In Voodoo’s survival, a tale of black resilience
March 1, 2015 11:52 AM   Subscribe

African religions fused with Christianity to create Voodoo, but today many open practitioners of the faith are white.
posted by josher71 (6 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The church maintains that the ancestor worship common in African tradition is a form of necromancy and strictly against Catholic doctrine.

I feel like someone should tell the Vatican that their churches are filled with the relics of saints.

My phone autocorrected "churches" to "crutches". Heh.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 12:43 PM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

A similar edict against ancestor worship in China destroyed the progress the Jesuit missionaries had made in the imperial court in the 16-18th centuries and basically quashed Catholicism's hopes there.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:12 PM on March 1, 2015

Once upon a time I had a friend of the pagan persuasion who gave a talk on Haitian voodoo. It was very interesting. Turns out that since the hurricane decimated Haiti, they're rather short on practicing folks left alive, so there has been some kind of movement going on to get other people who normally wouldn't be into that sort of thing culturally involved/passing on the knowledge. The chick I knew was raised Catholic and is definitely white and was rather taken aback to get ah, dubbed to study this activity, but it turned out that Catholicism and Haitian voodoo have a lot in common, so suddenly that made sense. So it's entirely possible that reasons like that are why it's becoming so popular with the white folks.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:49 PM on March 1, 2015

The Church isn't upset that the Vodun are elevating their ancestors to demigod-like status. They're upset that it's an appealing heresy which undermines the authority of the Pope and the Vatican-based power structure, which is based strictly on the idea that you personally do not have any kind of direct relationship to God; rather, you go through your priest, who goes through his bishop, who goes to the Pope, and that's how you relate to God.

There was a similar dynamic at work in the early days of Protestantism, but while those sects did draw God more into the personal lives of worshippers they still created a power structure familiar enough for the Vatican to recognize and identify as being worthy of respect.

But the heirarchy of Voodoo is very informal and amorphous, as befits something practised in secrecy by slaves. The Catholic Church absofuckinglutely hates this. They see pagan syncretic systems like Voodoo and Santeria as a direct threat, poaching their believers with a system that defies the very idea of divine authority. In these pagan systems you deal with the divine directly by burning a candle, putting out a plate with silver dimes, or whatever. If it doesn't work it's cool, because maybe that saint isn't for you; there are others to call on. The priests are there as guides but you can get on without them if you feel you have to and they don't particularly mind if you do.

And how are you gonna keep several billion followers in line with a system like that?
posted by localroger at 4:11 PM on March 1, 2015 [9 favorites]

Not that I want to derail this into an argument about Catholicism, but I would like to note that what localroger describes has not been my experience at all with becoming a Catholic as an adult.

I'm encouraged, if not required, to pray directly to God and to develop my own relationship with God. I've been encouraged to seriously consider the traditions of the church and not dismiss them out of hand but the biggest thing treated as non-negotiable is the divinity of Jesus. Many other things are subject to debate. The absolute historicity of the Bible has never been a given and the authority of the church has always been presented as tempered by the knowledge that it is a human institution (and thus subject to human fallibility).

I don't doubt that there are more hard-line parts of the Catholic church than I've encountered and there are many Catholics with whom I would have much to disagree about. But I've also encountered many loving and compassionate folks who believe in the possibility of good and evil in the world and their interpretation of this is that good stems from God and evil stems from turning away from God.

To turn back to the topic at hand, I suspect that localrodger is correct that the problem the church has with ancestor worship is with regards to control. But it is the control of the message, not the control of the individual that is at stake. Specifically, there is a procedure in place for the recognition of sainthood and ancestor worship circumvents this. There is the additional problem of the worship aspect of the practice. According to Catholic teaching, saints are to be asked for assistance in petitioning God. They are not supposed to be worshipped in and of themselves. Whether or not the line is blurred (especially with regard to Mary) is open to question, but the theological distinction is made in terms of where the answer to a prayer to a saint comes from. It comes from God, not the saint.

Anyway, sorry if this is too much of a derail.
posted by ChutneyFerret at 5:40 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not a derail, ChutneyFerret, as discussing Voodoo without Catholicism is like talking about the Apollo program without mentioning the Cold War.

The Catholic church has a deep and complex history, and most people (including all of those who created syncretic sects like Voodoo and Santeria, and most Protestants) have only ever had access to its surface. And this is by design. I have never been Catholic but I spent seven years getting educated in a Catholic school. (This is a very common thing in New Orleans, where the Catholic school system has a vast and well-earned reputation for giving the best available secular education.)

For most of the Church's history prayer was a fixed ritual. You did not compose your own prayers, you recited the ones you were taught, such as the Our Father and Hail Mary. This all shook out at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, when all the sects (such as, and really especially, the Gnostics) which suggested direct personal interaction with God was possible were declared heretic and suppressed by the power of the Roman state.

That this is not the Church's current stance you have mainly Martin Luther and his heirs to thank. Before the Enlightenment, the Church dealt with heresies it considered dangerous by murdering everybody. This happened at least once a century, sometimes with a bloodbath of hundreds of thousands or more victims (see: St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre, a point of particular outrage to a fellow who wrote under the pseudnym Mark Twain). The bloodbaths only stopped when the Protestants turned out to be too numerous and powerful to quash in that manner. So the Church adjusted. At the time it was the most powerful political entity in the world. It's been all downhill from there though, even though quite a few people in Italy seriously think it can claw its way back to that status.

Right now the Vatican is banking very highly on the undeveloped world, because there is a strong sense that the developed world is lost. Europe has been turning baslicas into shopping malls for decades and American catholics firmly believe they live in a cafeteria where they can have their birth control and their faith too. Rome sees the Third World as a place where it can sow faith relatively unquestioned by modern notions of freedom and independence.

But syncretic systems like Voodoo are a very direct threat to this strategy because thye were created by and target the very same target group. Because they were created by and for these people they tend to work better and be more attractive in any kind of direct competition.

The funny thing about Voodoo being adopted by middle-class white people is that, as religions go, it's that freaking good. All religion is about creating an experience in your head. Some, like Buddhism, are targeted at making that experience beneficial to you. Some, like *cough* are targeted at controlling you. And Catholicism and Voodoo are on opposite sides of that line.
posted by localroger at 8:17 PM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

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