When Fr. Miguel Hidalgo’s army – a congregation of criollos, mestizos, indios, and mulatos – marched to Guanajuato to capture this strategic state, the Archbishop of Mexico, Antonio de Lizana y Beaumont, rapidly circulated a pastoral letter warning the inhabitants of Nueva España (now Mexico) about the “once brilliant star” of the clergy who had morphed into “another Lucifer.” Archbishop Lizana declared that “because of the insubordination and fraternal hatred that moves Fr. Hidalgo, he cannot be called a Christian; he has violated the law and the doctrines of Jesus Christ…” Fr. Miguel Hidalgo was denounced as the anti-Christ who “will cause us to lose our America.”
The year was 1810, October to be precise. Way before the births of Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Apolinario Mabini and Antonio Luna, all of Spain’s colonies in Central and South America were engulfed in the most widespread, insuppressible anti-colonial independence movement that, in one way or another, affected the future of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Las Filipinas.
One fine day, in front of the altar of his parish in Michoacân, Fr. Miguel Hidalgo announced to the gathered faithful that he would not celebrate Mass because they would all have to take arms and fight for independence. Perhaps that is an apocryphal amusing tale, but as Fr. Hidalgo marched valiantly towards Guajanuato, the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition of Mexico had already dug into their files, leaving no page unturned, to find damning evidence against the rebellious priest.
By the early 19th century, the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico was no longer that active. It had not burnt anyone at stake since 1711, and its investigations were confined to banal matters involving abusive deacons, friars, parish priests, and other members of the clergy, more ridiculous than grave. It spent valuable time shifting through reports from the fringes of the Virreinato, like stories of how natives in the Philippines had idolatrous practices involving the Santo Niño. There was nothing damaging about Fr. Hidalgo in the Inquisition archives, only a malicious report about his arguing with a French theologian and how he was often invited to tertulias in the homes of the elite. He was, after all, an educated and cultured man appreciated for his wit and humor.
Moreover, the Supreme Council of the Holy Inquisition in Madrid had been unceremoniously dismantled during the French invasion of Spain, so its Mexican office could not recur to a higher authority. The Archbishop and the Virrey (Governor-General if Viceroy) were on their own. As expected, they embroidered on the old reports and added that Fr. Miguel Hidalgo had announced that there is no Hell, nor Purgatory, neither does Heaven exist so everyone should follow his passions. They issued an edict accusing Fr. Hidalgo of heresy; 200 copies were printed and distributed to key parishes. There were other official letters, as well as pastoral ones denouncing Hildalgo: “How can such a man inspire your confidence? The Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition has publicly excommunicated him for heresy and schism…”
When Fr. Hidalgo entered Queretaro, the parish priest there was so petrified, he hid the edicts of the Inquisition and the archbishop. Sarcastically, Fr. Hidalgo said he would soon have dinner at the Viceroy’s Palace, at the Archbishop’s residence and at the very Tribunal of the Inquisition. To this day, a popular Hidalgo saying goes: “Ni inquisidor gachupin, ni arzobispo gachupin, ni virrey gachupin, ni santo gachupin.” In Mexico, gachupin is a derogatory term for Spaniard originating from the spurs used by horsemen.
Fr. Miguell Hidalgo circulated his own letter in answer to the accusations of the Holy Inquisition. He declared that he had not lost his faith, that it remains steadfast; he is accused of heresy simply because he has taken up arms in a struggle for independence against the Spanish Empire. He also said that the members of the Holy Inqusition allowed themselves to be used by the gachupines and as for the Church, it shamelessly uses its power to promote the interests of gachupines. “They are not Catholics, they are mere politicians,” Fr.Hidalgo declared in his letter.
Fr. Hidalgo was not the only prelate who joined the Mexican anti-colonial struggle for independence; their participation was polemical, to say the least. Can rebels against Spain be good Catholics at the same time?