On the margins of theology -IX

10 06 2010

Notes on holy criminals and sacred banditry

…et nos quidem iuste nam digna factis recipimus hic vero nihil mali gessit et dicebat ad Iesum Domine memento mei cum veneris in regnum tuum et dixit illi Iesus amen dico tibi hodie mecum eris in paradiso

Above is a video about a French man executed in Chile. Unlike some other examples of the veneration of executed figures in the Catholic world, the murderer Emile Dubois showed no signs of repentance when he was executed in early 20th century Valparaiso, Chile. Another example, a little more recent, also in Chile, was that of the “Jackal of Nahueltoro” , who was executed for the crime of killing a woman and her daughter in cold blood. Though showing real signs of reform, he was executed in accordance with the death sentence handed down to him. In the latter case, at least, people felt that the man’s crime was a product of the corrupt social order where education and opportunity for self-improvement were not offered to the man until it was too late. With Dubois, however, not only was he a cold-hearted murder, but he refused to repent at the gallows, rebuffing the priest by saying: “I will confess to God Himself, not one of His representatives”.

Nevertheless, the veneration of the criminal qua criminal and not as a martyr was common enough in the Catholic world to merit some mention. Michael Carroll, in his book, Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy, speaks of a chapel in Sicily to the corpi decullati. These were the remains of criminals executed by beheading, kept appropriately enough in a chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Pilgrims would first pray in from of St. John’s altar, and then make their way to a side chapel where they would whisper their wish onto the stone under which lay the remains of the executed criminals. If their wish was granted, they would hear some sort of sound. In popular representation, people would portray these souls on home altars either as souls in Purgatory or men hanging from the gallows. Here, intercession had little to do with the orthodox Catholic “the righteous as friends of God”, but more had to do with a spiritual quid pro quo: prayer to relieve sufferings in the afterlife in exchange for a favor granted in this life.

A slightly more complicated phenomenon is that of “sacred banditry”. Many scholars have now overturned Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry in which bandits are seen as the first agents of class struggle. These theorists have determined that there was not enough social consciousness amongst brigands to make them into proto-revolutionaries. Nevertheless, places like Argentina are strewn with shrines to dead outlaw gauchos, not the least of which is the resting place of the now nationally revered correntino outlaw, Gauchito Gil. Nevertheless, many of these gauchos either died tragically in pointless fights or were gunned down by authorities for some very serious crimes. The figure of the gaucho, parallel to our popular image of the cowboy, has not only become a symbol of the national consciousness in Argentina, but has at times become a locus of the sacred.

We cannot pass up the opportunity to at least mention the Mexican bandit, Jesus Malverde. Such a cult is now demonized due to the escalating drug violence in Mexico. What should be mentioned, however, is that Malverde in real life (that is, to the extent he actually existed) had little to do with the drug trade. If anything, the origin of his cult lies in the same social dynamics shown above: people’s protest against heavy-handed government action, an oppressive social order, and a non-responsive, hierarchical Church seen as the defender of the status quo. From a social perspective, the veneration of the criminal is not merely misguided superstition, the religious error of an “under-catechized” populace. It is, rather, the apotheosis of their own frustration with a system that is seen as only benefiting the rich and powerful.

That is only the social dimension of the question, but it does not resolve the issue as to why people venerate those who were clearly societal pariahs in their earthly lives. Nor does it explain the veneration of dead pop stars that frustrates so many social commentators. For lack of a better explanation, I would have to conclude that there is power in death itself. This is reflected even in our own culture (in a sterilized manner to be sure) in the existence of horror films. The dead, by virtue of being dead, still have the power to intervene in human affairs. Not only that, but the physical site of their death and their remains have an energy that can be harnessed by the living, such as in the Afro-Caribbean religion of palo mayombe or any number of dark occult practices using dead bodies. The only difference between popular Catholic practice and theirs is one of nomenclature only.

Violent death augments this power, even if the victim is “justly” killed by legitimate authorities. Perhaps the other mark of modernity is the shielding of the modern consciousness from death. In spite of the best attempts by such philosophers as Martin Heidegger to define man as a “being unto death”, the modern psyche strips death of its metaphysical power. That is why modern journalists are so horrified by such things as the cult to la Santa Muerte in Mexico. How can people venerate death? How can they call it “godmother”, offer it an apple, or say how beautiful it is? But perhaps in traditional Catholicism this force was still present in the daily life of the “average” believer, whereas now the Church seems to cover it up with the latest rhetoric of “realized eschatology”. In spite of all of this, death is the one reality that all without exception must face, and the fact that modern people see it now as stripped of its true significance can easily change in the near future.

The one closing thougt that I have out of this is a revision of sorts of something that I have previously written. There I re-told the story of St. Martin of Tours supernaturally revealing the grave of a supposed martyr as the resting place of an unjust brigand. The presupposition of the story is that the people were fooled in a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps the revisionist re-telling, taking into account what is written above, would say that the people knew very well who was in that grave but prayed to him anyway. If that is the case, this is an “error” that the official Church has been fighting for a very long time.



6 responses

11 06 2010
Sam Urfer

Nope, never. “I know dad is with the Lord” might be said of the dearly departed, but the Evangelical crowd I grew up in was quite consistent that the dead were dead, and had nothing more to do with the living until after the End. I heard such sentiments expressed in movies, and received lectures from my parents on how silly the idea of talking to the dead is, and how it is part of the spiritual corruption of our culture that people would believe anything so silly. And I never saw nor heard anything different, from any Protestant. This was not an isolated upbringing, either, but moving between numerous churches of varying denominations over the years.

11 06 2010


Really? No one you ever knew said something like, “I still feel like mom is watching after me” or “I know he’s looking down and smiling at us?”

10 06 2010
Sam Urfer

Coming from a Protestant background, I never experienced people asking favors from dead relatives. The denial of the intercession of the dead was quite consistent, to the point of ranting about Hollywood movies where this happens.

10 06 2010
Mike Walsh

Excellent post and comments. Speaking of “The Jackal of Nahueltoro”, I recall seeing the film as a seminarian –an assignment in a theology class, the leftist professor trying to make the “corrupt social order” case. But I had worked in prison ministry, too, and had met enough psychopaths and sociopaths to know the difference between Robin Hood and Charles Manson. Leftists attempting to rationalize mass murder. Imagine.

But I had another professor in the seminary –much saner– who made much of the fact that modern thinking is rooted in the denial of death, and many a modern theologian is thoroughly scandalized by the Cross.

10 06 2010

Wulfila, I like that quote a lot. But then, I like my religion incarnational: bloody, sweaty, smelly, looking the real world dead in the eye and saying “I’m going to beat you!”

But then, my dad was a Vietnam vet, and my mother and grandmother were nurses in the VA system (I spent a good part of my childhood on the floors there), so I never got the “sanitized treatment” for dealing with death, and perceive that type of sanitization as utterly useless, anyway.

Back to the cult of dead criminals, I’ve read Arturo’s posts on the subject, and it gives me a lot to think about. Part of me sees the “apotheosis of their own frustration with a system” that he mentions, and part of me wonders if there’s any connection to the universal human instinct that just “knows” (not rationalizes, but just knows) the dead are still able to influence us, the same way that I’ve yet to meet a Protestant — no matter how staunchly opposed to the invocation of Saints — who doesn’t invoke the intercession of dead family members in time of crisis or trouble. The expression is different (departed family members vs. executed criminals), but I’m not too sure how much difference really lies beneath the surface.

10 06 2010


“Catholics need to begin to think and teach again, in public, about the ars moriendi, the art of dying…Another way in which this might be done is to encourage Catholics from an early age in the use of the symbols of death: the skull on the desk, imaginative meditation on the approach and arrival of one’s own death, prayer before the exposed bodies of the dead. These symbols bring the reality of death into life, where it belongs.”

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