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Saint Death, Churches, and Catholic Scholarship

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jan 06, 2012

As I finished skimming R. Andrew Chesnut’s new book on the Mexican/Mexican American cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death), I happened to notice that the first cover blurb was from Thomas Tweed, author of another book in my stack, America’s Church. The latter book is good scholarship on the National Shrine. The former book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, is both more interesting and more problematic.

America’s National Shrine

The subtitle of Tweed’s attractively bound volume is “The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital”. It is a serious work of scholarship, including appendices providing tabular profiles of selected pilgrims and donors from 1916-1959 and over 70 pages of highly detailed notes. America’s Church is an architectural and sociological analysis of the forces within the Church which shaped the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, including the diverse reactions to the Shrine from the 1960’s on.

The chapter titles reveal the sociological pressures and Catholic shifts in emphasis which Tweed assesses as being reflected in the Shrine, how it was built, and how it developed over time:

  1. Laying Catholicism’s Foundation: Clerical Aims and Diverse Devotees, 1909-1959
  2. Mobilizing “America’s Marys”: Women, Fundraising, and the Mary Memorial Altar, 1913-1938
  3. Engaging Catholic Children: Agency, Prescriptions, and Constraints in the Catholic Institutional Network, 1920-1959
  4. Contesting Protestant Interpretations: The Virgin Mary, the Crypt Church, and the Incorporeal Other, 1913-1932
  5. Claiming Civic Space: The National Shrine, the Subjunctive Mood, and the Nation’s Capital, 1913-1959
  6. Incorporating Catholic Immigrants: Diversity, Migration, and the Shrine’s Columns and Chapels, 1913-1997

These words from the Introduction articulate the point of the book:

As I try to show in this book, the extreme contemporary reactions to that building aptly signal the divisiveness of post-1960s American culture and the fragmentation of postconciliar U.S. Catholicism, but they conceal the qualified countermodernism and recalibrated Americanism of the Shrine’s promoters…. The Shrine…was a monument to the consolidated Church’s diverse membership, clerical agenda, and shared values—just as after 1959 it became a more contested site where the wider cultural issues of the day and the divisions within the fragmented Church found expression.

It is a worthwhile idea, I think, to use the architecture of a basilica as a mirror reflecting the changing aspirations, problems, and emphases of Catholicism in both the Church and society. In an essay, in fact, the development of this idea would have been captivating. In a book consisting of exhaustive research and detailed sifting of evidence, unfortunately, this will quickly cease to be interesting for most readers, which is sufficient to explain why I myself have read very little of it. But it remains a work of able scholarship, in which the author succeeds in shedding light on 20th century American Catholicism without making the kinds of prejudicial judgments which might otherwise obscure the information and understanding to be conveyed.

The Need for Something More

But sometimes there is a significant need for something more than mere academic analysis. Sometimes a subject demands deeper spiritual reflection and sound spiritual guidance. Such things are forbidden in the contemporary academy, which often means that spiritual responsibility can be all too easily shirked. So it is that those who learn from academicians may find themselves in a drab universe where significant values appear not to matter, and knowledge—which admittedly is good in its own right—fails to serve the ultimate end of man.

Thus we come to Thomas Tweed’s cover blurb for Devoted to Death: “Vividly written and cleverly organized, this wonderful book provides the most comprehensive and balanced account of Mexican and American devotion to this controversial folk saint.” Well, yes and no.

R. Andrew Chesnut’s book is indeed vividly written, packaged as something akin to a pulp paperback, and based as much on first-hand experience of the cult of Santa Muerte as on documentary research. Apparently, over the past ten years the cult of this skeletal image of death, all dressed in white, has become both public and widespread, though its origins date back at least to the 18th century, with links to the emphasis on memento mori (remembrance of death) which emerged during the time of the Black Death in 14th century Europe. Based on sales of cultic objects and estimates from cultic centers, Santa Muerte has some five million adherents in Mexico; in many ways, the cult is on a statistical par with Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Jude. With the Mexican influx into the United States, the cult has grown rapidly in America as well, especially in Los Angeles and along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Fortunately, for all who are willing to pay attention, this cult—with its horrifying rosaries and even illicit “masses”—has been condemned by the Church. It has also been targeted in various ways by the Mexican government, because Santa Muerte is the patron saint of drug dealers and murderers and, indeed, of all who wish to behave criminally, prosper, and escape the law. But it seems that not many are willing to pay attention. The cult continues to grow. Unsurprisingly (considering the potential for diabolical action), Santa Muerte has a reputation for being more responsive than other more “conventional saints” from whom one might seek such help. She seems to get the job done.

Motives are not all bad. Santa Muerte is reputed to be good at returning repentant husbands to their wives, at healing, at protecting from death, and at assisting with the economic woes of those who devote themselves to her. But Chesnut’s book demonstrates again and again that her devotés most often have a selfish edge to their requests, and very seldom if ever seek any sort of abandonment to the will of God. The women seem to want their repentant husbands groveling at their feet (yes, I understand the natural inclination), and most adherents to the cult seem to want every worldly gift without the cultivation of virtue, and regardless of the temptations that may follow.

Spiritual Responsibility

Devotion to “saints” who are off the authentic Catholic grid is more common in Mexico (and in all of Latin America) than in the United States, as such practices are closely linked to old, indigenous superstitions. Also arguably more common in Hispanic piety in general is the emphasis on Mary and individual saints as heavenly figures who solve the problem associated with a seemingly cold and distant God—a false understanding which better-formed Catholics in all cultures would generally recognize as a distortion with unfortunate spiritual consequences. As one cult adherent put it, “I believe in God, but I trust Santa Muerte.”

Chesnut does make it clear that the Church condemns the cult, but he makes it just as clear that the cult leaders condemn the Church. He shows the strong links between Santa Muerte and activities which are still universally regarded as seriously evil, but he also emphasizes that the cult has broadened to include many good and reasonable aspirations, using colored votive candles to represent various intentions (beware, obviously, of black), including rainbow colored candles to represent them all.

Some of this objectivity is understandable, but what is damning is that Chesnut seems to think it is beyond his province as a scholar—in fact he is the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University—to provide the theological and even spiritual analysis and advice which would enable a reader to see why the Church has condemned the cult (apart from perceiving it as a threat to her own power), or to explain how an individual Catholic can tell that this is something very bad and spiritually dangerous.

There is a point at which adhering to the canons of contemporary secular scholarship means abdicating one’s deeper human responsibility. There is a point, in fact, at which the canons of contemporary scholarship encourage this abdication of responsibility, and put all kinds of people into prominent positions of instruction who cannot morally and spiritually reason their way out of a paper bag. Indeed, to succeed in academia, they generally must betray no intention of ever doing so.

In the End…

This does not mean Chesnut’s book fails to present a useful view of the growing cult of Santa Muerte, of her links with the underworld, or of the meaning she has to some adherents who use her more affectionate names—godmother, beautiful lady, white girl, skinny lady, and so on. The book is, to be sure, an eye-opener. But by the time one finishes Chesnut’s account, one genuinely wonders whether his generosity with the cult is more than a scholarly pose adopted to create a readable and engaging book. He concludes:

And in my own private space, where I’ve written most of the book, I’ve been inspired by the seven-color candle that rests atop my desk…. Amid weekly reports of massacres, mass graves, decapitated bodies, and kidnappings, all related to the interminable hemispheric drug wars, it was tempting at times to focus too much on the black candle. The rainbow-colored one standing guard just a few feet away from my laptop, the same one with which the Bony Lady beckoned me to study her, helped me to keep my eye on the larger picture, that of her cult of many colors.

Catholic scholarship cannot—must not—end like this. When it does, it too is devoted to death.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 06, 2012 4:26 PM ET USA

    Therefore, take Our Lady's advice and pray the Rosary.

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