In a special segment on the Spanish language program called Atrevete Mexico (Be Bold Mexico,) on Radio Maria – Houston, Adrian Alberto Herrera, Director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, discussed Santa Muerte and the Catholic Church’s concerns regarding the fast growing devotional tradition which surrounds her. The Houston-Galveston Archdiocese is the largest Archdiocese in Texas, and one of largest Latino-majority Archdiocese in the United States.
After listening to the broadcast, Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut commented that the condemnation was fairly standard, mirroring Cardinal Ravasi’s statements regarding her devotions being infernal and incompatible with Catholic belief. Herrera also repeats the understanding that has been voiced by many Catholic officials that devotion to Santa Muerte represents ignorance of proper Catholic formation, meaning that their faith has not been properly guided as they have been brought into an understanding of church doctrine allowing for deviation from traditional Catholic theology. Although the Conference of Mexican Bishops has since issued an official condemnation of devotion to Santa Muerte, Herrera’s comments are very similar to a blog post written on August, 13th 2012, (Click Here to read the post) demonstrating that condemnation of her tradition has remained steady, even prior to more recent official statements.
One of the more contentious aspects of Santa Muerte is the history of her tradition and with no official orthodoxy to define it each description demonstrates deeper levels and relationships that are uncovered by her presence. In Herrera’s appearance on Atrevete Mexico the history provided puts Santa Muerte within a matrix of syncretism between misunderstood Catholic theology and beliefs originating with the indigenous Aztec people. In terms of the theological misunderstandings, Herrera said that Catholics must not venerate death, as death is the result of the Fall from Grace and nothing that originates in sin can be Holy. He also made sure to highlight that death is the last enemy defeated by Christ, making devotions to death anti-Christian.
The indigenous elements that are discussed represent the idea that the Catholic presence in the New World was a civilizing force which helped to mitgate the violent sacrifices and imperial tendencies found in Aztec society. In his 2012 blog post Herrera says: “Historians and sociologists have determined that this cult of ‘Saint Death’ dates from more than three thousand years ago, precisely as it was in Mexican culture before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. ” To clarify, the Aztec civilization was not in Northern Mexico 3 thousand years ago, and became most visible in the 13th century. Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut’s book Devoted to Death provides a much more nuanced and accurate history of the tradition which has strong roots in Spanish figures such as La Parka, as well as figurations of death used in passion plays written by Spanish missionaries to convert indigenous groups to Catholicism, and in statements made on Twitter he mentioned that Herrera’s presentation of the tradition’s history was one of the weaker points of his appearance on Radio Maria – Houston.
While much of the information regarding the Catholic church’s condemnation was standard, the radio show gave an opportunity to explore some of the less discussed sociological aspects of Santa Muerte’s growing presence in society. Herrera discussed the prevalence of bumper stickers depicting her on cars driving throughout Houston. Concerns that he brought up in his 2012 blog post regarding these bumper stickers being seen in church parking lots were also reiterated.
During the call in portion of the show people from both Houston and the Chicagoland area contributed their experiences with Santa Muerte. A caller from Cicero, IL mentioned having to fight protected “with arms of Jesus Christ” against her influence (this is a common statement regarding Christ upholding believers in their battle against evil, Archangel Michael is another figure that is commonly associated with holding believers to gird them against enemies of the faith.) Another caller admitted that a brother-in-law who lives at her house has a rosary dedicated to Santa Muerte. Although he told her that he would get rid of it, he hasn’t yet and she is disturbed by presence of the rosary in her home, more to the point she is “mortified” by it. Herrera recommended that the caller talk to her parish priest about the issue. Another caller from Chicago discussed how she feels Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition is a satanic sect that she frequently encounters, which was confirmed by a different woman from Chicago who said that she often sees Catholics in the area with votive candles devoted to Saint Death.
Central to the concerns expressed by the Catholic church is the conflicting theological understanding demonstrated by those identifying as Catholics while holding a belief in Santa Muerte. This is often expressed by the statement: “Dios te Crea y Ella te Guía” (God Creates and She Will Guide.) In the blog post from 2012, Herrera indicates that the current campaign is an attendant mission to the ‘New Evangelization‘ movement within the Catholic church. As defined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. In a special way, the New Evangelization is focused on ‘re-proposing’ the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith.Pope Benedict XVI called for the re-proposing of the Gospel “to those regions awaiting the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization.”1 The New Evangelization invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.
The continued references in official condemnations to Santa Muertistas beliefs being based on an ignorance of Catholic formation represents statistics gathered in 2008 during a Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study titled “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among U.S. Catholics.” At the time of the study it was discovered that “only 23% of U.S. Catholics regularly attend Mass once a week, while 77% self-identify as proud to be Catholic,” and according to CARA, “these statistics point to the need for the New Evangelization.” With Santa Muerte’s tradition growing throughout the Americas the Catholic church will continue to focus on defining their position, and Herrera made it clear that his appearance on Radio Maria only provided an introduction, with much more to come in future
This article collates and expands on a series of Twitter posts covering Adrian Herrera’s appearance on Radio Maria provided by Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut.
Images of Santa Muerte icons posted around Houston, Texas courtesy of the Dream Act – Texas blog and the Afire Within blog