Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

A Discussion on Faith and Culture

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Martínez vs Lamy

March 4th, 2011 · 5 Comments


Willa Cather traduces Father Antonio José Martínez, the pastor of Taos, New Mexico, in her novel Death Comes to the Archbishop. It is only a novel, but is enough of a roman à clef that his memory has suffered. Lamy’s biographer, Paul Horgan (Lamy of Santa Fe), is fairer to Martínez, but glosses over many of Lamy’s actions that Martinez objected to.


Lamy was a representative of nineteenth-century French ultramontane Catholicism, and was determined to reproduce the French way of being Catholic in New Mexico. He did not like the art, the festivities, or the penances of the Hispanics. He replaced the santos by plaster saints and colored lithographs; he tried to suppress the fandangos (the social dances);and he tried to suppress the penitentes, the brotherhood that did works of charity and severe bodily penances.


When New Mexico was part of Mexico, tithes to the church were a civil obligation. Don Martínez, himself a well-to-do landowner who used his resources to help the poor, persuaded the Mexican Assembly to abolish tithes because they weighed so heavily upon the poor.


When Lamy came, he was determined to build up the church as an institution with convents and schools and hospitals (all good things) and he needed money to do this. Some funds came from France, but he reinstituted the tithes and enforced them by denying the sacraments to people who would not or could not pay them. To me this smacks of simony. Lamy, admittedly in a difficult situation, heavy-handedly enforced his decrees and his vision of the church..


The Mexican priests were close to the people (perhaps a little too close at times) and Lamy was scandalized that they did not leave reserved, austere lives – Mexican priests had even been known to dance! He got rid of them for the slightest real or imagined infraction and imported French priests. After New Mexico became an American territory, Lamy insisted that the French priests preach mostly in their limited English, with the result that the Hispanic parishioners were totally mystified.


In France the clergy objected to much of the popular rural culture that had carried over from the Middle Ages. One of the bones of contention between young men and the clergy was dancing. Priests, including I believe John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, would refuse absolution to men unless they promised to give up dancing. But the dances that the clergy found so objectionable were the traditional circle and line dances, not intimate body-to-body dances. Priests also found most saints’ day feasts and pilgrimages objectionable, because they were run by the laity and not controlled by the clergy.


Although there have been some short defenses of Martínez, no one has written a scholarly study of the conflict between Mexican and French Catholicism in New Mexico, a study that would, I hope, not take French Catholicism as the norm and Mexican Catholicism as a provincial deviation.


PS Father Martinez baptized Kit Carson and then witnessed his marriage. Carson, like the Texans at the Alamo, died a Catholic.

Tags: Southwest · clericalism

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mary // Mar 4, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    A very interesting critique of Catholicism as interpreted through the cultural bias that are reflected in opus dei sense of blind obedience and corporal mortification.Also, the ultramontane Monarchist’s ,who have influenced the origin of the “Great Monarch” prophecies mixed with a political and national identity agenda.Now in the “information age”Catholics seem more confused as to what it means to be truly Catholic.Perhaps solid grounding is found in the writings of the Early Church Fathers prior to so many multicultural influences and interpretations?

  • 2 Joseph D'Hippolito // Mar 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    But the dances that the clergy found so objectionable were the traditional circle and line dances, not intimate body-to-body dances. Priests also found most saints’ day feasts and pilgrimages objectionable, because they were run by the laity and not controlled by the clergy.

    This is what happens when a church adopts a medieval system of goverance. Lower clergy inevitably view themselves as religious versions of dukes, earls and counts, adopt a variation of “the divine right of kings” and start to “lord it over” the people.

    This sad “tradition” continues to this day, in the failure of many Catholics to confront clerical or episcopal malfeasance, or to support those (mostly laity) who do.

  • 3 Tony de New York // Mar 4, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    We need MORE information 2 pass judgment.

  • 4 Mary // Mar 5, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Having had a brief sojourn in the SSPX, we were disgusted by the pro Hitler rhetoric.
    Having met Prince Henri de Bourbon Parme, I was disapointed in the LeFebvre idolatry (monarchist).
    Having followed the Maciel LC/RC debacle I was disgusted to read Carlos Slim (richest man in the world ) will continue to support Legion schools and universities.
    Having read the history books written by the Carrols , I was bewildered by the praise of piety of parents concerning the Children’s Crusade, not to mention the lack of condemnation for atrocities during the Inquisition.
    I am saddened by the liberal Americanism of our Bishops.
    I am bewildered by the claim of the destruction of Communism in the USSR by Pope JPII and Walesa who recently lost his court case when he challenged the findings of his name in the KGB files of the seventies as a communist agent code name ‘Bolek”.
    If you read you will find the information is out there from documented sources. The notion that we were given the full Third Secret of Fatima is also ludicrous.
    Is anyone simply a Catholic without the need to whitewash history for particular political agendas?

  • 5 Tony de New York // Mar 6, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Mary, we need to pray more 4 our Holy Father.

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