The Mysterious Sofia: One Woman’s Mission to Save Catholicism in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
In November 1934, during Mexico’s Days of the Dead, Sofía del Valle worried that her mission to the United States—to raise money and sympathy for Mexican Catholics—had failed completely. The Mexican Secret Service, she learned, had intercepted and published a letter she had sent from Washington, D.C. to Mexico City. A “Mysterious Sofía,” reported newspapers, including the New York Times, was a Catholic agent in the US, commissioned to advocate for armed intervention in Mexico. The scandal made international headlines and laid bare the lingering bad blood between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church, still reeling from the fratricidal civil war between Catholic militants and government-backed troops and militias, known as the Cristero Rebellion (1926-1929).
Who was this “Mysterious Sofía”? Historian Stephen Andes follows the life story of Sofía del Valle (1891-1982), tracking down traces of her history in the Vatican Secret Archive, in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. In the process, Sofía’s remarkable, though largely unknown, life of activism for the Catholic Church is told. The daughter of European immigrants to Mexico, Sofía learned Spanish, French, and English. She organized women in Mexico City factories. She established a liberal arts college for women on a shoe-string budget; started one of the largest youth organization’s for women in Mexico; traveled the globe as an emissary for Catholic Action; worked for the United Nations and John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Andes tracks down Sofía’s living relatives in Mexico and the United States and describes Sofía’s enduring legacy. Sofía del Valle’s life, Andes reveals, is not a mystery, but a story we have ignored—the story of how active Catholic women around the globe preserved the faith during a century of war, revolution, and secularization. The book is a history of twentieth century Catholicism told through the eyes of one woman from Mexico.
As in Europe, secular nation building in Latin America challenged the traditional authority of the Roman Catholic Church in the early twentieth century. In response, Catholic social and political movements sought to contest state-led secularisation and provide an answer to the ‘social question’, the complex set of problems associated with urbanisation, industrialisation, and poverty. As Catholics mobilised against the secular threat, they also struggled with each other to define the proper role of the Church in the public sphere. This study utilizes recently opened files at the Vatican pertaining to Mexico’s post-revolutionary Church-state conflict known as the Cristero Rebellion (1926-1929). However, looking beyond Mexico’s exceptional case, the work employs a transnational framework, enabling a better understanding of the supranational relationship between Latin American Catholic activists and the Vatican. To capture this world historical context, Andes compares Mexico to Chile’s own experience of religious conflict. Unlike past scholarship, which has focused almost exclusively on local conditions, Andes seeks to answer how diverse national visions of Catholicism responded to papal attempts to centralize its authority and universalize Church practices worldwide.
The Vatican and Catholic Activism in Mexico and Chile applies research on the interwar papacy, which is almost exclusively European in outlook, to a Latin American context. The national cases presented illuminate how Catholicism shaped public life in Latin America as the Vatican sought to define Catholic participation in Mexican and Chilean national politics. It reveals that Catholic activism directly influenced the development of new political movements such as Christian Democracy, which remained central to political life in the region for the remainder of the twentieth century.
This important volume investigates the many forms of Catholic activism in Latin America between the 1890s and 1962 (from the publication of the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum to the years just prior to the Second Vatican Council). It argues that this period saw a variety of lay and clerical responses to the social changes wrought by industrialization, political upheavals and mass movements, and increasing secularization. Spurred by these local developments as well as by initiatives from the Vatican, and galvanized by national projects of secular state-building, Catholic activists across Latin America developed new ways of organizing in order to effect social and political change within their communities.
Additionally, Catholic responses to the nation-state during this period, as well as producing profound social foment within local and national communities, gave rise to a multitude of transnational movements that connected Latin American actors to counterparts in North America and Europe. The Catholic Church presents a particularly cohesive example of a transnational religious network. In this framework, Catholic organizations at the local, national, and transnational level were linked via pastoral initiatives to the papacy, while maintaining autonomy at the local level.
In studies of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic renewal in Europe and the Americas, scholars have rarely given ample analysis of the translocal and transnational interconnections within the Catholic Church, which became critical to the energy, plurality, and endurance of Latin American Catholic activism leading up to, and moving through, the Second Vatican Council. By studying Latin America as a whole, Local Church, Global Church examines a larger degree of transnational and translocal complexity, and its investigative lens spans regional, hemispheric, transatlantic, and international borders. Furthermore, it sheds new light on the complex and multifarious forms of Catholic activism, introducing a fascinating cast of actors from lay organizations, missionary groups, devotional societies, and student activists.