The war against the saints

24 09 2008

On the extirpation of “idolatry” in a Mexican village

…And here also we can see, naively acknowledged, the purely pagan character of Baroque religion when it is examined in its essence. Vallemont certainly regards the liturgy as something sacred; but, to his mind, sacred means untouchable, something to be preserved intact at any price, and something which cannot be kept intact without the complete renunciation of all attempts to make the practice of it intelligent and living. No notion more fundamentally unchristian can be imagined: here, in fact, the kind of false “holiness” of the pagan mystery-religions is given the name of the true holiness of Christ.

-Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety

In one chapter of John M. Ingham’s book, Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico, the author discusses religious change in a small village in the Mexican state of Morelos. In the town of Tlayacapan, there was an attempt to impose more correct forms of Catholicism and liberation theology beginning in the middle of the 1950’s. The clergy who served in that town often felt that their parishioners were far too pagan and used the festivals of the saints and their side altars to behave in an unchristian manner and divert attention from Christ Himself. They thus began to refuse to say Masses for the dead and the saints, and even began to tear down the side altars to various patrons of the village. In this way, they felt that they were creating a Catholicism more in harmony with the Gospel, and completing the evangelization of the people that began almost five hundred years before.

The first such priest arrived in 1955 and noticed the very poor moral state of the village in general. Marriages were often merely relationships of convenience and not true Christian marriages. The feasts of the saints were seen as mere occasions for drink and general debauchery. For him, the people were too superstitious, having mixed their religion with old indigenous and European folk elements. As usual in a Mexican village, few men actually attended Mass on Sunday. To counter these trends, he tried to encourage better Mass attendance and founded lay groups to bring people back into the life of the Church. He also began to give out free medicines to help his impoverished parishioners. He sought as well to raise the level of catechesis of the village.

With these measures, the priest also felt it necessary to take up iconoclastic measures to wean his parishioners from the immature Catholicism of their ancestors. He and some of his successors began to refuse to say the votive Masses of the saints. He also refused to say prayers for the dead in the cemetery on All Souls’ Day. Another priest openly mocked a group of women who brought the traditional crowns of cypress, censers, a bottle of liquor, and a plate of sand to a funeral Mass. The most controversial measure the young priests took, however, was the tearing down of the side altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Immaculate Conception. When confronted about his refusal to say the customary prayers for the dead, the priest replied, “The dead do not return”. An old woman’s retort was rather simple and direct:

“Well, they may not come, but if you do not say the prayers [for the dead], and the Masses [for the saints], how will you maintain yourself? The saints are our customs”.

Ingham attributes the iconoclastic zeal of the priest to the policies of the bishop of that diocese, Sergio Mendez Arceo, a progressive cleric in the Mexican church.  According to the author, the bishop wanted to substitute inner belief for outer form, emphasize the fundamentals of the faith, and stress the Bible over traditional catechisms and devotions. He also saw the cult of the saints as something that drew attention away from the liturgical worship of the Church. To quote Ingham:

In his view the laities of the rural communities of the diocese had constructed the saints not simply as intercessors but as deities with the power to grant salvation… Supression of the cult of the saints, then, was part of the reform program.

Ironically, it was an ultra-progressive Jesuit priest later in the 1960’s who defended the folk elements of Catholicism in Tlayacapan from further attack, citing that it was the “religion of the people”.

What we see here is the modernization of the Latin American religious paradigm that parallels the attempted modernization of everything else in society. But I would go a step further: it is the modernization, the urbanization, and the re-ordering of Heaven itself. To further elaborate, I need to diverge on a brief tangent on the nature of a society based on patronage.

In Latin America or any other less than prosperous society where the “rule of law” is weak, the only way to go about getting anything done is to “know someone”.  You can only get a job if you are a friend of a friend of so-and-so, you can only get justice if you know the local strong man, you can only get enough money for medical treatments if you get a loan from your boss, etc. To merely say to someone: “trust the central government” or “trust that the law will be enforced” will elicit rather indignant laughter. That is how the cult of the saints works in general: God is like the central government, and the saints are like the local caciques or caudillos of the Kingdom of Heaven. In this system (the Catholic system), it is assumed that there are some (the saints) who have more pull with God, who can “get things done” in a manner of speaking when it comes to heavenly things. There is no equality amongst all believers. We also get from this the term, “patron saint”; the saints have their turf marked out. If a woman is having trouble finding a good man to marry, she goes to St. Anne. If an Argentine is having trouble finding work, he goes to San Cayetano. If you are really in a pinch, you go to St. Jude.

Of course, our sense of how patronage works in our society is very weak since we have a “rule of law” that makes sure that everything is fair and based on merit. If someone breaks into your house and steals your laptop, the injustice done to you should be resolved the way it is resolved with everyone else. If you go to a job interview, you expect that merit and not nepotism will determine the outcome of you getting the job or not. When you buy something, you expect the same price as the guy in front of you in line at the check-out stand. And the list can go on. When neoliberal reformers speak of the malaise of Latin America, they speak often of the lack of such a rule of law. The only problem is, such systems only work when people have incentives to follow them. If you expect law and order but pay your police force pennies, there seems to be little incentive for the officers of the law to do their duty without a little “motivation”. The rule of law mentality thus is determined by what we can expect out of a higher power. The higher power must work like clockwork, or not at all.

When it comes to the cult of the saints and of their intercession, it can almost seem that it is a bit superfluous for many in the developed world. God is supposed to not let bad things happen to us since He is a “loving God”: it says so in the fine print of the Bible. Life is supposed to always go well, and if there is a problem, you go directly to Jesus, who is the one stop source of resolving all of your problems. To include intermediaries that are not the only designated mediator is unnecessary and borderline insulting to the officially designated one. It would be like going to the local gang leader to get justice instead of the city’s police.  At best, the saints become an anachronistic adornment to a religion that would work just fine without them. They play no other role than showing model citizenship and that the system always works in the end. Perhaps that is why the cult of the saints has significantly diminished in the modern world.

In places where the rule of law is not so strong, and the economy not so prosperous, a patronage system in Heaven is not so far fetched. Everyone in a desperate situation prays to God, but who is going to “get that edge” in getting their matter resolved? Who is close enough to me to get that higher power to listen? The cult of the saints did not emerge out of a dispassionate meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation: it came out of a very self-interested search for  solutions to situations where the only way out was a miracle. The Church’s defense of such cults only signifies that we are not Stoics; you cannot merely consign parents to the idea that their only son dying in childhood is part of carrying their cross and that’s it. You have to offer them a way out. The earthy, “extra-legal”, and very physical cult to a particular saint is this way out; a local boss who gets things done, or who will at least listen to your plea with a receptive ear.

As in all ill-conceived ideas of development in Latin America, the iconoclasm of the would-be liberation theologians did not acknowledge the reality of the situation on the ground. To have substituted one imperfect system with a  theologically “more correct” system that seemed more edifying but did not correspond with the reality on the ground was something that was doomed to failure. Throughout much of Latin America, where the Church took the saints away,  those pillars of dreaded “Baroque” religion, the people took themselves away from the Church. The Church in many places offered peace, bread, and justice, all based on Old Testament ideas of a God who is on the side of the poor and the weak. When they did not deliver that, people voted with their feet.  Some became Pentecostals where God becomes immediately present in the raptures of the Spirit. Many began to merge their faith with spiritism and other New Age movements, all the while keeping some of the Catholic trappings. Some invented folk saints such as Santisisma Muerte who are contrary to the spirit of Christianity, but who still “work miracles”.  And some just gave up religion altogether. Ironically enough, such ideas also spiritually bankrupted the Church in the First World as well. Substituting the old fashioned paternalistic religion of yesteryear with a far more pleasing system of an all-loving God only resulted in people taking the benefits of a prosperous life, but forgetting about God and the last things altogether.

In the end, the lesson that we learn from these iconoclastic priests is one that Anti-Staretz taught me: the better is often the enemy of the good. As in the quote that began this essay, people can have overly romanticized ideas about how horrible the previous generation has been, and how much we can improve on it. No doubt, some clerics in Mexico and Latin America read the works of the Patristic resourcement  thinking that they could bring about a “Biblical” and “Christian” renewal to a religion that at times appeared more pagan than Christian. If there is one deadly sin of the would-be reformer, however, it is the failure to calculate his own fallibility in the face of a fallen world. Instead of having an “either/or” approach to the folk religion of their villagers, they should have had a “both/and” mentality in which what they brought would augment the faith of the villagers, not radically alter it. Unfortunately, this sense of iconoclasm and obsession with reform had the same effect in many parts of the Church in the last fifty years: from having perhaps overly passive, “less than Christian” people in the pews, it emptied them altogether.

The main lesson for us is that our idea on how the great chain of being works is often determined by how things work here on the ground, and what has changed once can change again. Our not needing the saints, our thinking that they are superfluous to the faith of Christ is buttressed by the general prosperity of our society, the well-functioning of its institutions, and a general expectation that nothing horribly unjust will ever happen to us. That is also the reason why faith is often lacking: with a system like this, who needs it, really? Even the sheer despair caused by the tragedies of life would lead one in this system more towards unbelief than to the creation of other “extra-legal” spiritual solutions. (One need only reflect on existentialist post-war ennui that has almost become cliche in learned circles.) If all of this were to change, we might just start looking as “superstitious”, as “backward”, as “unchristian” as the devotees crawling towards the side altars of the saints. As the Hermetic saying goes: “as above, so below”. Or rather, here, the reverse is also the case.



4 responses

18 11 2019

Interesting – I read a theory that the whole concept of patron saint actually arose in a very similar way in the 4th century Roman empire, based on the model of actual patrons who could intervene with higher up magistrates, aristocrats, etc, all the way up the emperor himself.

26 02 2009
The modern war against folk religion « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] with attitudes that range from patronizing acceptance to outright hostility to popular religion, as I have documented elsewhere. Popular religion is either seen as a series of backwards superstitions that impede the struggle […]

24 09 2008

I think that the cult of saints and Marian devotion in particular will always be considered suspect for many Protestants and “thinking Catholics.” Marian devotion is regarded as something that is foolish by definition. I remember that earlier this year reading the obituary of a very modernist clergyman in the Church of England who once said something to the effect that some ignorant Polish peasant (i.e., John Paul II) had no business telling anyone what to do with their life. Of course John Paul II was in actuality highly educated and possessed many degrees, but I suspect that his Marian devotion (I believe he was a devotee of St. Louis Marie de Montfort) and the fact that he refused to yield on “life issues” rendered him the Polish equvilant of a hillbilly in the eyes of many people.

Moving on to the more relevant example of religion in Latin America, I don’t see why it had to be an either/or situation with the “progressive” clergy. I’m probably being naive here, but I don’t see how increased Bible reading or learning more about the catechism necessarily contradicts local traditions or customs. I know these priests thought that the people had a deformed Christology, but banishing local devotions was akin to pulling out the rug from under them. And I would think that unless you have the Catechism of the Council of Trent memorized that most people’s conception of Christ is probably flawed in some way.

24 09 2008
Huw Richardson

It’s interesting that the Bishop who wanted to focus on Bible (etc) is called “Progressive” while the priest that wanted to defend the people is called “ultra-progressive”. I love the description, also of “Both/and” rather than “either/or”, seeking to “augment the faith of the villagers, not radically alter it.”

This post leads me to wonder if there mightn’t be an indigenous Northern European Catholicism, as such, and – apart from forcing it on others, like we sadly do with everything, as in this story – I’m wondering if that folk religion isn’t equally as valid (provided we could find it) and more interesting than any of the options. Perhaps its absence is what causes people such as myself to go looking in Celtic Neo-Paganism and “Old COuntry”-Style Orthodox Uberfrumery? Don’t know.

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