From the Cristeros to General Franco: Does the Church Approve of Revolt?

March 27, 2019
The Cristiada was the revolt of Mexican peasants, Catholic, against the government, between 1926 and 1929.

Current events have brought together the two crusades of the 20th century: the Cristiada in Mexico and the Spanish War. They have the same cause and the same effect: a violent persecution of Catholicism with unjust laws and physical constraint, and the generous response of the Mexican and Spanish people in the defense of the Church, their Faith and their clergy.

The Cristiada has been excluded from history and its victims - its martyrs - do not count any more than dead dogs. Similarly, the Spanish civil war is rejected by the politically correct, just like General Franco’s remains, that the government is seeking to banish to oblivion. However, there is a papal text that unites these two crusades doctrinally by laying down the principles for a just revolt, the opposite of sedition.


To better understand a concept, it is often useful to consider its opposite. In this case, sedition. St. Thomas Aquinas addresses it in his treatise on charity (II-II, 42).

Sedition is "the unjust aggression of one part of society against another". By nature, men belong to a political structure and have a duty to contribute to a common action, a work to be accomplished together, and this task is the essential reason for this political association. Sedition is the breaking of this unity by the insurrection of one part of the community against the other.

The seditious faction seeks to impose its views or interests on the whole, not by legal means, but by assault. The sedition challenges the political authority in charge of the common good; therefore, it is often characterized as an "insurrection against political authority". However, in some cases, the government itself can be seditious.

Sedition is not war strictly speaking. It resembles war and uses the same means, which may earn it the title of civil war; but war is fought between independent States.

Is Sedition Always Wrong?

Because it breaks a peace based on justice, and injustice is always serious in itself when it harms the common good, sedition is a fault that nothing can justify.

The reason is that it is opposed to social unity, which is a social right and part of the common good. While there can be "just war", there can be no "just sedition". In sedition, there are two sides opposed to each other, but only one is seditious; the other exercises a legitimate resistance.

To show the difference between war and sedition, and the gravity of the latter, it is important to recall that a prisoner of war is inviolable, whereas one has the right to condemn a rebel. This sentence must be pronounced in accordance with the laws in force; but it is just and may include the death penalty.

In the case of sedition, it is not the legitimate authority that calls for a fight. To follow the call of a rebel is an act of sedition, which is less serious than taking the initiative; but one never has the right to follow the call of a private person with no legitimate authority.

Just Revolt

Can revolt ever not be a "sin?" Yes, if, rather than supporting a particular good, its goal is the true common good of society and it restores social unity in the face a government that has become tyrannical.

In this case, it is the government that is seditious, because it divides society into factions: legitimacy is on the side of revolt. It is always important to point this out.

Legitimacy and Tyranny

While submission to public authority is a duty, it is not an unconditional duty. It supposes that the authority substantially fulfils its function.

The political authority, whatever its form may be, has the task of directing the society for which it is responsible towards the common good; as such, everyone owes it complete obedience. But this authority is not the common good; it must serve and promote it; it does not identify with it.

This means that the person in authority can be unfaithful to his mission; instead of ensuring the common good, he can compromise it by deficiency, if he is weak and becomes the prisoner of a faction, or by prevarication, if he pursues his own personal interests or those of a clan. It is he who then breaks the unity of society and harms the common good.

Tyranny consists in the authority no longer governing for the common good, but for the interest either of the leader himself, or of a party, a class, or even a foreign country.

There are many degrees of tyranny, and the above describes it at its height. When it reaches this point, the power’s legitimacy collapses. But before this happens, the common good can be sufficiently affected or compromised for efforts to be needed to remedy it.

Resistance to Tyranny

In general, there are four possible attitudes of resistance to an abusive power:

- Passive resistance, which consists in not obeying unjust laws; this is mandatory in the case of bad laws.

- Active legal resistance, which consists in demanding by legitimate means (authorized or not by law), that the law be revised; this is permitted.

- Active armed resistance, or just revolt, which consists in opposing the enforcement of a law by force; this was the case with the Cristiada and the Spanish War.

- Sedition, which pits one faction against another; this is never allowed.

A Concrete Assessment of the Tyrannical State

This assessment cannot be based on a simple personal impression or the result of a sectarian campaign. It is assumed here that the authority’s deficiency is obvious and serious enough to compromise the common good lastingly and on important issues. But how is this assessment made?

It is not based on its form - monarchical, aristocratic or republican - that a government can be declared legitimate or tyrannical. Any form of government that is not contrary to natural law can be legitimate and any form can degenerate into tyranny.

Nor can the distinction between legitimate and tyrannical governments be based on their origin (legal or usurped). An initial defect can always be repaired. The at least tacit recognition of the nation shows that the government in office sufficiently fulfills its task, which gives it legitimacy.

The Conditions for a Just Revolt

These conditions are similar to those required for a just war, namely 1) a just cause; 2) a certain political legitimacy, which compensates for the authority of the government; 3) an upright intention.

A Just Cause

There is only one: an urgent need for the common good. If, on a fundamental issue, a significant part of the nation is bullied for the benefit of another, the common good is no longer being fulfilled, even if the "profiteers" are the majority.

If the government is fighting against this state of affairs, it must be supported and helped. But if it accepts, supports and defends this serious injustice, it becomes formally tyrannical. When there is reason to believe that this evil will not be temporary, and when it becomes very serious, one is morally bound to resist it.

This also implies that there is no other solution, and that any other action has proved ineffective.

An essential condition, inherent in the just cause, is that there must be serious reason to believe that the salutary operation will be rapid and successful enough not to cause the whole nation to suffer an evil ultimately greater than that due to the present tyranny.

Political Legitimacy

It may seem paradoxical to require "political legitimacy" for a just revolt.

In fact, there are cases in which this condition is not a problem, cases when there is no "revolt" as such. These are the cases where the authority itself, keeping in mind the common good, but no longer having any other means of ensuring that it prevails over the actions of a faction or party, calls on the people who remain faithful to it to fight against the true rebels.

The difficulty is with cases in which the government, having become tyrannical, is on the side of the sedition. In general, legitimacy depends on the common good and the consent of the multitude concerned (at least a very large number); in other words, the vast majority of citizens.

If the government sides with the sedition, it loses its legitimacy because it divides society. At this point, the initiator of the revolt is justified in his action and receives a substitute authority in the name of the true common good: in a given country, at a given time, the authority was actually in escheat.

Whoever leads the just revolt truly acts in the name of the country’s common good. He claims a legitimacy that has been betrayed by the government that initially held it and can no longer lay claim to it against the true common good.

An Upright Intention

There are two aspects to this.

1) Not to exceed the reason that justifies the revolt. It is always to be feared that, in addition to safeguarding the common good, there will be specific or extraneous objectives that will confuse the issue and ultimately harm the common good.

2) Not to feed the revolt and its supporters with feelings that are evil in themselves, such as hatred, envy or greed. Civil wars are often the most merciless and generally cause unpardonable hatred.

General Franco, during a speech in Valencia, Spain, in April 1937.

General Franco with two officers.

The Teaching of the Church

The Church has always condemned sedition (we are not speaking of tyrannicide here).

In the Syllabus published in 1864, Pius IX condemned the following proposal: "It is lawful to refuse obedience to legitimate princes, and even to rebel against them." (n°63) 

In two passages from the Encyclical Immortal Dei, Leo XIII repeats this teaching: "It is evident that the origin of public power is to be sought for in God Himself, and not in the multitude, and that it is repugnant to reason to allow free scope for sedition." "To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God.”

Just Revolt

On 28 March 1937, Pius XI sent a priceless letter to the Mexican episcopate, clarifying the legitimacy of just revolt. It begins with the words "No es muy". It was published in French in Documentation Catholique, April 10-17, 1937, col. 985-997. Here are the passages that interest us:

" You have more than once recalled to your Faithful that the Church protects peace and order, even at the cost of grave sacrifices, and that it condemns every unjust insurrection or violence against constituted powers. On the other hand, among you it has also been said that, whenever these powers arise against justice and truth even to destroying the very foundations of authority, it is not to be seen how those citizens are to be condemned who united to defend themselves and the nation, by licit and appropriate means, against those who make use of public power to bring it to ruin.” 

This is the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas: a government becomes seditious if it "rebels against justice and truth". However, the just cause for resistance must be so serious that it "destroys the very foundations of authority"; at this point, its legitimacy collapses. "By lawful and appropriate means" normally refers to political and non-bloody means. But the following explains how armed violence can be considered as a last resort.

Pius XI indicates the conditions required for this just resistance. He classes them into five categories: habitual and non-transitory tyranny; grave tyranny that endangers the nation's essential goods; obvious tyranny by the general admission of honest men; the impossibility of using any other means; a serious probability of success.

The pope also gives concrete guidelines to the clergy and to Mexican Catholic Action regarding their political claims:

"These claims have a character of means, or relative end, not of ultimate and absolute end." They must be measured against something other than themselves: the common good and, ultimately, the last end.

"Their character as means justifies only lawful actions and not intrinsically evil actions." This is always true, both for revolt and for war.

"If they are to be means proportionate to the end, they must be used only in the measure in which they serve to obtain or render possible, in whole or in part, the end, and in such manner that they do not cause to the community greater damages than those they seek to repair.”

"The use of such means and the exercise of civic and political rights in their fulness, embracing also problems of order purely material and technical, or any violent defense, does not enter in any manner in the task of the clergy or of Catholic Action as such, although to both appertains the preparation of Catholics to make just use of their rights, and to defend them with all legitimate means according as the common good requires.”

"The clergy and Catholic Action, being, by their mission of peace and love, consecrated to uniting all men in vinculo pacis (Eph 4:3), must contribute to the prosperity of the nation, especially encouraging the union of those social initiatives which are not opposed to dogma or to the laws of Christian morals.” This text is clear enough it in itself and needs no further commentary. It is obviously impossible for the Church to go any further without appearing to call directly for revolt, which is never her role.

Let us add that this text of Pius XI, if it came late for the Mexicans, was just in time for the Spaniards.