On “False Saints”

8 07 2009

guinefort

It’s good to see my own personal obsessions get wider attention:

An essay on the relationship between the recent death of Michael Jackson and the hound “St. Guinefort”

via

a Shrine of the Holy Whapping blog post

As one would expect from a blog associated with First Things, we have a very correct, very sober attitude towards the unruly masses who are not as educated as “we” are. As he writes:

In both cases, the cults were propelled by two engines: the ignorance of the people, and the desire to venerate. As with the angels, we are created as creatures of praise. We seem to be hardwired to praise something, to worship anything. Just as we will eat rotten food and filthy water if no healthy food and clean water are available, we will venerate dogs and celebrities if we see no truly worthy objects of veneration before us.

I found the tenor of the whole article a bit patronizing; a cross between the snide remarks of a snippy church lady who dislikes people who aren’t as pious as she is and a Victorian gentleman who looks down his nose at the ignorant masses. I have no real stake in this, as I am neither a fan of Michael Jackson nor a devotee of the dog-martyr, St. Guinefort. I am, however, a devotee of other folk saints, and a person who dislikes pretension and ignorance of history.

For the modern person, especially in a non-Catholic country, it is hard to imagine where the line between the sacred and the profane actually lies. In a real way, the line was very much blurred in traditional societies. In Catholic societies in Latin America, I know for a fact that popular canonizations have occured of such entertainers as the tango singer, Carlos Gardel (and Jesus Malverde has the face of Pedro Infante, a Mexican singer). In a society that is Catholic, such stuff is natural; not only do you have saints, approved and held up by the Church as examples of virtue and religious correctness, but you also have “las almas milagrosas”, “el anima sola”, miraculous heads of garlic, and so on. The clergy doesn’t like it. They think it’s superstition, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that, even if many of these cults are relatively neutral (such as the Peruvian cult to local do-gooder, Sarita Colonia), they have no control over them, and they feel it takes money out of the Church’s coffers. The clergy, in these cases at least, can stuff it.

The only reason that our First Things-ista feels threatened by outpourings of popular piety towards “unorthodox” figures is because Americans seldom venerate anything, and even when they do, not very deeply and not for very long. Nor do they have a sense of what’s off-limits and what is perfectly normal. It is perfectly normal for a black Catholic to have a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. up somewhere, maybe just to pray for his soul, maybe just to comfort her. In my family, a personal altar can often involve a picture of the Pope or of a wayward uncle who died under questionable circumstances. This is not done out of idolatry, but out of an all-to-human need to pour out something akin to devotion for those who died violently or in an untimely manner. Our “conservative Catholic” writer seems to think we get brownie points for only having devotion or feelings for those who are 100%, Grade A , clergy approved. I have news for him and others like him: it has never been this way, and it never will be.

And the last thing I would want is some de-natured suburban Catholic looking over my dead grandmother’s altar and grading it on “theological correctness”. She may have had some strange people up there, but I would go to the mat for my grandmother’s orthodoxy any day of the week. Better this than the dead “cerebral” approach towards hagiography so characteristic of the First World Catholic and the ideological elite of the Church.

Take us out, Carlitos:


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29 responses

13 07 2009
Death Bredon

I am not a First Things-ista, by any means, as Arturo can well attest. But, I think I do understand why serious catholic Christians can get perturbed by pop-culture “folk saints.”

Indeed, however wonderful Princess Diana was or was not, I think we all should be able to agree that she doesn’t compare to, say, Mother Teresa.

And, the frequency that the pop-saint phenomena trumps the generally popularity of real Saint is simply indicative that our society is fundamentally secular, which can be upsetting.

12 07 2009
Leah

After giving this issue a lot of thought, I’m not entirely sure why so many of these “First Things” Catholics are getting so huffy over the media attention given to Michael Jackson. Given his undeniable place in pop culture history, his peculiar life, and sudden death, the subsequent coverage really shouldn’t be shocking at all. The same media machine that gave us Michael Jackson also gave us Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, and the media-savy pontificate of John Paul II. The same 24-hour news coverage that gives us breathless accounts from Michael Jackson’s dog groomer’s cousin also enabled us to witness live the funeral of John Paul II and the white smoke from the subsequent papal conclave, both of which were firsts in Church history. So to a certain extent, it seems to be a case of “biting the hand that feeds you” mixed in with cultural snobbery.

12 07 2009
Amethyst

Many Americans, including myself, are suspicious of the idea that “hard work” automatically leads to success, although this idea is constantly thrown in our faces as the “American ideal”. Many of us think that even in the US, as you said of Latin America, it is more about who you know, and we would be more than willing to enlist the patronage of a saint who could help us, regardless if he or she is Church-approved.

I find the discussion of folk saints fascinating. Thank you for exploring this.

12 07 2009
Death Bredon

Adrian,

Spot on. LOL!

12 07 2009
Death Bredon

Arturo,

Your view of Sainthood is very non-legalistic, very charismatic, and well, very Orthodox. 😉

Keep on keeping it real!

12 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think one note I would add is that it was probably not the First Things-style intellectual of the second century who started the canonization of saints in the first place. If anything, I can envision such people being the naysayers or crypto-Protestants who saw such things as “pagan” or “ignorant” and not respecting the Pauline idea of Christ as the sole mediator before the Father. “Why do you want to venerate that guy for?” would have probably been their retort. On the other hand, perhaps it was something that the clergy put forth in order to say to the populace, “have a problem? Take it to the holy martyr / bishop so-and-so”. And because of miracles, such a cultus would have spread quite quickly.

I just think about the owner of the Mexican taqueria in California who has a picture of San Martin Caballero on his wall. Does that restauranteur know that this is the image of the fourth century bishop St. Martin of Tours, founder of a monastery and polemicist against pagans and heretics? Probably not. He rather has in mind the image of a Roman soilder cutting his cloak in two and giving it to a prostrate beggar. Message: San Martin Caballero likes the poor and is generous, and he will be generous to you. The same is the case with Jesus Malverde, Gauchito Gil, and Carlos Gardel.

There is a story told to me in seminary of Gardel and a quarrel that he had with a local ruffian. (Think of the “beef” that hip hop artists have with each other, only this time not fabricated.) They were due to settle their differences in a direct physical manner on a given day. When that day came, the ruffian came to Gardel rather forelorn saying that his mother had died that day, and he would not be able to follow up on his appointment for obvious reasons. At this, Gardel reached in his pocket, took out a large sum of money, and told the ruffian to go bury his mother. Anyone reading that, whether true or not, would see that Gardel loved the poor, just as San Martin Caballero does.

Historically, the first question that the Catholic devotee asks about a saint is not whether his cult is approved by the Vatican, whether his life was spotless and worthy of emulation, or what such a cultus would look like to gawking outsiders. The primary question is whether the “saint” will have compassion on the devotee and grant the miracle. If you don’t understand that, your entire view of Catholic hagiography will be warped and steeped in modern ignorance.

12 07 2009
Adrian

Attention saint-makers: every time I spritz my glossy photograph of Richard Neuhaus with agua de violetas, I earn miraculous frequent flyer miles and cell phone minutes, the Dow Jones goes up ten points and a terrorist is killed in Afghanistan.

12 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I don’t think Michael Jackson is a folk saint for one specific reason: Americans do not exist in a society of patronage. In this, we have to delve a bit into politico-economic theory. In Latin America, for example, getting a good job is not entirely dependent on your qualifications or “skill set”; it is dependent on who you know. In other words, the patronage system is at work. That is really the foundation of the Catholic cult of the saints in general; not the idea of having some heavenly do-gooders you can put pictures up of who the Church thinks are good to emulate. From this comes the very Mexican idea that if a saint grants you a favor, you are bound by a manda to become his devotee in an almost legally binding quid pro quo. St. Lazarus may have healed your skin cancer, and in exchange you have to always keep flowers on an altar to him or make a pilgrimage to a shrine of his once a year. Failure to do this gives the saint a right to exact his revenge on you. This happened in my family, as you can read about in the archives.

American culture and religiosity simply doesn’t work like that. We generally expect a sort of “rule of law” mechanism to work even when it comes to the divine. God will answer my prayer because I am a good citizen and that is what He is supposed to do. Often, especially in the public sphere, prayer is simply an edifying exercise to show that we are pious, predestined people. The other extreme is of course the “name it, claim it” approach, by which God grants any prayer because He promised to do so in the Good Book. In such an atmosphere, the idea of people “praying to” Michael Jackson is inconceivable; it really wouldn’t occur to anyone to do so. This begs the question of why people object to the “popular canonization” of Michael Jackson in the first place; we are not talking about the same phenomenon even when comparing his “cultus” to that of St. Guinefort.

Is such a “popular canonization” only objectionable because we object to the late Mr. Jackson being held up as an epitome of virtue (which I don’t think anyone is doing) or rather because he is taking away proper civic dulia from those who we should be emulating (the Founding Fathers, Sarah Palin, the various economists of the Austrian School, etc.)? Once you get into the market-driven culture of American public discourse, is there really any tenable means to regulate such “dulia”?

12 07 2009
Amethyst

Do you think that Michael Jackson qualifies as a folk saint, although he was not Catholic? Despite his flaws, he did perform many acts of charity and is loved by millions all over the world.

10 07 2009
Sam Urfer

Old school Iconoclast.

10 07 2009
Sam Urfer

I imagine it is a subtle (or not so subtle at all) dig at the whole concept of devotion to Saints. The Church of Christ is pretty old school Radical Reformation as far as I know, so I can’t imagine he approves of any sort of cult of veneration. Peculiar.

10 07 2009
FrGregACCA

“So who is the author talking about when he talks about “venerating”?”

If this guy actually is a Campbellite, this piece may in fact be a slap at ALL “dulia”. Consider the last two sentences:

“The worship of false saints, be they greyhounds or pop stars, needs to be replaced by the worship of the Lord. As the Philistines found with their idol Dagon, false idols cannot stand in the face of the one true Lord (1 Sam 5:2-5).”

IOW, all “veneration” is idolatry. Only adoration of God will do.

10 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

After I posted my last comment, I had a “wait a minute” moment. “If this guy is a Protestant, what does he care about hagiography? Why not be a fan of a dog who fights off a snake who is about to kill a child? Protestants don’t believe in giving anyone ‘dulia’: not Mother Teresa, not the Holy Virgin Mother of God, no one.” So who is the author talking about when he talks about “venerating”?

Being First Things, I can take an educated guess. The Founding Fathers, maybe? But would they pass the test of the Devil’s advocate, being Masonic, slave-owning Protestants? William F. Buckley, maybe? Perhaps those who have shown themselves to be good citizens and servants to the neoliberal pax Americana? But that has nothing to do with sanctity. So what was the point of writing this essay? I would like to know. If the author does not believe in the idea of giving a dead person “dulia” in the Catholic sense, then any other type of veneration is acceptable to anyone who does something that we deem noble, be he a dog or the Pope himself.

9 07 2009
Sam Urfer

There are two levels here, the humorous and the tragic. On one hand, it’s really funny that a lot of Catholics are nodding in agreement with a *Campbellite* about hagiography. On the other hand, it’s really disturbing that Catholics are agreeing with a *Campbellite* on hagiography.

9 07 2009
Death Bredon

Man, having been reared in the midst of it, I do depise Cultural Calvinsim.

Here is an interesting take — maybe all dogs do go to heaven:

http://members.tripod.com/~Near_to_God/AllThings.html

9 07 2009
Leah

I’ve always thought that that whole “Catholics and Protestants Together” thing was rather dubious, since that mighty troika of Eddie Long, T.D. Jakes, and Creflo Dollar weren’t involved, and I’d bet money that any one of them has more influence than Fr. Neuhas every had.

9 07 2009
Rick

“Cultural Calvinism” — good phrase.

9 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Yes, that is interesting. I am well aware that such a group practices “right-wing ecumenism”, which is why I find it all so distasteful. Nevertheless, many Catholics agreed with his assesment of the situation, and if they are agreeing with a Protestant, well… I think I’ll just leave it at that.

9 07 2009
Derek the Ænglican

I’m amused. I know the First Thing-ista personally…as nothing of the kind. He’s a very good medievalist who works in my sub-specialty, and his article is based on his medievalist credentials, not his Catholicism. No, you won’t find him touching a rosary–because he’s a Campbellite (Churches of Christ). Thus, I’ve found attempts to pigeon-hole exactly what kind of Catholic he is rather humorous.

9 07 2009
Rob

-The SSPX in Argentina wrote an entire polemical article against the cult to Gauchito Gil in Argentina.-

LOL I guess I will just have to go all the way to the Society of Saint Pius V! (Just kidding, God.)

9 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

The SSPX in Argentina wrote an entire polemical article against the cult to Gauchito Gil in Argentina. I read it when I was in seminary, but paid little attention to it since I was not interested in that stuff back then. (Too busy reading St. Gregory of Nyssa.) Even then, however, I was fully conscious of the existence of “folk saints”, since my grandmother had an altar to Juan Soldado in her room, with Santa Muerte on it as a “guest saint”. The traditionalists would no doubt oppose these cults for the same reason that the Wahabbis oppose the cult of the saints in Islam: it’s not “correct”, and it’s not on the books. Dig deeply enough in history, though, and many of these cults had the tacit approval of the Church, even if only among local clergy. The cult to “Saint Death” in northern Argentina and parts of Mexico seemed to enjoy such “tolerated” status. It was only some clerical killjoy, probably some hothead fresh out of seminary, who broke up the party and snitched to the local bishop, who was either too corrupt to break it up before or actually believed in these things himself “on the downlow”.

On the other hand, my mother once told me that her grandmother only knew her “curandera prayers” since she was an orphan raised by nuns. The good nuns in Mexico , then, taught her how to be “a witch”. That is a story I wish I knew more about.

9 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

As I said, I have no real stake in the “St. Guinefort” controversy, other than saying that stranger things have taken place. (For crying out loud, I’ve post prayers to the aloe vera plant that I have found referenced in many places.) Like the cult to Santa Muerte, I realize the unorthodox nature that cults to folk saints can take. My real target is not the persecutors of the now defunct cult to St. Guinefort (some sources say that it went into the early 20th century), but the cultural Calvinism that seems to affect even Catholic religious discourse in this country. If people want to commemorate a miraculous happening akin to the talking ass of Balaam, I see that as very natural, even if misguided. The Inquisition, on the other hand, was by no means infallible, and I think it has been amply demonstrated on this blog how too much meddling by the clergy can hinder and not help the Church.

9 07 2009
Rob

-What do you think the SSPX would say about praying to a dog-saint?-

They would probably do what the church has always done -until 40 years ago: Let well enough alone. Privately, we are free to think what we will of peasants who venerate dogs. The Church has-until now- been wise enough to honor its roots and the simple faith of the people, instead of trying to intellectualize everything and “update” (read Protestantize) the Faith.

BTW, I wonder if this dog and St. Christopher ever get a chance to hang out?

9 07 2009
Bonifacius

I don’t see how acknowledging that ignorance as ignorance is “snide.” Dogs do not have immortal souls. Dogs do not go to Heaven, they cannot pray for us, we cannot invoke their intercession, they cannot be “holy.” They are irrational animals. One of the great aspects of Catholicism is that we use reason, which is why the Church tried to suppress this cult.

I don’t see anything wrong with commemorating such an event or marking the spot where such a dog is buried. I admire Secretariat and would visit his grave if I ever went to that horse farm. But “St. Secretariat” would be preposterous, just as “Saint Guinefort” is. Snide or not, the Inquisitor who tried to tell these folks, “No, a dog can’t be a saint and, no, you shouldn’t pray to him,” was doing his job. He was not being “mean” or “clerical” (you seem to engage in some anti-clericalism in his article). The “clergy” are also the pastors and doctors whom God has commissioned to teach the faithful and guide them away from errors — errors like venerating dead dogs.

Rob,

What do you think the SSPX would say about praying to a dog-saint? I rather think their language would be more severe than what the author of the article in question wrote.

8 07 2009
Rob

-Just as we will eat rotten food and filthy water if no healthy food and clean water are available, we will venerate dogs and celebrities if we see no truly worthy objects of veneration before us.-

That kind of talk really turns my stomach and pushes me one step closer to the SSPX, God forgive me.

8 07 2009
Rick

You can’t even get people in the First Things crowd to say a Rosary, much less approve of anything else that’s redolent of Catholicism before the great transformation of the 60s. If it’s “too religious,” or “too pious,” these people will have problems with it.

8 07 2009
Celebritylife.org

Celebritylife.org trackingback – On “False Saints”…

Celebritylife.org trackingback – On “False Saints”…

8 07 2009
The Western Confucian

This is a great post. I’m a seven-year convert myself, but have long since grown weary of the neocon “First Things-ista” wing of American Catholicism.

I had always thought my differences with these folks were purely political, but this post (and your blog in general point )to the many social, cultural, and religious differences I have with them. Thank you.

8 07 2009
Leah

Many figures in black history, especially those connected with the Civil Rights era, do function as folk saints even among black Protestants. As I’ve mentioned several times, when Coretta Scott King died public masses were said for her soul at the predominately black Catholic church I was attending. This might not have been correct, but not certainly not surprising. If you go to the King National Memorial in Atlanta or the double crypt at the King Center and observe how the visitors act, it’s like being at a religious shrine. And at every mass I pray for the souls of various deceased members of the King family. All I have to say is that if having a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. next to a picture of Jesus is wrong, then lock me up! Of course, it would be a pretty big prison, because I know I’m certainly not the only one.

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