.  The secular influence is a real poltical force that can easily be destructive of religious freedoms.   

Secularism was a strict central tenet of Marxism which has profoundly influuenced world culture for over a century and a half. Marxism was and is very intolerant and cynically of religion and religious beliefs. Billions of people around the world have been influenced by these Marxist anti-religous doctrines including many in academia today.

Secular political influences manifest itsselves in American politcs, legislation and legal process all the time in America. Secular ideas can and do come infto conflict with religion and religous freedoms all the time.  It is a benefit for the Church to finally recongnize that it needs to be politically aware and protective of its religious freedoms becasuse these freedoms unprotected can be lost.
ed gleason
6 years 4 months ago
Tom.."Billions of people around the world have been influenced by these Marxist anti-religious doctrines including many in academia today.'
The last Marxist is an old man in Cuba. Next Catholic endorsed movie may be about Franco and his canonization
Crystal Watson
6 years 4 months ago
I had a post about the movie when it came out, also mentioning Greene's book   ...

There was a pretty good review of the movie at NCR  ...

I didn't see the film myself - it seemed too much like conservative   propaganda.
Richard Grabman
6 years 4 months ago
In a way, I am sorry to hear the film went straight to DVD... having spent last summer banging out a short book on the Cristero War and that ''atheist general'' Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, in anticipation of at least decent sales.  I won't be so tacky as to advertise it here, but it is the only English-language book on Gorostieta in existence at this time (and it's only an eBook). 

I appreciate Fr. Schroth for bringing some attention to this era in our history, although it appears his sources were somewhat incomplete.  Graham Greene's novel is set in the state of Tabasco, then under the control of Governor Tomás Garrido Canabal.  Garrido is something of a mixed bag for Mexican historians, his militant anti-clericalism AND radical prohibitionism (not to mention his quasi-fascist ''red shirts'' brigades that enforced prohibition and organized anti-clerical pograms) is countered by his agricultural and labor reforms, and support for women's suffrage and equality.  Calles did not ''reintroduce'' anti-clerical provisions from the 1850s, but insisted on codifying new restrictions based on the Consititution of 1917. 

What bothers me (and compelled me to write about the Cristeros) is the nagging sense that the whole tragedy of the Cristero War was unneccessary.  At the time, the ''whys and wherefores'' of the Consititution were still flexible, and I contend that if the Church hierarchy had not been so inflexible (and had Calles not held a life-long grudge against his hometown priests), things might have been very different.  Or not... one needs to look at the history of Mexican anti-clericalism going back to the 18th century to get at the root of the senseless slaughter of 1926-28.

Fr. Schroth and his fellow Jesuits can, I suppose, take some satisfaction in that the resolution of the conflict was largely the work of the American priest John Burke and Archbishop Pascual Diáz y Barrato, S.J.
Grant Monnig
6 years 4 months ago
Fr. Schroth, I'm really disappointed in your review.  The movie was NOT a propaganda piece whipped up for the Fortnight for Freedom, it just happened to come out at the same time by chance.  For the record, I thought that the movie was not the most historically accurate when it came to the details, but your attack of the war in general is just wrong.  It is foolish to compare the atrocities of President Calles to Pres. Obama, but it is just as foolish to say that there are no parrallels between what happened in Mexico in the years leading up to the war and what is happening in the U.S. right now.  To stop your rant about the contemporary church, it should be noted that all of the Mexican saints from the period were priests or laity that did not fight, but were instead executed for being outspoken Catholics.  The Cristeros were not all saints by any stretch of the imagination, but they were willing to stand up and fight for their most precious possession-their faith.  Thanks to their uprising, the people of Mexico still have religious freedom today.  I would hope that as a priest Fr. Schroth you would be able to find some nobleness in that.
6 years 4 months ago
'The Muslim rioters who attack our embassies are not all saints by any stretch of the imagination, but they are willing to stand up and fight for their most precious possesson - their faith.'

Be careful what mindless arguments you reach for when you defend the indefensible.
Jim McCrea
6 years 4 months ago
"But I quake when I think that the bishops would have used this to especially arouse that kind of violent anger in any American, and especially the Hispanic Catholic population."

The last refuge of scoundrels is patriotism and religion.  Nothing like whipping up the sheeple to think that they are being abused and having their religious freedome taken away from them.

Keep those big check coming in to keep this big church well greased so it can lobby and buy influence in the halls of government.

Next year we'll see a reintroducing of the 1950s mantra:  Kill a Commie fer Christ.
Tom Maher
6 years 4 months ago
Ed Gleason # 7

Again why go back so far in time? Soviet marxist assasinated Pope John Paul II in 1981.  They were trying to kill him.  Marxist are hostile to religion but especially if religion is in any  politcal threat to their power.  As a matter of marxist doctrine they want "DIctatorship of the proletariat" worldwide and at all tiems. 

Chiinese marxist likewise does not share power with Rome or Tibet wehn it coems to religion.  Commuist marxist in the Spanish civil war did kill Catholic clergy. Marxism is and was always very hostile to religion.   THey wanted the state and only the state to have all political and cultural power of any kind.  They were totalitarian with a vengance.  And their intolerance of religion lives on as a secular politcal influence worldwide today.
Carlos Orozco
6 years 4 months ago
I saw the movie and was a rather dissappointed, mostly because I had such high expectations. As I understand, it was the director's first movie as such and, therefore,  it was unrealistic to expect something rivaling a Mel Gibson epic.

It seemed to me that the movie tried to pack too many historic characters, that it served justice to very few. The character of (Blessed) Anacleto González Flores was especially simplified. The powerful intellectual leader of the rebel movement -and exponent of religious liberty- was portrayed as a sort of grown and dynamic altar boy. In reality, he hasitantly supported the armed rebellion after it become clear that boycotts would not stop the attacks on the faithful. Anacleto knew that he would immediately become a target of assassination because of that, and did not shy away. The movie does not follow him in his torture and defying last words in front of the firing squad: "Escuchen por segunda vez este grito las Américas: ¡Yo muero, pero Dios nunca muere, Viva Cristo Rey!"

To think that something similar could never happen in the United States is naive. Concentration of undue power eventually leads to war against the Church because the god-State demands absolute power. Religious liberty is the ultimate obstacle to a dictatorship. That is why the revolutionary governments of France, Russia and Mexico so fiercely attacked established religious institutions (Catholic and Orthodox). Post-Constitutional America has no unique firewalls against such a threat.
Gabriel Marcella
6 years 4 months ago
"... bishops stoked the fires of resentment..."

Such intemperate language in the scholarly Jesuit America does not help the cause of responsible dialogue. Please curb these rhetorical excesses. 
J Cosgrove
6 years 4 months ago
Just added the movie to the top of My Netflix cue.  Should arrive on Saturday.

I read the Power and Glory as part of my Jesuit education but the book is long gone.  No Kindle edition so will have to find a used one on Amazon.
6 years 4 months ago
Saw the trailer just about the time it was to come out, and new then and there it was propaganda for the Fortnight campaign.

My grandparents left Mexico in 1910 to avoid fighting against Pancho Villa, or the Federales. Surely glad they did, because I was born in California. My mother was about 10 years old when that Cristeros war was raging and was spared because she was born in Northern California.

What the people of Mexico suffered during the Revolution and then the Cristeros war was horrific. I am glad to have been born in the United States, and have no fear that our church, our priests and nuns will ever be treated the way they were treated during the Cristeros war. But I quake when I think that the bishops would have used this to especially arouse that kind of violent anger in any American, and especially the Hispanic Catholic population. It is shameful and I do not forgive them for that. It is the kind of propaganda that was developed over the first half of the 20th century against the 'others' in Europe. And that ploy was used to distract the attention of the faithful from the unfinished business of the church to the reforms it must implement without haste. Those reforms mean surrendering some of their power to the laity. And they do not and will not like it.

Our freedoms are always in jeopardy when we allow the ruthless to foment hatred, fear and contempt using the kinds of appeals to emotion that propaganda does. I will not ever forgive those bishops who did this. Heaven help them.
6 years 4 months ago
Oh, Chris, you have to forgive them. Episcopal ignorance is the most invincible ignorance of all.
Jack Barry
6 years 4 months ago
The film inspired the warrior on the cover of the May 2012 issue of Columbia, Knights of Columbus magazine.  It devoted several articles to its theme ''Freedom is our Lives'', including a 4/26 USCCB statement of its view on freedom and stories of the Mexican war.  
One noteworthy piece is the statement of the Supreme Knight Carl Anderson on ''What Mexico Teaches Us''.  He aims to set the record straight on the Mexican war and to draw inescapable connections he sees to current events in the US.    He is particularly drawn to Cdl. Dolan's customary bellicose rhetoric.   Julia Young, whom you quote and link to, is absolutely correct. 
Jim McCrea
6 years 4 months ago

In a way, I am sorry to hear the film went straight to DVD.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, it got virtually no theater time ... anywhere.

I suspect that's true for most of the country.  It has very limited audience appeal.

6 years 4 months ago
This review strongly implies that the filmmakers were out to demonize the much-loved (around here, anyway) President Obama.  There is nothing whatsoever in it to suggest that.  ZERO.  It is simply malicious to suggest otherwise.

The more important moral issue surrounding the film is the use of violence in response to persecution of the Church.  The movie clearly endorses it.  The Church today does not, nor did it during the Cristero war.  Should it have?   The film's creators evidently thought so, and possibly the Church today is ambivalent on the question, especially in light of the beatification of the film's true hero, the boy martyr Jose Sanchez del Rio.

More than anythng, For Greater Glory is his story, and a compelling story it is.  But I wonder how much of it is true.  As I understand it, the primary witness to his martyrdom (and later advocate for his cause) was a child who became something of a whiskey priest himself, Marcial Maciel Degollado.


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