The Vatican and Mexico are debating the merits of a cult operating under the guise of Christianity.
The Vatican and Mexico are debating the merits of a cult operating under the guise of Christianity — one that the FBI has deemed a dark religion playing a role in drug-related violence that has led to the deaths of more than 70,000.
At the forefront of the debate is Santa Muerte, revered and worshipped by Mexican Catholics as a supernatural source of protection against death in areas of the nation overrun by drug cartel-fueled violence.
Worshippers pray to images of the saint, exemplified through a skeletal doll adorned with a yellow robe and large reaper ax. Through prayer and gifts, which often includes tequila, candles and fruit, devotees believe Santa Muerte can reverse the trend of early death, saving worshippers from a fate that seems all too common.
Yet the practice of worshipping the image isn’t confined to just that — an entire religious structure has been created. Though no central mode of certification exists, the religion has self-proclaimed priests, along with shrines for worship.
Those priests aren’t exactly representatives of piety and purity. Instead, they represent what Catholic officials claim is wrong with the religion.
According to the FBI, a “high priest” was arrested in 2010 on kidnapping charges. Romo Guillen also had a gang following, and in 2009 convinced those followers to carry out a holy war against the Catholic Church.
In 2012, eight people involved in the Santa Muerte cult were arrested for killing two boys and a woman in a sacrificial ceremony, dedicated to the “saint.”
Fueling the drug wars, violence
The fear felt by Mexicans living in the grip of drug cartels is real, with more than 70,000 thought to have been killed in the ensuing violence. Yet worshippers of the Santa Muerte figure are not limited to those who fear being caught in the crossfire. Her influence has spread to those directly involved in drug trafficking, along with low-level criminals and prostitutes.
This is where the Catholic Church sees the worship as deeply flawed, as Santa Muerte does not serve as a saint of hope to those looking for a way out, but instead functions as a saint who protects those as they go about their lives, giving those involved in illegal activity as a sense of security.
The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture is condemning the practice, calling it a cult that in no way falls in line with Catholicism.
“The mafia, drug trafficking and organized crime don’t have a religious aspect and have nothing to do with religion, even if they use the image of Santa Muerte,” the Vatican’s Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told the BBC.
It’s not just the leaders of the Catholic Church that are highlighting the trouble caused through widespread Santa Muerte worship. An FBI law enforcement bulletin published in February highlighted the role of Santa Muerte worship with the continuation of violence.
“While addressing the rise of such dark spirituality requires a balanced perspective, enough ritualistic behaviors, including killings, have occurred in Mexico to leave open the possibility that a spiritual insurgency component of the narcotics wars now exists,” the FBI report states. “Not all the narcotics leaders, their foot soldiers and assassins have remained religious, or alternatively, embraced secularism. But, evidence suggests that the number of defections to the cults that worship a perverted Christian god and the various unsanctioned saints have grown for years.”
Common worship of Santa Muerte, whose persona is referred to Catrina, dates back to the turn of the 20th century, although the image of Catrina became modernized in the 1940s. By the 1990s, worship of Santa Muerte was considered a mainstream practice, conducted in public space. In 2001, a public shrine to the saint was unveiled in Mexico City.
The FBI states that the worship of Santa Muerte has increased alongside the increase of narcotics trading, spreading not just throughout Mexico, but also reaching Central America and the United States.
The marketing of a religion
As the Catholic Church and FBI warn against the perpetuation of violence under the cult of Santa Muerte, the worship has spread to the United States, with shrines popping up in New York, North Carolina and New Orleans.
Virginia Commonwealth University Andrew Chesnut told The Washington Times that the explosion of the influence in the U.S. could be attributed to the religion’s openness to everyone, without conversion.
“She’s the ultimate multi-tasker,” Chesnut said.
Considering candles have emerged as part of the worship process, Mexican sales have skyrocketed, not only for candles, but also for prayer cards and statues.
One U.S. company has already jumped on the bandwagon. Cafepress advertises T-shirts, hoodies, buttons and underwear. Whence goes popularity, the market shall follow.