Having studied surging devotion to Santa Muerte over the past seven years, I was confident that Pope Francis would condemn the skeletal folk saint during his recent Mexican tour. The ideal place to denounce the mushrooming cult of the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) seemed to be in Ecatepec, a gritty suburb of Mexico City where the skeleton saint has legions of devotees and which lies in close proximity to Mexico's leading Santa Muerte temple, in the district of Tultitlan. To my surprise, however, the Argentine pontiff wasted no time and rebuked the object of the fastest growing new religious devotion in the Americas during his first full day in the country. During a scathing rebuke of his fellow bishops, the first New World pope called out Santa Muerte as a dangerous symbol of narco-culture.
"I am particularly concerned about those many persons who, seduced by the empty power of the world, praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death in exchange for money which, in the end, "moth and rust consume" and "thieves break in and steal" (Mt 6:19). I urge you not to underestimate the moral and antisocial challenge which the drug trade represents for Mexican society as a whole, as well as for the Church."
"The magnitude of this phenomenon, the complexity of its causes, its immensity and its scope which devours like a metastasis, and the gravity of the violence which divides with its distorted expressions, do not allow us as Pastors of the Church to hide behind anodyne denunciations. Rather they demand of us a prophetic courage as well as a reliable and qualified pastoral plan, so that we can gradually help build that fragile network of human relationships without which all of us would be defeated from the outset in the face of such an insidious threat. Only by starting with families, by drawing close and embracing the fringes of human existence in the ravaged areas of our cities and by seeking the involvement of parish communities, schools, community institutions, political communities and institutions responsible for security, will people finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood, though with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened."
"Praise illusions and embrace their macabre symbols to commercialize death..." is an obvious reference to the saint of death, which had already been condemned by name by the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravassi during a four-day visit to Mexico in May, 2013. That both the pope and a high-ranking Vatican official have condemned veneration of a folk saint who only became known to 99 percent of Mexicans in the past fifteen years is most extraordinary. Latin America is home to scores of other folk saints that aren't recognized by the Church, including Argentine skeleton saint, San La Muerte, yet only Mexican Santa Muerte has been singled out for rebuke.
Santa Muerte's latest and most powerful condemnation derives from three major factors. First, as the fastest growing new religious devotion from Canada to Chile, Saint Death presents stiff competition to a Church that has already been in sharp decline in Latin America since the 1970s, and now for the first time ever has also lost members in the United States, where the Catholic percentage of the population dropped from 24 to 21 percent between 2007 and 2014. Already in a state of panic over burgeoning Pentecostalism, the Church in Mexico and Central America now has to contend with a heretical folk saint which mostly claims devotees who still consider themselves Catholic, especially in Mexico where some 75 percent of all Santa Muertistas reside.
Second, the Church views veneration of the Bony Lady as tantamount to Satanism since death is the antithesis of the eternal life that Jesus Christ made possible to believers through the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Moreover, Catholic saints are real human beings who were canonized for being paragons of holiness. Since death isn't a human being it can't possibly be a saint, such as the wildly popular patron of lost causes, St. Jude Thaddeus, who because of competition with Santa Muerte in Mexico is now the only saint of more than 10,000 that has a monthly feast day, in Mexico City and beyond on each 28th day of the month.
Finally, the first Jesuit pope specifically denounced the skeleton saint as a "macabre symbol" of narcos who have sent tens of thousands of their compatriots to an early grave over the past decade. Though he doesn't receive much media coverage on it, Pope Francis is a major anti-drug crusader who recently warned his fellow Argentines to avoid "Mexicanization" of the country. At the behest of the Mexican Church, former president Felipe Calderon fingered Santa Muerte as religious enemy number one in his war against some of the drug cartels.
In fact, it was the Mexican army's bulldozing of some forty Saint Death shrines on the border with Texas and California that led me to write the first academic book on her burgeoning devotion. Undoubtedly, the death saint does have a significant following among cartel members, but so does Mexico's most popular Catholic saint, St. Jude, who is believed to be open to requests for miracles of dubious morality when he is represented with a staff in his left hand. In addition, most of Sante Muerte's estimated 10 to 12 million devotees in the U.S., Mexico and Central America are not involved in the drug trade.
The very same day that the Argentine pope weighed in on the skeleton saint, the top Santa Muerte leader in Mexico, Enriqueta Vargas, who presides over Templo Santa Muerte Internacional in Tultitlan, issued a communique in defense of the faith. "We the devotees of Santa Muerte reject the unjust condemnation by Pope Francis because it's an attack on the freedom of worship of our faith and the respect that must exist among the diverse religious groups. It conceptually violates the Constitution and laws that govern religious faith. In conclusion, I declare that it's wrong of him to judge and generalize peoples' activities since in all cults and religions there are good people and bad people."
Only time will tell if Pope Francis's extraordinary condemnation leads Mexican Catholics away from Santa Muerte's bony embrace. However, given surging growth despite both near-weekly denunciations by Mexican clerics and Cardinal Ravassi's scathing rebuke, the papal rejection of "macabre symbols" is likely to fall on deaf ears.