The Vatican has condemned a religious practice in Mexico as “blasphemous,” highlighting the conflict the Catholic Church has with rituals among its flock that originate in non-European cultures.
In the latest such “culture clash,” the Rome church has blasted La Santa Muerte (Death Saint or Holy Death) cult, which has been linked to a number of ritualized killings in Mexico. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, called the worship of Santa Muerte, who is typically depicted as a cloaked skeletal woman brandishing a scythe, as a "degeneration of religion" during a speech in Mexico City.
"Religion celebrates life, but here you have death," he said. "It's not religion just because it's dressed up like religion; it's a blasphemy against religion.”
But the cult traces its origins to Mexico’s colonial period and has a growing number of devotees, particularly in regions of the country that have been scarred by drug-related violence, according to BBC.
The cult, which worships death, mixes some indigenous beliefs with the Catholic veneration of saints (the result of the Spanish Conquistadores' arrival in Mexico and subsequent domination). Adherents pray to Santa Muerte at altars in their home and sometimes offer fruit, votive candles or other gifts in an effort to have their wishes granted.
An expert on the cult told the FBI, “The Santa Muerte cult could best be described as [following] a set of ritual practices offered on behalf of a supernatural personification of death. ... She is comparable in theology to supernatural beings or archangels.”
Cardinal Ravasi made a direct link between devotees of Santa Muerte and the spiraling drug violence that has taken at least 70,000 lives in Mexico over the past six years.
"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," he said.
In 2012, eight people were arrested in northern Mexico for the murder of two boys and a woman as part of a “ritual sacrifice” for Santa Muerte.
According to a report from National Geographic News, the Santa Muerte cult is particularly popular in Mexican prisons and the criminal underworld but has now seeped into more mainstream arenas of Mexican society.
"La Muerte is always beside you -- even if it's just a little postage stamp that you put up above your cot, you know that she's not going to move, that she'll never leave," an inmate at a state prison in Culiacan, Sinaloa, told National Geographic.
Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D., who has worked with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and serves with the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, explained in an essay published on the FBI website that most Santa Muerte worshippers are “typically poor, uneducated and superstitious individuals who practice a form of unsanctioned saint worship mixed with varying elements of folk Catholicism.”
But while the Catholic Church would like to stamp out such objectionable practices as Santa Muerte, it cannot alienate believers who regard the cult as part of the church. In addition, the Catholic Church is losing its grip on millions of people, not only in Mexico, but across Latin America.
A woman named Enriqueta Romero, who considers herself both a Roman Catholic and a devotee of Santa Muerte, shrugged off the Vatican’s condemnation. "[Rome] can just go ahead and do that," she told National Geographic. "But have you seen how empty their churches are?"
Santa Muerte may also be compared with Santeria, the cult-like religion practiced in much of the Caribbean, which combines elements of Roman Catholicism with African traditions. During a visit to Cuba (where Santeria is widely practiced) by Pope John Paul II in 1998, the pontiff refused to meet with Santeria priests.