On the margins of theology – X

24 06 2010

The Horseman of Divine Providence (Conclusion)

Pues bien: la iglesia, como institución, está en el mismo caso. Yo le pediría que no trataran de institucionalizar a Malverde; es un santón y un héroe del pueblo; no traten de arrebatárselo de las manos; la realidad es que está allí, la gente lo quiere, le tiene y lo más maravilloso es que hace milagros.

(The Church, as an institution, is in the same boat. I would ask that they try not to institutionalize Malverde. He is folk saint and a hero of the people, they should not try to take him from them. The reality is that he is around, the people like him, they keep him, and most marvelous thing of all is that he works miracles.)

These are the words Óscar Liera puts on the lips of a doctor in his play, El Jinete de la Divina Providencia. The subject of the 1980’s Mexican play is a fictional ecclesiastical investigation of the miracles of Jesus Malverde, the deceased bandit who works miracles from beyond the grave. In this special ten part series regarding the prevalence of “popular Catholicism” in many societies, I thought it a good quote to tie many ideas together. Here, there is not so much a stark opposition between institution and spontaneity, high and low religiosity, but a juxtaposition of what emerges in the life of believers and the rules imposed from above. In other words, we speak here not of an exclusive situation, but of a complementary one. That which is in the margins of religiosity is just as important as officially sanctioned doctrine and praxis, though it is not necessarily superior to it.

Aside from primordial memories of family life, my first confrontation with “folk Catholicism” came when I encountered Paul Vanderwood’s book on Juan Soldado. Upon looking at the popular image of the “folk saint” in the book, I realized that this was the man that my deceased grandmother venerated on her altar. It is also the picture that my grandmother gave to my father before he marched off to the battlefields of Vietnam; the one she believed saved his life. It was there that I realized that I had an obligation to find out what was the real Catholicism that my ancestors passed on to me. What had I missed in all of my erudite adventures into scholastic, Patristic, and modern philosophical thought? How was my religiosity the same, and how was it different?

I have been called the world’s only apologist for folk Catholicism. What I do here is certainly unique. The fact is, I read a lot of sites from Latin America, and even there “educated Catholics” don’t like the things I write about. They think it all backwards and superstitious. And the ones who do advocate them tend to be very anti-clerical to agnostic. They only like “catolicismo popular” because it gets up the hierarchy’s nose or they have the sensibility of American New Agers in a Catholic context. Few, however, have actually tried to radically question the categories that are taken for granted in the discourse. “Christianity” is supposedly a stable, sober, monotheistic faith based primarily on loyalty to an institution and absolute submission to a well-defined truth. “Folk Catholicism” is the result of poorly catechized Catholics who are undereducated and ignorant. “Progress” is society’s move from an atavism that sees spirits behind every bush to a cosmic rationalism that looks at God as a benevolent if distant watch maker who has left the governance of his universe to the laws of science.

The task here, and in many of my essays on Neoplatonism, is to deconstruct these false categories. Marsilio Ficino, for example, would not be considered an “orthodox Catholic” in our day and age, in spite of the fact that he was an ordained priest whose bust is prominently displayed in a Catholic cathedral. The understanding of most people of the Church and the world has changed substantially in the last five hundred years, and for many, the changes only began in the last fifty years. Those in the countryside and in less developed corners of Christendom maintained much of the “primitive ontology” that many would label as residual paganism. For them, such a metaphysical perspective would be just as much a standard of orthodoxy as any particular defined doctrine.

In some of these essays, I have attempted to analyze various aspects of Catholic “folk cosmology” especially when it comes to aiding in the struggle for survival. The second essay concerned the various preternatural strategies for health and well-being in my mother’s own native Torreon and environs, where fear of things such as the evil eye and curses were combated by prayers, rituals, and sacred numerology. This was further analyzed in the fourth and fifth essay where similar practices were discussed from medieval France and modern Veracruz, respectively. In all of these cases, I showed how substantially different their attitudes towards health, action, and the spirit world are from our own. Theurgic power seemed to come from things themselves and not from their pure symbolism as instruments of Catholic doctrine.

Many of the other essays addressed the already mentioned unofficial cults to “questionable characters”. The list of these ranged from the dog St. Guinefort, to Marie Laveau in New Orleans, to the pop star Selena and executed Chilean murderers. Here again, supernatural power resides not in the representing of an institutional ideal, but in death itself, or rather, violent death. The center of the sacred lies not in an abstract “Roma aeterna”: a sacramentology and magisterium under which the layman is merely a passive recipient. The people clung to their own saints along with the saints handed to them by the official Church. As shown in the very first essay, the most important aspect of this process was that the sacred was always local, even when the figure of veneration came from the outside.

In some cases, the sacred existed outside the bounds of the official Church altogether. This we showed in particular through the existence of the now dying Spiritual Churches of New Orleans: popularly Catholic in look, Pentecostal in structure. One criminal in Peru was venerated by the Catholic populace in spite of his prison conversion to Seven Day Adventism. And another criminal refused the consolation of the Church altogether at the gallows.

All of this being said, I have to protest that I AM NOT an apologist for “folk Catholicism”. I have to say this in the strongest terms since I do not believe that “Folk Catholicism” exists. “Folk Catholicism” is an unfortunate academic term for the beliefs and practices that people have when the clergy are not looking. If I use this term, it is merely as a rhetorical tool to make people understand that the way Catholicism is done in the developed world has a rationalistic taste that I find objectionable. It does not mean that I spend my free time studying to be a palero, have a Santa Muerte altar in my home, or defend the use of a “Win the Lottery” candle. I too believe many of these things to be superstitious. I just don’t think it particularly fair or helpful for normal scapular-wearing, holy water-using, image-kissing Catholics to mindlessly criticize other Catholics as being superstitious just because they do things that they don’t understand.

Like the fictional doctor cited at the beginning of this essay, I too believe that such unofficial cults should be left alone and only condemned if they take a violent or otherwise harmful turn. In general, I have to say that these unofficial practices are better at preserving the flavor of ancient and popular religion than official modern Catholicism. And in most places outside the developed world, they will continue to evolve and flourish, using institutional doctrine and practice both as a context and materia for adapting the religion to everyday circumstances. For too long, “thinking Catholics” have ignored “folk Catholic” practices or thought them backwards or ignorant. It is about time that we begin to read Catholicism not just in the main text, but in the margins.



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