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Don Luis Mártinez y Rodríguez … the cunning linguist

10 June 2013


An aside in a piece on a failed fascist colony in Baja California (Falange y sinarquismo en Baja California) in Sunday’s La Jornada by Hugo Gutiérrez Vega mentioned in passing the remarkable Don Luis María Martínez y Rodríguez, the 32nd Archbishop of Mexico City (1937 – 1956).

Don Luis was appointed Primate of Mexico as successor to the only Jesuit (and only American Indian) to hold that post, Pascual Díaz y Barreto, who had been instrumental in negotiating an end to the Cristero War.  Don Luis’ appointment came at a crucial time in Mexican church-state relations, putting the Archbishop between a leftist anti-clerical government on one side, and a reactionary movement within the Church that was rapidly moving towards militant Fascism on the other.

Although known as a theologian rather than a political bishop, Don Luis proved to be the right man at the right time.  With much of the conservative faithful enamored with Franciso Franco, while the Mexican state openly backed the Spanish Republicans and within some states open persecution of the church was still the order of the day, Don Luis in some ways faced similar problems to that faced by Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Although “liberation theology” was far in the future, like now Pope Francis, Don Luis had to protect the church FROM the state on one hand, while holding off those within the Church who would politicize their faith (never mind that the roles were reversed — Mexico being a leftist state, with clerics involved in rightist politics, whereas Argentina had a rightist government and leftist clerics).  Like Bergoglio, Martínez y Rodríguez saw his mission as keeping the church relevant to national affairs, while, simultanously, avoiding the danger of allowing one faction within the church to create a violent reaction against the state … which, in Mexico — having only emerged from a ten year civil war/revolution and a religiously inspired insurgent uprising — and the entire world on the brink of war … was all the more critical in the Mexico of the late 1930s.

As a theologian, and a gifted writer, Don Luis found common ground with the Cárdinas Administration in the social goals of the state and the social teachings of the Church.   Don Luis crafted a religious justification for nationalizing the  oil industry in 1938, which not only gave the Archbishop entre into state affairs, but — more importantly — signaled to the Catholic majority that even the “atheist” state might be morally correct.  As to the Synarchist (Mexican fascist) movement, Don Luis made clear his objections to the movement (it was thanks to him that  during World War II Mexican Catholics would largely support the Allies, despite Synarchist support for the Axis)  and moved the most reactionary clerics out of sensitive positions within the Church. As a Bishop, Martínez y Rodríguez claimed he took his cue from the first Bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga (1530-1548), who Don Luis saw as fostering a Church meant to serve the people and cooperate with the state.  He was quite willing to negotiate with the federal government for expanding the social service network and in support of labor rights.

Unusual among the post-Revolutionary hierarchy, Don Luis was highly regarded in by the  usually anti-clerical intellectuals, not merely for his willingness to find common ground with the state, but also for his genuine gifts as a poet, linguist and wit.

As Primate, he sought to modernize the Church institutionally (setting up the first Diocesan Synod) and physically… seeing the restoration and modernization of church facilities throughout the country as a means of bringing the institution closer to the masses.  Alas, things did not always go according to plan.  When he had a sound system installed at the  Basilica of Guadalupe, his inaugural sermon was memorable… not for it’s subject or rhetoric, but for its attention-grabbing opening statement.   The microphone shorted, giving His Eminence a nasty shock, and the first words ever broadcast in the Basilica boomed forth:  “¡Ah, chingao!“…. or, as we’d say in English:  OH,  FUCK!”

It was probably the only time Don Luis’ eloquence failed him.   In 1950, not in recognition of his role in the oil nationalization, and certainly not in recognition of his work as a theological scholar, but in honor of his impossible to overlook work as a poet and linguist,  Don Luis received a membership in the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua.  While appointment to the  Academia Mexicana, like corresponding insitutions of the Real Academia Española throughout the Spanish-speaking world, is largely a way of honoring scholarship, the members take their task of defining and setting the standards for the proper use of the Spanish language quite seriously.

Naturally, as a Roman Catholic cleric, Don Luis was considered the go-to guy for proper definitions for Latin words used in Spanish.  Rather waggishly (and with a hint of anti-clericalism) , one of his fellow academicians requested His Eminence to define “cunnilingus”… which His Eminence did, quite gracefully and without, apparently, a second thought:  “A pious contemplation of the place where man emerges into this world,  often performed while kneeling“.

Don Luis has been proposed for beatification, the first step in the Catholic church towards official sainthood.  And why not?  It only takes “heroic virtue” to be Beatified… and there’s something virtuous (and heroic) in not just working with the people and building churches, but in writing well, and having a quick wit.




2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary O'Grady permalink
    10 June 2013 8:29 am

    Thank you, Richard, for this remarkable synopsis of what must have been a fascinating career.

  2. Mari permalink
    8 November 2014 10:01 am

    Your writing of this Priests life leaves much to be desired. You site not one source that one may trace your assertions back too. For instance that vile curse you put in his mouth…where did that gem come from. Finally every educated and well catechized Catholic knows that liberation theology is wholly incompatible with 2000 years of Church teaching. Liberation theology just repackages the Marxist ideology of “social justice” go live in a communist country with no hope of getting out and then come talk about liberation theology’s idea of cooperating with evil to get a say in government. You’ve been mislead. The Lord bless you and keep you,…
    Our Lady guard you and guide you.

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