Regnum Mortis

15 10 2008

Part II – How Vatican II led to the Cult of Death in Mexico

On my way back from San Francisco, I was psychologically recovering from my botanica  encounters. I was a little freaked out by it. I knew that Santa Muerte was popular, I just had not realized how popular. In virtually all of the photos and examples of the cult to Santa Muerte, it seems that, unlike other folk saints, she crowded out everyone else, including Christ. Jesus Malverde is often portrayed beneath the mantle of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Juan Soldado and Gauchito Gil are often portrayed below or next to a crucifix. Folks saints are traditionally seen as a supplement to popular devotion. In this case, Santa Muerte had become the entire focus of devotion. Indeed, entire independent churches in Mexico have emerged to solely defend the cult of Santa Muerte. So where does this impulse come from?

In religious anthropology and sociology, it is very difficult if not to say futile to find a smoking gun for any social phenomenon. People are perhaps the most complex subjects to study, and the term “social science” can thus be a bit of a misnomer. Harder still is any attempt to trace behaviors to a conscious implementation of certain ideas. People often “don’t think” when they act, and many times their actions are the result of unquestioned subconscious tendencies that they have long taken for granted. So at the outset, I will admit that the phrase, “Vatican II caused the cult to Santa Muerte” is a bit provocative. It is meant to be. Vatican II, aside from being an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, was a movement that changed the face of Catholicism around much of the globe, whether intentionally or not. Thus, we wish here only to touch on its social and popular implications, referring only to doctrine where appropriate.

First off, we must start by describing the ethos of the pre-Vatican II church as it relates to the cult of the saints. According to even the most conservative Catholic critic, in many parts of the world the cult of the saints often manifested itself in a religiosity that was little better than paganism. To a certain extent, this can still be seen in some quarters. I once went to the house of a grandmother of a co-worker also of Mexican descent where the old woman had an impressive array of saints’ images and statues. When I asked her where she went to Mass, she said that she hadn’t been to Mass in ten years. This was the type of “superficial” religiosity that the reformers of Vatican II sought to improve. Many Church officials used the official term “evangelization of popular piety”, behind which is the nagging suspicion that the way that most Catholics prayed and practiced their faith had fallen far from the Patristic and Biblical ideal. There was a fear that Catholicism had become lukewarm, rules-obsessed, and inauthentic. Catholicism was seen to be on cultural auto-pilot, and this was deemed as being insufficient as a defense from the coming secular cultural onslaught.

The structure of the cult of the saints was seen as a barrier to necessary reforms. Invocation of the saints could be seen as a way of circumventing God’s law in order to get what you wanted by other means. It was also seen as exacting less committment from the believer than living the Gospel fully; people could just light a candle in front of the Virgin or St. Jude and regard their religious obligation as being done. It was a borderline attempt to manipulate the Divine which had always been forbidden in the Christian consciousness. Vatican II in the document Lumen Gentium  was seen as extending the universal call to holiness to the laity as well as the clergy and religious. Too much devotion to the saints smacked of spiritual slacking-off and immaturity. People had to be better catechized and had to go to Jesus directly, the only real mediator with the Father.

The problem that this highlights is that of the expectations that a religion has of its believers. Christianity grew up in the same climate as the philosophical movements of the ancient world, and these schools often exacted a heavy committment and change of life from their adherents. One need only look at the disciplines and doctrines of the Pythagoreans, the Platonic Academy or the Stoa in order to see that such ways of life often became elitist since few were willing to walk the road of the philosophical way of life. The search for the truth was a demanding mistress and exacted much from those who would commit themselves to it. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, though different in many ways, also shares many characteristics of these systems.

It is no surprise then that when Christianity became a mass phenomenon, many “short cuts” were introduced, as well as various levels of committment for Christian believers. The error of modern Christianity has been that it has tried to impose a religion of angels on men, just as the error of modern philosophy has been to impose the obligation of angelic certainty on the human mind. While in the abstract, for example, one knows that God’s will will be done in all circumstances, people still need some sort of sense of agency in their prayers other than simple asking. It is not enough to say, “Just keep praying to Jesus, and if it’s God’s will, your prayer will be answered”. People need some sort of feeling of control over this situation since human beings naturally seek control over their lives.

In the concrete, the way this would work, say, in Mexico, is that you would first pray to God to find a job.  Then, you would go pray the rosary to the Virgin of Guadalupe. You do that for nine days, but your prayer for employment goes unanswered. Then, you think, “everyone prays la Guadalupana. Maybe I should pray to another Virgin and SHE’ll here me.” So you go to San Juan de los Lagos, and you walk the last part of the pilgrimage on your knees. Still nothing. Then, you go to St. Jude. The cura  said that he is who you go to in desperate situations. Finally, you say, “all the official saints must be busy. I’ll go to the side of the road where that child got hit by a truck playing soccer. He’s in Heaven, maybe he’ll hear me.” And maybe only then the prayer gets answered and you find a job. Then the you erect a plaque by the cross at the scene of the accident thanking him for the miracle granted.

(In many places, the faithful would play the saints, images of the Virgin, images of Christ, and folk saints off of each other. If one wasn’t producing results, you went to one who did, and the first would in turn get jealous of the other and start working miracles, etc. Sort of like a ratings battle. Saints and images that didn’t “perform” would be punished, often by having their images put outside or buried, as is the case with the now famous St. Joseph house selling ritual.)

Now, for the student of the modern theology, all of this seems childish and pagan, but that is what had worked for centuries. People were used to having a spiritual line-up of supernatural helpers to go to in time of need. Like it or not, this was the language of piety that people had for millenia, and it is one that the official Church had to tolerate for a long time. True, official Catholicism always stressed faithful trust over manipulation, but the official system of indulgences, shrines, and privileged statues often made the line between lay superstition and officially endorsed piety a rather thin one at best. That is, until the 1960’s.

As I have documented before, the war against the saints and their intercession was not just a phenomenon situated in the developed world. The disenchantment of the the mind of the Church was a change that took place in Latin America as well, from the valleys of central California to Tierra del Fuego. In many of these places, altars were stripped, devotions modernized, and supernatural obsessions were replaced with more “incarnational” social concerns. People had to be committed to the Church, and there was no longer a “cultural crutch” to lean on. People were ready to be weaned from “pagan Christianity” in order to enter into a “more mature” relationship with God.

The problem then became one in which “lukewarm” Catholics were no longer welcome; it was an all or nothing committment. Before, the men of a Mexican village could hang out in the plaza outside the church and wait for their wives to get out of Mass, all the while thinking that they were “good Catholics”. They went to Mass on their feast day and high holy days, and maybe they even formed part of the penitente brotherhoods at Holy Week. They probably even wore a scapular or a medal of their patron saint. Their Catholicism, it could be argued, was superficial; it was a religion of habit and trinkets. But when the time came, and they lay dying, such trinkets reminded them that it was time to call a priest to make their confession. It was just part of the cycle of life and death in the village. And if they ever needed any other extraordinary help, they knew where to turn: the saints and the Church. In those trinkets, the Church physically belonged to them. Now, for much of the Church, that was no longer acceptable. They too had to “strive for holiness”.

When the Church ceased to speak this traditional religious language, in most places it shrank. Those few who were totally commited stayed committed, while the growth of evangelical Protestant sects began to poach the numbers of Catholics due to the all-too-traditional anti-clericalism and anti-elitism of Latin culture. This was further facilitated by the effects of Dignitatis Humanae  in Latin America and the thought of such philosophers as Jacques Maritain that disassembled the confessional state in the name of religious liberty. The Church thus began to speak another religious language based on moralism, rationalism, and concern for “social justice”.  While the clergy thought that this was precisely what the people wanted, the people showed that they wanted something else by voting with their feet, and a new “open society” gave them plenty of options to turn to instead.

The desperate social situation that often obligates the intervention of the miraculous did not go away just because the Church decided that people needed to move past it. The evangelical sects in Latin America are often full of promises of miracles, signs and wonders that the official Catholic Church now blushes at promising. Even more significant is the growth of folk saints. It is true that they have always been there, as the illustration above indicates: they were the last resort of the desperate supplicant. What has occured in the last forty years is just as the rest of the Church has “secularized” so has the cult of the saints. While in the past, these cults were “supplemental” to the piety of the official Church, now these cults have grown to the point of supplanting it. And where in the past it would have been something private and almost anonymous, now it is out in the open and defiant towards ecclesiastical authority.

The most extreme examples of these tendencies are the “cults of Death”, prominent in such places as Mexico and Argentina. While these cults existed in a very limited and private sphere before the 1960’s, now they have come very much into the open as an alternative towards traditional religion. Particularly in Mexico, this cult was unheard of prior to the 1960’s outside of a very limited region of southern states. In this case, no one quite knows when it started or who precisely this La Flaquita is. Some equate her with Grim Reaper or the angel of death, others with a spirit unrelated to Christian cosmology. All we know is that her cult exploded in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and as my anecdotal evidence from the afternoon in the Mission District in San Francisco illustrates, it shows no signs of waning.

And unlike most folk saints, Santa Muerte has crowded out all of the other competitors for devotion in the Catholic imagination. Her altars are exclusively devoted to the cult of Death. Unlike my grandmother’s devotion to Santa Muerte, this has a decidedly un-christian feel to it in that it excludes all else. Although it is true that some prayers still refer to her as the “Holy Death of Christ vanquished on the Cross”, many do not even hint at that. With the general secularization of Catholic societies came the secularization of the patronage system of superntaural helpers. Since the Church has vacated the realm of the enchanted and the miraculous, spirtual newcomers could come out into the open and fill in the gaps. The Church in the end has very little say in the matter since, in this case, it has lost the heart and soul of devotion in many areas.

One last aspect of this phenonemon is the modernization and colonization of Latin American Catholic consciousness by a First World, developed mentality. In many ways, Vatican II was the imposition of Eurocentric bourgeois religiosity on the rest of the world. What was considered “holy” by the reformers also happened to be (by a happy coincidence) what was acceptable to the modern bourgeois aesthetic. Thus, black could no longer be worn by priests at funerals and one had to emphasize the “resurrectional” character of Christian death. Also, anything that smacked of being morbid, primitive, or too bloody had to be shunned as something that manipulated the emotions and did little to morally edify. In a word, it was the triumph of a sanitized Christian ascetic over the “pagan” imagination. While this may have made for a “purer” church, it also led people to seek these more human and darker aspects of religion elsewhere. While the hierarchs saw the necessity of a top-down transformation of religiosity, people still felt the need to express these uglier aspects of life in images of faith. Whereas before this was done through bloody crucifixes, the Virgin of Sorrows, and altars to the dead, now it is done by appeals to Death herself.

Of course, this is just speculation, but as a student of Latin American history, culture and religion, it is the most compelling argument from my point of view. Before, these cults were marginal and underground, and as long as the Church spoke the same language of devotion as the common person, they stayed that way. The cult to Santa Muerte did not and really could not occur in the seventeenth or nineteenth century; it could only occur after the Catholic Church had ceded its religious hegemony and its monopoly on the strange and the miraculous in favor of a cleaned-up, secularized system created by erudite theologians. The Church in Latin America in many ways ceased to speak the religious language of the people. True, in many places, it still speaks this language. Its relationship with it, however, is ambivalent at best. What has emerged is a spiritual Babel in which the cult of Death figures prominently.

Here again we see the principle of the better being the enemy of the good. The “lukewarm” Catholicism of yesteryear may have been characterized by the colorful cult of the saints practiced by an uncatechized mass in the pews. Now, however, with its replacement by a “better” system, it can count on slightly emptier pews and a populace devoted to holy bandits and the Grim Reaper. Maybe the system was broken, but it was no where nearly as broken as it is now. As always, it is the reformers who have the burden of proof as to whether their reforms made the institution better than what it would have been without them. So far, to say that the results have been mixed is being generous towards the reformers.

(to be continued…)



5 responses

16 10 2008
Fr. Anthony

Wow, Arturo,

These postings are extremely thought-provoking and go a long way towards explaining modern indifferentism. The tension between strict and sober monotheism and paganism goes back to the dawn of history. The Old Testament is full of it. The Jewish people got tired on the aridity and dryness of the Law and the religion of Moses, so they often went off to worship the old gods and idols – then got the chop for it.

English Catholicism in the 15th century? Perhaps not as gory and tacky as 19th century Hispanic Catho-paganism, but the men of Cambridge wanted something purer and more Biblical! And it happened again in the 1960’s: the paganism was driven to the margin, but there was no Inquisition to suppress it as Elijah did with the worshippers of Baal. One thing I like about our own time is that the present Pope sees a need not to react to the extreme by being a “monotheist reformer” or by letting things go as under John Paul II.

If there is a “via media” as we Anglicans like to claim for our own, then it is between the strict orthodoxy of Judeo-Christian monotheism and the use of man’s pagan instinct to bring him to worship God in beauty and liturgy, in spirit and in truth. I am reticent about giving in too much to popular religion, but without it, orthodox Catholicism is irrelevant to all but the monks and clergy, or simply the elite. I see the problem.

Thank you for these reflections, and I hope you will continue to develop this subject.

Fr. Anthony

16 10 2008
The Shepherd

I guess the reason I questioned your take on it is because you seem to realize and point out in your posts that most Western educated types,Catholics included, would find these types of practices and beliefs silly at the very best. I’ve found it’s rare to find these world views balanced in such a way. That’s neoplatonism I guess;)

As far as the Vatican II, I now realize your talking about broader movements and ideas that were gaining ground for some time instead of the council specifically.

15 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez


I don’t know where you are getting the idea that I do not put much stock in pre-Vatican II piety. If anything, I am one of the most “superstitious” people I know, and if anything, I think a casual reader could say that it is systematic theology that I don’t take seriously.

I think I have made a pretty compelling argument that the movements around the Second Vatican Council are at fault for this. While many Catholics would like the “beyond a reasonable doubt” certainty on these things, where there is smoke there is definitely fire, and here we have a lot of smoke.

15 10 2008
The Shepherd

Very interesting. I had no idea that Santa Muerte was this popular, I had assumed it was just a small subset of the population. Although I don’t know how much blame can be placed of V2 specifically. Hearing traditionalists talk about v2 sometimes sounds like this:

Cat got ran over: V2
Brother is in jail: V2
left your windows down and your car seat got rained on: Also V2

I have to say that while you seem to greatly respect pre v2 folk piety you also seem to not put a whole lot of stock into it. I am reminded of the Luther movie post you did a while back. In Culiano’s Eros and Magic he says that this type of piety was the real object of Luther’s reformation not the institutional corruption. Luther only felt that the ecclesial corruption weakened the church and left it unable to deal with this idea that you could manhandle the divine with spiritual goodies. It seems that V2 had a somewhat similar spirit.

15 10 2008

Myth 1
In the remote Esteros de Iberá, about 150 years ago, there lived a shaman who was famous for healing. He also cared for lepers who were abandoned in a prison, bringing them water and easing their sufferings, but he never caught their disease. Some say he was a Franciscan friar or a Jesuit who stayed behind after the expulsion. The shaman often repaired to a tree beside the water, squatting, in order to meditate and restore his powers. His great charity and love of his neighbor were interrupted, however, when Catholic priests returned to the region to resume control. One day, when the shaman was entering a village to tend to someone sick, the priests had him arrested and imprisoned with the lepers. The shaman accepted this unjust punishment without resistance. He refused to eat and remained standing, wasting away, and supporting himself with a long walking stick that looked like an upside-down L. No one knew of his death until much later. They discovered him standing in his black tunic, supported by his stick. He had withered away to a skeleton.

Myth 2
There once was a king who was famous for his exemplary administration of justice. After his death he rose to heaven, and in recognition of his just reign on earth, God assigned him the greatest responsibility. He was given a throne before which infinite candles burned, one for each life on earth. The long candles represented lives that still had a lot of time, and the candles that were almost completely burned represented lives that were about to end. The just king was charged with the task of returning to earth to gather the souls of those whose candles had gone out. He also watched over people who were still entitled to life, protecting them until their candles burned down. He thus became God’s delegate in the just oversight of life and death. For this reason San La Muerte is sometimes called San Justo (the Just Saint, or Saint Justice) and Señor de la Buena Muerte (Lord of Good Death).

from “Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America” by Graziano, Frank John D. (2006).

just thought i’d share that for people who’d be interested in more details about Santa Muerte.


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