In his seminal document on human development, Populorem Progressio (1966), Paul VI made the following startling statement:

There are certainly situations whose injustice cries to heaven. When whole populations destitute of necessities live in a state of dependence barring them from all initiative and responsibility, and all opportunity to advance culturally and share in social and political life, recourse to violence, as a means to right these wrongs to human dignity, is a grave temptation.

We know, however, that a revolutionary uprising — save where there is manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country — produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters. A real evil should not be fought against at the cost of greater misery (#31-31; italics added).

Although the Catholic heritage has articulated a just war theory since the time of Augustine, Paul VI provides a narrow justification for revolutionary violence. Of course, he quickly qualifies the assertion by adding that most revolutions lead to new injustices.

Populorem Progressio is published two years before the important gathering of Latin American bishops at Medellin, Colombia. This conference ultimately gives an episcopal justification for liberation theology, a justification subsequently qualified at Puebla (1979) and Santa Domingo (1992). This period of Catholic Latin American activism of the late 1960s conjures up visions of Father Camillo Torres fighting as part of a Colombian leftist guerrilla movement which will ultimately lead to his death at the age of 37.   In the same vein, Pope Francis has recently reinstated Father Miguel D’Escoto as a priest; Pope John Paul II had previously suspended Father D’Escoto for being a cabinet member in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1970s. But today, I would like today instead to focus on a priest whose convictions led him to lead a revolution and whose impact has had a much greater impact than either Torres or D’Escoto on Mexican and in turn U.S. American history – Father Miguel Hidalgo.

Mexican Independence Day is celebrated annually on September 15-16th. The Mexican President on the evening on the 15th leads a celebration of the heroes of the Mexican fight for independence before a large crowd of people on the most famous plaza in Mexico City, the Zocalo. But the commemoration of this event as well in the United States is part of a larger history of the fight of Latin American countries for independence from Spain and Portugal in the period from 1810-1825. Fifteen Latin American countries also date their independence days back to this period and in eight cases, the dates fall in September.

The specifics of the Mexican independence movement are as follows. In 1809-1810, a group of Mexicans disgruntled with being controlled by Spain plotted to incite a movement for independence. Although they had projected 2 October 1810 as the date of rebellion, colonial leaders found out about their plans and began making arrests. Consequently, Father Michael Hidalgo, on the morning of September 16th announced to his parishioners in the town of Dolores that he was beginning a military revolt against Spanish rule and they were welcome to join the rebellion – El Grito de Dolores (The Cry of Dolores).

Although his large peasant army marched all the way to Mexico City, the Spanish army initially defeated them. Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende, the two key leaders, were captured and ultimately executed in the summer of 1811. Jose Maria Morelos then became the rebellion’s leader until he was captured and executed in 1815. Finally, under the leadership of Vicente Guerrero and Guadalupe Victoria, the rebel army was able to get colonial officials to declare the final declaration from Spain in September 1821.

Mexican Independence Day gets more attention in the United States than that of the other countries’ holidays because there is more Latinos of Mexican descent than any other Latin American nationality in the United States. In turn, scholars debate how “liberating” any of these independence movements were in that they were largely led by the creole population (those of Spanish lineage) not that of the poorer classes primarily Black, Indian, and mestizo (mixed blood) heritages. Indeed, persisting class and racial disparities in Mexico would lead to the Mexican Revolution a century later – 1910-1920. Returning to Paul VI, the continuing disparities between rich and poor between the developed and developing worlds and the gap between these classes within Latin America countries had moved him to write Populorem Progressio. And sadly a half century later, disparities still persist in many places: the murder rate for example in some Honduran cities exceeds that even of Camden, NJ, a city known for rampant crime due to lack of social and economic advancement.

Ultimately, I do not mean to suggest that Father Miguel Hidalgo’s actions were justified by Catholic social and moral teaching (nor do I suggest they were not), but to acknowledge that the Catholic tradition has had to wrestle persistently with the role of violence in evangelizing the Kingdom of God. This quandary is certainly very much at the heart in the current strife between religious groups in Africa, the Middle East, and other regions of the world. No, as you encounter celebrations of Mexican Independence Day, simply take a moment to remember this Father Hildalgo whose courageous grito incited in Mexico, the fight for political self-determination by the Mexican people and has inspired other subjugated peoples seeking to throw off the yoke of colonialism.

  • John Francis Burke, Ph.D.
  • Executive Director of the Wolfington Center, Cabrini College
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