“Adorar a la santa muerte es un error grave y si algún creyente o católico sigue esto será por ignorancia o porque ya dejó la fe católica.”
“Worship of Saint Death is a grave error and if any man, woman or Catholic continues this, it will be through ignorance or because they already left the Catholic faith.”
– José Luis Chávez Botello, Archbishop of Oaxaca
The Catholic Church has begun to go into greater detail regarding the condemnation of devotional traditions centering on Santa Muerte with two new statements from archbishops following quickly after a recent clarification issued by the Conference of Mexican Bishops. Now that an official statement has been made public, the bishops are spreading and interpreting the message to their dioceces giving us an opportunity for insight into the relationship between the Catholic church and Santa Muerte, along with a more nuanced picture of the condemnation.
Sanctification and personhood in the Catholic church
One of the key areas that’s been brought to light in the clarification, and in the statements issued by the individual bishops, is the nature of personhood in the Catholic faith. As confirmed by Her devotees, Santa Muerte is the embodiment of death itself, and within the framework of Catholic theology this alone bars Her from participation in sainthood.
Archbishop of Oaxaca, José Luis Chávez Botello, in a statement given during a regularly scheduled media conference at the Metropolitan Cathedral said:
La Iglesia canoniza personas de carne y hueso que se distinguieron por ser amorosas, no canoniza otros hechos u otras cosas y nunca va a canonizar la santa obediencia, la pobreza y la responsabilidad.
The Church canonizes people of flesh and blood who have distinguished themselves by being loving, it does not canonize other facts or other things, and will never canonize holy obedience, poverty or accountability.
Archbishop Chavez Botello went on to describe Sainthood as the recognition of “personas que vivieron heroicamente la fe,” or those who have lived a heroic life of faith. Without connection to a particular historical personage, Santa Muerte cannot be canonized within the Catholic faith. As an abstract entity associated with an existential state She is not qualified as one of the “hombres y mujeres de carne y hueso que nos muestran cómo vivir en la fe, en un tiempo concreto que les tocó vivir y no huyeron de su momento,” or “men and women of flesh and blood who show us how to live in faith, in a specific time in which they lived and fled their historic moment.”
This was reiterated by Archbishop of Tijuana, Rafael Romo Muñoz, who said, in a press conference on November 3rd, that:
“La supuesta Santa Muerte no es una persona, es una idea. Por eso, no podemos darle nuestro asentimiento, nuestra veneración a algo que no existe…lo nuestro es un encuentro con la persona como lo fue Cristo, la Virgen que fue una mujer como las nuestras, los apóstoles, incluso, nosotros los bautizados.”
“The alleged Santa Muerte is not a person, it’s an idea. Therefore we can not give our assent, our reverence for what is not there…ours is an encounter with the person as Christ was, the Virgin who was a woman like our own, the apostles, including us, those who are baptized.”
Archbishop Romo Munoz also further defined how death in terms of Santa Muerte’s iconography, seen as a process and active force by Her devotees, deviates from the Catholic conception of mortality as a final end, and the last enemy that Christ defeated:
“Jesús dice que el último enemigo a vencer es la muerte”
“Jesus says that the last enemy to be defeated is death.”
Esoteric devotions outside of the Catholic church
Within the climate caused by these clarifications, and the intensification of the Catholic church’s official condemnation of Santa Muerte’s tradition, many devotees are becoming more vocal about their separation from the church. A recent piece on the Escape Mediatico blog, titled Un rincón de esoterismo y culto a la Santa Muerte (A Corner of Esotericism and the Cult of Santa Muerte), highlights this trend through an interview with Hipólito Garza, a 57 year old spiritual worker active in the public market of Juarez.
Garza reads tarot and provides various spiritual services such as cleansing, exorcism, protection and prosperity rituals for his clients. He admits to having once been Catholic, however he sees a difference in how the Catholic faith and his own, personal faith deal with practical circumstances. In his spiritual journey he sought to petition the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Jude and a number of other practical figures of veneration that remain within the orthodox Catholic faith, however it was only Santa Muerte, he feels, that truly came through.
In Garza’s opinion the focus on holy sacraments, baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage, last rites, etc. that mark the Catholic path of faith is not sufficient. Santa Muerte, he says, represents a force second only to God, and he uses Christ’s passion itself as justification for this:
“Para nosotros es natural y común su existencia, es un medio de transformación de lo material a lo espiritual. No vamos a criticar ni a renegar de nada, pero si Cristo Jesús fue tentado por el diablo y cuando se le presenta la muerte en su cruz todavía él le dice a Dios “¿por qué me abandonas, Padre?”. Siendo quien era y habiéndole ofrecido otros poderes que rechazó, ¿por qué Dios no lo desapareció para que no pasara el calvario y todos los martirios? ¿Por qué tuvo que llegar la muerte hacia él? Si ella no hubiera sido capaz, Dios no le hubiera permitido que recogiera a su hijo. Yo ahí tengo una forma personal de ver que por eso es santa, porque tuvo que ser usada por Dios Padre para llevarle a su hijo. Ni Cristo Jesús se salvó.”
“For us Her existence is natural and common, it is a means of transformation from the material to the spiritual. We will not criticize or deny anything, but if Christ Jesus was tempted by the devil and when confronted with death he still says to God, “Why do you forsake me, Father?”. Being who he was, and having been offered other powers that he rejected, why didn’t God make Him disappear so that he didn’t have to go through Calvary and all the suffering, and with all the martyrs? Why did death have to come to him? If she had not been able, God would not have allowed Her to take his son. I have a personal way of seeing that for this she is holy because she had to be used by God the Father to bring Him His son.”
This is a powerful testimony on how devotees of Santa Muerte are taking not only the practical power of prayer into consideration, but are also actively reworking theological interpretations of the Bible to create a much deeper ideology behind the tradition. While the Catholic church cites the Passion, and overcoming of death, as one of the reasons for Santa Muerte’s incompatibility, Her devotees see the same passages as proof of Her potency.
Who are they talking to?
As with other followers of Santa Muerte, although Garza speaks of his distance from Catholicism, he still recommends that in working with Santa Muerte one ask the permission of God, and complete any prayers with three Our Fathers. He goes on to provide an interesting opinion of why a figure who is seen by many of Her followers as a potent force for granting health and prosperity, can also attract some of the most violent and criminal elements of society.
“Mira, ahí estamos hablando de que, si la Santa es intermediaria entre el bien y el mal, ¿quién está pidiendo la intervención para lo malo? La persona. ¿Qué color significa lo malo? El negro. Cuando estás invocando a las cuestiones negras, sabes que no estás hablando con ella.”
“Look, here we are saying that, if the saint is an intermediary between good and evil, who is asking for the evil intervention? The individual. What color signifies bad? The black. When you are invoking black issues, you know you’re not talking to her. “
Her neutrality allows Her to mediate where other figures of veneration would have no place. In the context of what Garza is saying, she also provides a safeguard for malevolent spiritual work. Rather than petitioning diabolical forces directly, she acts as a buffer, and presumably as protection from retribution if the working goes poorly. However the many stories attesting to those who sought ill gotten favors and were brought to justice by the touch of Her scythe makes any safety in Her mediation during “las cuestiones negras” a complicated question.
A thin veil for blasphemy
While the neutrality of Her mediation is an appeal to many of Her devotees, and one might even say that in clarifying the incompatibility with the Catholic faith the Conference of Mexican Bishops has focused on rather neutral theological grounds, some bishops see a much darker picture in Her devotions. Bishop Michael Pfeifer, Diocese of San Angelo, is quoted in the second part of the Special Report on Santa Muerte produced by NewsWest 9 in Texas as stating that:
“Those who promote the Santa Muerte are trying to pass this off as another type or another form of devotion or religion. It’s blasphemy against God…This would become the patron saint, with a quotation mark, patron saint of drug traffickers and they use it as a religion, a false religion.”
Bishop Pfeifer is currently developing a special ministry for Santa Muerte devotees “trapped in a cycle they can’t escape from,” and is very open in the NewsWest 9 report about his feeling that Her devotions are no less than diabolical and Satanic. In his statements he makes it very clear that he sees Santa Muerte as nothing more than a thin veil cast to justify the criminal pursuits of kidnappers, drug dealers, gang members and contract killers. It should be noted, however, that NewsWest 9 report was posted on October 31st, and the official clarification from the Conference of Mexican Bishops was issued in early November. This may, or may not, alter some of the interpretations he gives to the tradition.
U.S. Marshall, Robert Almonte, also quoted in the NewsWest 9 report, is not as direct in his condemnation, and admits that many of Her followers are not necessarily associated with criminality, but he is still uncomfortable with what he sees as a tradition lacking in legitimate roots:
“To me, a religion is something you can identify where it came from, the history and the different leaders through history. With Santa Muerte, you cannot, I’ve not been able to do that and I really don’t believe anyone can do that.”
In his own way, Almonte is reflecting on the issue of personhood highlighted in the clarifications, here extended to the development of the tradition itself and it’s lack of a centralized leadership or lineage. However, within the realm of religious scholarship, these de-centralized traditions often demonstrate the most potent popular faith movements, and are often tied to charismatic or ecstatic traditions which blur the line between deviant behavior and spiritual development. Arthur Versluis, a religious scholar at Michigan State University, has done extensive work in developing the concept of ahistorical emergence in ecstatic faith traditions, and it is not surprising to see that many of the underlying symbolic associations found in traditions surrounding Santa Muerte are very similar to various ecstatic ‘heretical’ movements that have appeared, with seeming spontaneity, throughout history.
The amorphous and existential nature of death is not something that changes drastically over time. While Her literal association with a non-personal state of being is not compatible with Catholic doctrine, it is a key source for Her surprising emergence outside of any clear lineage or leadership. Once Her symbolism and iconography were set through the continued personal attention of devotees practicing in private, the rest becomes a natural outgrowth and development of the potentials within that matrix of possibility. When Dona Queta dedicated the first public shrine to Her in 2001, this gave the added impetus for the development of the public facing aspects of the tradition we see today.
Devotional material was being published on Her tradition as far back as the mid-90’s, Novenas very similar to the ones found today can be found dating back farther, and as a patron of love magic Her tradition is even older. The Tepito shrine allowed what had been fomenting invisibly to come forward with a more concrete presence, and to take on additional associations in assuming control over other loose traditions centering on the nature of death and mortality, a process that is still ongoing. She has also been able to act as a centralizing factor for Latin America’s unique relationship to death, and provides a contemporary face for the reestablishment, and reworking, of indigenous beliefs.
The Post-Catholic future of Santa Muerte
It remains to be seen what will happen as the Catholic church continues to work towards a full separation from any association, folk or otherwise, with Santa Muerte. As can be seen in the last few weeks, the clarification has provided fascinating grounds to explore a more detailed understanding of Her traditions, while also proving helpful in defining more fully for the public the core teachings of the Catholic church.
Opposition in this instance, rather than being negative, is an opportunity to explore the differences and unique positions held by the Catholic church and by those devoted to Santa Muerte. In presenting a clear, and official, definition of what makes Her tradition incompatible with the Church we will likely see the continued development of a system of beliefs and practices that are more independent of Catholic tradition.
What’s next, only time will tell. However, if you ask those who find comfort beneath Her scythe, time is not of the essence to Santa Muerte. After all, she is the one holding the hour glass.