(This summary originally appeared in an alternate form on SkeletonSaint.com )
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 he presented where he compared 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.”
This is Ravasi’s third condemnation of the tradition in four days. 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 regarding 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 don’t concern 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. This is especially true as the Vatican’s position will be leveraged by government and law enforcement groups looking to use Santa Muerte as a strategic asset in their operations. 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.”
In light of the increasing confusion over Santa Muerte’s place in contemporary culture, and the central role She is currently playing in debates over immigration and drug policy, Dr. Chesnut and I have launched SkeletonSaint.com to provide an ongoing resource for those looking to gain a more nuanced view of the tradition. As the website develops we look forward to engaging more deeply with a number of faith traditions in the Americas that find death to be an important teacher, guide and center point to their devotions. Rather than demonizing these passionate practices, it seems that in a world with so much tension and flux, it might be wise to learn from them, and listen to what they are telling us about the motivating forces behind modern society.
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail.
Metcalfe writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His work has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.