Philip Jenkins, a professor at Penn State well known for his research on the incredible growth of the church in the Global South (I especially recommend his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity), writes an occasional column for Christian Century called â€œNotes From the Global Church.â€? His latest is about what he calls a â€œcrisis of faithâ€? in Mexico.
About 80-90% of Mexicans identify as Catholic, with the number of Protestants estimated in the single digits. Jenkins writes that Mexican churches — presumably Catholic ones, by and large — ought to be applauded for what they have often done right:
They have behaved heroically, striving to make peace between factions, trying to fulfill social needs in regions where secular government has all but abdicated its power. Individual priests and bishops comfort bereaved families and preach bravely against violence and criminality, at grave risk to their lives. Fearless activism for peace and human rights made Saltillo’s legendÂary bishop JosÃ© RaÃºl Vera LÃ³pez a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the other hand, he also points to the problem of syncretism, which obviously compromises the distinctiveness of Christian belief, but also contributes to immediate matters of life and death. Whereas syncretistic cult practices have long been practiced in the shadows, Jenkins says, the rise of drug cartels and gangs have only recently brought some of them to the surface:
One terrifying symbol is the skeletal figure of La Santa Muerte, Saint Death, who serves as the gangs’ patron saint… Santa Muerte is condemned by the official church but worshiped in countless clandestine shrines. Nor is she the only manifestation of a subversive pseudo-Catholicism that veers close to outright diabolism. Another wildly popular folk saint is the 19th-century bandit JesÃºs MalÂÂverde, “angel of the poor,” patron of drug dealers and illegal migrants. Devotees of San Juan Soldado (Soldier John) venerate a man executed in 1938 for raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl. While such beliefs demonstrate a profound faith in spiritual realities, they also show the yawning gulf that separates popular practice from any traditional concept of Christian faith.
Itâ€™s easy to spot syncretism like this in foreign contexts, when the idols can be seen and named and are connected to obvious brutality, but none of us have embraced a culture-free gospel, and a healthy dose of humility here would go a long way. Nonetheless, the Mexican church will need to figure out how to handle the veneration of La Santa Muerte and others.
But what ought to happen first: correcting theology and private worship, or reforming society? Would a crackdown on gangs and narco-traffickers render La Santa Muerte redundant? Would strong, compelling theological teaching by the church lead members of gangs to turn, not only from idols but from violence too? What lessons can the rest of us learn from this case about the often uneasy relationship between society and religion to which none of us is exempt?