The battle between the Catholic orthodoxy and devotees of Santa Muerte has hit a high water mark with a visit to Mexico from the Vatican’s Cultural Minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. Sarah C. Nelson, writing for Huffington Post UK, reports on the news that Ravasi has given a charge of blasphemy to Santa Muerte in a series of talks comparing the devotional tradition to those held by Cosa Nostra organized crime families in Italy:
“A Vatican spokesman has declared Mexico’s folk Death Saint (Santa Meurte) is “blasphemous” and should not be part of any religion.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi said worship of the skeletal figure of a cloaked woman carrying a scythe was a degeneration of religion, the Associated Press reported.”
Up to this point the Catholic Church’s standard response has at times favored the devotional fervor, and intent of Santa Muerte’s followers, while expressing concern over doctrinal issues. Quotes from a Spanish language AP report show that that the Cardinal has gone well past any tense acquiescence, and it seems likely that the Vatican is planning to highlight Santa Muerte as a negative foil during the development of upcoming cultural education initiatives:
“The mafia, drug trafficking, organized crime are not religious forms. Though use of Santa Muerte appears religious, it is not a part of religion. It is a blasphemous element…This is a degeneration, not a religion.”
“Organized crime is not culture but anti-culture…it is important to fight this not only with increased law enforcement. The decisive element is education, the formation of a new human model”.
United States President, Barack Obama’s recent statements regarding the need for careful immigration reform highlight the tense situation in the Americas that attends the Vatican’s pronouncement. Uncritical implications of direct association between Santa Muerte’s devotees and organized crime won’t serve us well with the tradition already spreading rapidly through the Americas. The diversity of those who follow Santa Muerte needs to be highlighted so that we gain a proper understanding of this complex and passionate tradition.
In a previous article on the Vatican’s position on Santa Muerte, R. Andrew Chesnut indicated some of the alternative motives that lie couched in the condemnation:
“Beyond the theological realm, the current religious economy of Mexico and Latin America provides a compelling explanation for not only the condemnation of “satanic sects” but for other dynamic religious competitors. For the past three decades both national bishops’ conferences and the Vatican have been denouncing the “invasion of the sects” in Latin America. Of course, Pentecostals, the most vibrant competitors, have been the primary object of condemnation, but Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age groups and Spiritists have also been inveighed against. Pope John Paul II shone a global spotlight on the situation during his trip to the Dominican Republic in 1992 when he accused Pentecostal evangelists of being “rapacious wolves” raiding the Catholic flock.
Thus, in the context of Catholic decline in Latin America over the past half-century in which Brazil, home to the largest Catholic population on earth, might not even be a Catholic-majority country within 15 years or so, the Church, particularly in Latin America, is in a state of panic over its losses. Even more disconcerting for the hierarchy is the fact that Latin America was 99 percent Catholic as late as the 1940s.”
These issues are of no concern to those of us in the Americas that have no interest or incentive to perpetuate Catholic orthodoxy, and the Vatican’s position needs to be carefully weighed while considering their stake in demonizing a popular faith that’s quickly becoming a potent rival. As Chesnut points out:
“In 2005 the Mexican government reacted to similar events by revoking the legal rights of a church devoted to her veneration in Mexico City. Let’s hope that as the cult of the controversial skeleton saint continues to grow on this side of the border, we uphold our own cherished tradition of religious freedom.”
To read more head over to the Huffington Post for Sarah C. Nelson’s report on the vatican’s declaration.