Though I’m not religious, I have a bit of an obsession with saints. I’m talking the Catholic ones. I love their individual stories. I love their collective history. I love the canonization process. I love the ones who get so close but don’t make the official cut. I love the ones who are venerated without being official. And I’ve just discovered a new saint that might now be my favorite–Santa Muerte. For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, Saint Death.
Who is Santa Muerte?
Here are some relevant highlights. (Huffington Post provides more information about Santa Muerte if you are interested.) She is a Mexican folk saint, but her origins are tricky. She may have grown out of a similar Aztec figure of death. The regions of her popularity roughly correspond to areas where liberation theology, which targets the oppressed, had major footholds in its heyday. She is closely related to murderers and drug-traffickers–one might even call her their patron saint.
Lately she has come to be a patron saint of marginalized groups generally, like LGBT people, sex workers, and undocumented immigrants. People who are marginalized not only in the larger society, but also within Catholicism. Most of the people who venerate her still identify as Catholics even if they have been pushed out of the church or feel unwelcome there.
There has always been a gray area on the edge of the cult of saints. It is often a space where local communities can find a personalized way to live their Catholic practice. Historically the Vatican has varying reactions to these personalized practices and figures ranging from embracing to tolerating to condemning. Santa Muerte is not officially a saint. She is officially condemned.
But that is why I like her and why I want to talk about her. For many who still call themselves Catholic, even if they are not officially or practically welcome, she is a spiritual connection. Santa Muerte represents an embrace of the imperfect by embracing the marginalized. I want to talk about her because through her I can explain why we need to stop making saints–and here I mean noncanonized, not necessarily Catholic saints–of our cultural heroes like Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi.
Complications in Becoming a Saint
Something I’ve always found fascinating about the cult of saints is the seemingly contradictory process of canonization. The official position is that one should not treat any noncanonized person as one would a saint. But, in order for a person to become a saint, miracles must be attributed to them after death. For miracles to be attributed to them, they must be specifically treated as a saint would. So actually, if Santa Muerte is ever going to become an official Saint, she needs her followers to do just what they are doing.
But Santa Muerte has another strike against her that will truly end any aspirations to sainthood–she’s not a real person. She’s a personification of death. And saints have to have been real people. And starting with Vatican II there has been a campaign to remove or correct defects in our understandings of early saints. The Vatican has been systematically reviewing their saints and removing those who don’t pass muster from the Calendar of Saints. These are mostly early saints that have no historical evidence of ever existing.
The most popular of these removed saints is probably Saint Christopher, who nonetheless remains a favorite saint in many parts of the world, including my hometown in New Mexico. He lost his pedestal on the grounds that his life story is only legend. When he was canonized, historical accuracy was not even an issue, but modern historians can find no evidence that he ever lived. So off the calendar he went. He is a reverse example to Santa Muerte, but both venerations are venerations of rebellion.
Without question one of my favorite saint-related stories is that of a fifteenth century monk, Thomas à Kempis, who was on the road to sainthood, but will never be canonized despite an almost perfectly lived life–by Vatican standards. Unlike Saint Christopher, his problem is not that he didn’t exist, but for being too attached to his existence. His body was exhumed, as far as I know, only to make sure it was there. It was. There was also evidence that he’d been buried alive and he’d tried to claw his way out of the coffin. The claw marks and splinters under his fingernails were his undoing. He was removed because no saint would be unaccepting of his fate. That’s it. The only thing counter to a saintly life was his desire to continue to live it. That’s a pretty big epitome to try to live up to.
Making and Unmaking Non-Catholic Saints
Which brings me to non-Catholic saints: people we venerate, or perhaps for them hero-worship is a better word, for their selfless and/or world changing behavior. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, César Chavez, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Stanton, and George Washington. All praised to incredible heights. All of these people, however, each have a skeleton or two in their closets. The skeletons are there and we need to talk about them—much, much more than we do. Not because we need to destroy their legacies, but because discussing their flaws in context of their achievements makes them better role models.
Let’s take MLK and Gandhi–well known civil rights heroes often paired up because of their nonviolent rebellions. These are two men about whom almost no wrong is ever attributed. They freed entire peoples. They enlightened nations. MLK is so venerated today that his words are taken up on all sides of the discussion about what is happening in Ferguson, MO. That can happen because in our collective memory he is saintly and perfect. He is more than a man. He is an ideal. And the farther the ideal is removed from the human the easier the legacy is to mold into whatever you want it to be.
MLK is only able to be saintly in our collective memory because his transgressions are whitewashed or forgotten. But his and Gandhi’s transgressions, their relationships with women for example, need to be put back in the narrative. Not to discredit or undermine their work, but to continue it. They need to be humanized. We have enough saints. What we need are humans.
Because when we see that it was–and is–everyday people doing extraordinary things, we realize that we too can make a difference. We too can change the world. But when we make everyday heroes into saints we lose future heroes. Making saints of people teaches that transformative movements only come from extraordinary, blemishless individuals. We learn that if we want to make a difference, we better not make a mistake.
In the official understanding of saints, they are paradigms of the Catholic ideal–perfectly lived lives. They pass beyond their humanness to holiness. The rest of us can and should aspire, but understand that almost no one will achieve such an ideal. This is not a way to understand our cultural saints–our cultural heroes. They make mistakes. And so will we. But that is okay, we will still a force for good in the world.
I think this is why Santa Muerte’s cult is gaining in popularity with the marginalized Catholics. As they understand her, she just asks them to be human. As I believe we should do with all our heroes.
Wendy Webber (Yale University) Wendy Webber is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she was a founding member of an atheist, agnostic, and multifaith community that continues to foster interbelief dialogues and initiatives. Currently she's traveling the world with Pathfinders Project, which aims to create a permanent Humanist Service Corps. Wendy writes about religion, atheism, and interbelief primarily for her blog and State of Formation. When she is able, she plays tennis, takes photos, and enjoys offbeat museums.