Catholic Church Heresy – Santa Muerte

When I was researching Gnosticism I came across a list of heresies. One of the heresies that caught my eye is a modern heresy called Santa Muerte. It’s a heresy I have only heard a little about. All I knew was that it is a neo-pagan heresy based on Catholicism originating in Mexico. Central America has several pagan and occult practices. Perhaps the most famous is santeria. However, devotionals to the saint of death are a newer phenomenon. Since it is a modern heresy it falls into my desire to learn more about heresies that are and could be affecting the church in our current time. 

So this is Santa Muerte.

Origins of Santa Muerte in Mexico

The beginnings of Santa Muerte goes all the way to the Aztec Empire. The Aztec Empire practiced a pagan death cult religion that was big on human sacrifice. When the Spanish Empire came the practice of worshipping death and human sacrifice greatly diminished. Mexico was evangelized by the Spanish and the practice of the Aztec religion faded away. However, not entirely. The practice of worshiping death never really died off.

One tradition that is still prevalent in Mexico is the Day of The Dead celebration. It is a similar veneration of the dead, but this one coincides with the Catholic holiday of All Saints day. However, Day of The Dead is a widely celebrated holiday and the roots of it are contested with some scholars saying that it can be traced back to medieval Europe. In contrast, Santa Muerte was worshipped in secret and has only recently come into the public sphere.

Santa Muerte remained an underground religious movement all through the 1900s, but since the turn of the century, it has seen a massive increase in followers. Religious scholar, Andrew Chesnut, suggests that Santa Muerte may be a reincarnation of Miclantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, who reigned over the region of the dead in Aztec culture. Day of The Dead has been coopted by La Santa Muerte and it has become her unofficial feast day.

There has been some backlash. The Mexican government has destroyed alters to Santa Muerte. The epicenter of Santa Muerte worship is Mexico City. The most famous shrine was created by Enriqueta Romero who has a shrine to the skeleton saint in the Mexico City district of Tepito. 

As of 2016 Santa Muerte is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions and has approximately 10 to 12 million followers. And Santa Muerte has become the nation’s second most popular saint after the virgin of Guadalupe. 

Who Is The Saint of Death

When I was researching Gnosticism I came across a list of heresies. One of the heresies that caught my eye is a modern heresy called Santa Muerte. It’s a heresy I have only heard a little about. All I knew was that it is a neo-pagan heresy based on Catholicism originating in Mexico. But since it is a modern heresy is falls into my desire to learn more about heresies that are and could be affecting the church in our current time.

So this is Santa Muerte.

Origins of Santa Muerte

The beginnings of Santa Muerte goes all the way to the Aztec Empire. The Aztec Empire practiced a pagan religion that was big on human sacrifice. When the Spanish Empire came the practice of worshipping death and human sacrifice greatly diminished. Mexico was evangelized by the Spanish and the practice of the Aztec religion mostly died off. However, not entirely. The practice of worshiping death never really died off.

One tradition that is still prevalent in Mexico is the Day of The Dead celebration. It is a similar veneration of the dead, but this one coincides with the Catholic holiday of All Saints day. However, Day of The Dead is a widely celebrated holiday and the roots of it are contested with some scholars saying that it can be traced back to medieval Europe. In contrast, Santa Muerte was worshipped in secret and has only recently come into the public sphere.

Santa Muerte remained an underground religion all through the 1900s, but since the turn of the century, it has seen a massive increase in followers. There has been some backlash. The Mexican government has destroyed alters to Santa Muerte. However, as of 2016 Santa Muerte is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions and has approximately 10 to 12 million followers.

Who Is Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte, also known as Our Lady of Holy Death is a Mexican folk saint often depicted as a female skeletal figure. You can tell Santa Muerte is female by the clothing the skeleton wears.  While Santa Muerte is scary what she is associated with healing, protection, financial wellbeing, and assurance of a path to the afterlife. The juxtaposition of a creepy skeleton representing health, protection, and financial wellbeing is something that’s hard to comprehend.

Santa Muerte’s iconography often resembles the Grim Reaper as she is often pictured with either a globe or a scythe. However the scythe does not kill people but instead represents the cutting of negative energies, and as a harvesting tool, it can symbolize hope prosperity. And then the globe symbolizes the vast reach of death. It’s not uncommon to see Santa Muerte with an hourglass, a lamp, an owl, or scales. The symbolism of each is all pretty straight forward. The owl and the lamp both symbolize working in the dark and bringing light/wisdom to the world. The hourglass is a reminder of our limited time on this earth. And the scales are for justice.

The worship of Santa Muerte is usually done by leaving offerings at alters for her. It’s generally informally done with most alters existing in people’s homes. It is only in the recent rise of Santa Muerte have public alter begun to appear. Common offerings to Santa Muerte include flowers, fruits, candles, toys, money, cigarettes, and booze. The Santa Muerte devotees even say a special rosary for Santa Muerte that is based on the Roman Catholic Rosary.

Associations

Santa Muerte is heavily associated with criminals, drug traffickers, and the violence that occurs in Mexico because of the drug war. It is not uncommon to find shrines in prisons to Santa Muerte. An interesting aspect is that it’s not just the narcos who worship Santa Muerte but also the police. Both the Mexican Army and drug cartels have had Santa Muerte bless their guns. 

Santa Muerte is also associated with the LGBT communities of Mexico. Santa Muerte is seen as the protector of homosexual and transgender communities. Her intercession is commonly invoked at same-sex marriage ceremonies. 

The Traditionalist Mexico-USA Tridentine Catholic Church, which broke from the Roman Catholic church, venerates Santa Muerte. However, their leader was arrested for drug trafficking, kidnapping, and money laundering. 

The folk saint Santa Muerte’s worshipers tend to be people on the fringes of society in Latin America. And Santa Muerte’s association with drug lords has given her the nickname the Narco-Saint.

The Catholic Church and Santa Muerte

The Vatican has condemned the cult of Santa Muerte as blasphemous and Satanic calling it a degradation of religion. When Pope Francis visited Mexico he spurned Santa Muerte and called her a dangerous symbol. The Mexican Catholic church has referred to the worship of Santa Muerte as a form of devil worship. 

The contrast between Mexico’s Patron Saint, The virgin of Guadalupe, and Santa Muerte is not one to be missed. In some respects, Santa Muerte appears like a mockery of the blessed virgin Mary.

A good resource to learn more about Santa Muerte is the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” by Andrew Chesnut who is the Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

While this is a modern heresy, it’s not necessarily a sneaky heresy. If you didn’t know about Gnosticism, it’d be possible to accidentally be a Gnostic. That’s not the case with Santa Muerte. It’s very clearly a form of pagan devil worship or at the very least a form of idol worship resembling the worship of the golden calf. However this time it looks more like a Grim Reaper.

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