Catholics see a rallying cry for ‘religious freedom’ in ‘For Greater Glory’ film

The film shows a burning crucifix, gun-toting priests and the torture of a young boy. And the Roman Catholic hierarchy … Continued

The film shows a burning crucifix, gun-toting priests and the torture of a young boy. And the Roman Catholic hierarchy is loving it.

The film, “For Greater Glory,” hits theaters on June 1 and tells a little known chapter of Mexican history — the Cristero War of 1926 to 1929, which pitted an army of devout Catholic rebels (led in the movie by Andy Garcia) against the government of Mexican President Plutarco Calles (played by Ruben Blades).

For Catholics enraged by the Obama administration’s proposed contraception mandate, the film about the Mexican church’s fight in 1920s is a heartening and timely cinematic boost in the American church’s battle to preserve “religious freedom” in 2012.

For other Catholics and non-Catholics, the film is, more simply, action, suspense and a good cast. Besides Garcia and Blades, there’s “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria and the legendary actor Peter O’Toole.

Endorsements for the film from Catholic leaders explicitly connect it to the current clash between church and state.

“’For Greater Glory’ is ‘must-see’ viewing for all those who care about faith and liberty today,” wrote Carl A. Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, which put the film on the cover of its members’ magazine.

“It is a top-flight production whose message of the importance of religious freedom has particular resonance for us today,” added Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez.

Mexican real estate developer Pablo Jose Barroso, the devout Catholic who produced the film, was asked by the National Catholic Reporter if the film’s release — coinciding with the current activism on religious freedom — was “God’s timing.”

“This is the perfect time for this film,” he said.

Barroso, who has produced other faith-based films, lamented that the official onslaught against the Catholic Church in Mexico, and the Cristero rebellion, is little known even in Mexico. State law shuttered churches and curtailed the administration of the sacraments. Anti-Catholic fervor led to the deportation and murder of priests.

But other Catholics, including some of the film’s stars, express varying levels of comfort with drawing parallels between the Cristero War and the Catholic hierarchy’s call to preserve “religious freedom” in the U.S. today.

“The movie was not done as a piece of propaganda,” Garcia said in an interview, stressing that he didn’t want to be drawn into a discussion about how some might be using the film. “I am not in the political arena.”

While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is working hard to stop the Obama administration’s birth control mandate, their campaign has not attracted a broad base of Catholics. A March study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that most American Catholics are generally supportive of the mandate. And 57 percent of Catholics (and 56 percent of Americans in general) reject the idea that religious liberty is under siege in the U.S.

For the Cuban-born Garcia, “For Greater Glory” is about religious freedom, but ultimately about freedom generally. While filming in Mexico, Garcia said he had his own history to draw on, given the suppression of the church in Cuba. “It was not only the taking away of religious rights,” he said. “They curtailed and took away all rights.”

He had not heard of the Cristero War before he worked on the film. But neither had many of the Mexicans in the cast, including Eduardo Verastegui, who plays a lawyer who spoke and wrote boldly in support of the Cristeros.

“In public school they didn’t teach that,” said Verastegui, 38. A decade ago, he grew serious about the Catholicism in which he was raised, and has became an activist against abortion and same-sex marriage.

Verastegui told Religion News Service that he has no interest in likening the Cristeros’ fight in the 1920s to the bishops’ call for a campaign for religious rights. The bishops’ conference has designated June 21 to July 4 as a “Fortnight for Freedom,” to be observed in dioceses across the nation.

“I try to stay away from politics,” Verastegui said. “I’m trying to allow my art to speak for itself.”

(In a subsequent interview with conservative, Verastegui compared Obama to one of history’s most famous oppressors of Catholics, King Henry VIII.)

For the Rev. Jim McDermott, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles and occasional screenwriter, connecting the Cristero War with modern-day politics makes little sense, from either a Catholic or artistic perspective.

“As much as I personally find some of Obama’s policies problematic, it seems ridiculous to compare that issue with the wholesale demolition of the Catholic Church in Mexico depicted in ‘For Greater Glory,’” he said.

“The attempt to equate these two situations,” he continued, “strikes me as indicative of the deeper problem our church faces today, the fierce and often willful bolstering of animosities at the expense of our national community.”

Besides, he added, “As a writer, I think sermons are best left for the pulpit.”

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  • thehopefulamerican

    I’m glad the artists are trying to let the work speak for itself.

    But that doesn’t preclude the fact that it is an important piece at a time when – regardless of which side you’re on – religious liberty is a major issue.

    If you look at President Calles’ agenda, they mirror closely the increasing restrictions on religious practices – including public religious displays, pushing the contraception agenda of Margaret Sanger, trying to limit clergy from saying anything negative about the government, and – most especially – getting the state more involved in defining and redefining who is clergy, as in EEOC vs. Hosanna-Tabor.

    Thankfully, the bloodshed isn’t in our country. But the legal restrictions are developing.

    Honestly, I think the most important thing about the movie is that it shows people this continent is not immune to religious persecution. The United States didn’t think Calles would imprison and torture people, including the boy in the movie, but it happened. Calles was supposed to be Mexcio’s progressive savior, who would fix the labor problems, the oil issues, the economy, all while modernizing and secularizing Mexico.

    Regardless of what Fr. McDermott says – there are parallels.

  • VivaCristoRey

    Finally this story is being told! The old tool of silencing was used then & being utilized now if one is looking for parallels. If reports of the suits to protect religious liberty are printed, notice how it is framed around a contraception boogey man. My mother told me how fear of the government patriarchy was used against women and children (Her aunts could not speak of being Catholic nor express opionion about the gov). but we now know that Mexican women and children assisted the rebels in smuggling guns and ammunition. “When the real revolution happens, it won’t be mentioned in the newspapers.” GK Chesterton

  • Mirena

    My grandmother and great-grandparents personally fought in the Cristero War and growing up, I heard many stories about this awful event. My family held underground masses in their home and lost loved-ones to the Mexican government.

    HOWEVER, to compare the murdering of thousands for their religious belief to the recent birth control mandate is ridiculous.

    Plutarco Elías Calles, an Atheist, believed that all Mexicans should share his belief, and so outlawed Christianity. Our Government is requiring that all employers cover birth control to all women, regardless of whether the employee shares that belief or not.

    If the Catholic church is exempt from the mandate, then they are encroaching on women’s freedom. Every woman should be able to make the moral decision to use birth control herself. The Church should not decide for all their employees because THEN they would be not too different from Calles himself (minus the murdering part of course).