From our “devout” abuse files

maryHere we go again, with another post in our ongoing series about why mainstream journalists need to retire the word “devout” or, at the very least, be extremely careful when using this vague and almost meaningless adjective.

This time around, we are dealing with a story about the often blurred line — in some cultures, like Haiti — between voodo and culturalized Catholicism. I did quite a bit of background research years ago preparing to do a magazine story set in Haiti and I am aware that some people try to mix these faiths. If you find a priest or bishop who says that’s valid, please let me know.

Anyway, here is the lede from the Philadelphia Daily News. It’s a wild one:

Lucille Hamilton paid $621 to have her “spiritual grime” removed by a voodoo high priest in an ordinary townhouse on a winding street in Camden County, a friend said.

Hamilton, 21, a male living as a woman, flew in … from her home in Little Rock, Ark., to the house on Loch Lomond Drive in Gloucester Township, friends said, to take part in a three-day spiritual cleansing referred to on the priest’s Web site as “Lave Tet.”

Hours later, Hamilton was dead and authorities were waiting for the results of the toxicology reports. Friends were mystified.

“I’m still trying to find a scenario that makes sense,” said Billie Miller, Hamilton’s boss at Arkansas Flag and Banner, in Little Rock. “I can’t come up with anything that makes sense.”

Miller said Hamilton was a devout Catholic, with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe tattooed on her foot, but was also interested in voodoo. She said Hamilton — who used the name Lucie Marie on Facebook — had been saving money to travel to New Jersey, but was not planning to undergo a sex change.

“She was very spiritual and beautiful, too,” said Miller. “She was not there for some dark purpose. She wasn’t depressed; in fact, you couldn’t meet a more upbeat person.”

Now, the story provides plenty of additional details about the voodo angle, details that I have to admit I lack the expertise to judge in terms of their accuracy. We are told, however that this rite was three days long and that the name “Lave Tet (from the French laver tete) literally means head-washing.” It’s a rite that “begins with cleansing, after which participants lie in a ‘badji,’ or altar room, before being ‘baptized.’ ”

To me, it sounds like a rite that involves being re-baptized would certainly raise flags for Hamilton’s priest and for his or her Catholic friends. And there is the rub. The term “devout Catholic” is attached to this person — I would say “troubled” person, but others would disagree — with absolutely zero journalistic material in support of this judgment other than the presence of a tattoo that, sadly, could be a cultural symbol or a sign of devotion at another stage of life. Oh, and a quote from an employer.

It would be nice to hear from a priest? Other members of the parish? Family members?

Ah, you say, clearly the journalist did not have time to land interviews from these kinds of authoritative voices on the Catholic side of this person’s life. This only underlines the point that I am attempting to make. I really think it is wrong to use a loaded term of this kind with no journalistic support for using it. What is the purpose?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • David

    It seems that to many in the press, if you go to church more than a couple of times a year, pray over situations, and talk about your faith — you are more than devout. You’re a fundamentalist!


  • Julia

    The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about “devotion”:

    Devotion, in the language of ascetical writers, denotes a certain ardour of affection in the things of God, and even without any qualifying prefix it generally implies that this ardour is of a sensible character. On the other hand, by the term “devotions” in the plural, or “popular devotions”, we commonly understand those external practices of piety by which the devotion of the faithful finds life and expression.

    “Devout” doesn’t mean a faithful Catholic. It means someone who is seen to be devoted to the Faith – it’s an emotional attachment that shows by the person’s demeaner and actions. That devotion might involve strange and mistaken expressions.

    The Encylopedia again:

    It must not, however, be supposed that devotional extravagances are suffered to multiply unchecked. Although the Holy See as a rule refrains from intervention, except when abuses are directly denounced to it (the practice being in such matters to leave the repression of what is unseemly or fantastic to the local ordinary), still, every now and again, where some theological principle is involved, action is taken by one of the Roman Congregations, and some objectionable practice is prohibited.

    I don’t think “the Vatican” would take the trouble to denounce tatoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe on people’s feet, but it certainly wouldn’t encourage them.

  • Judy Harrow

    I think what most people would mean by the word “devout” is that the person consistently participates in religious practices. Examples might be regular church attendance, Confession, observing seasonal fasts, etc. (I’m not Catholic, so I only have an outsider’s impression of Catholic practice).

    It is entirely possible, and pretty common in Haiti, for people to do all of that and also participate in the practices of Vodun.

    Same for all the Afro-Diasporic religions, all of which draw correspondences between their indigenous deities and the Catholic saints, based on the areas of life over which these entities seem to preside. In fact, the word “Santeria” is derived fromt he word “saint,” since the saints were at first used as masks to allow kidnapped and enslaved people to maintain native faith, then later became conflated with the Loa (Vodun term for deities) or Orisha (Santeria term).

    Whether or not people inform the local Catholic priest of this dual participation depends entirely on how open-minded and tolerant that priest may be — this varies greatly. Active persecution took place not very long ago — still does in some places. People do what they need to do in order to preserve as much as they can of their indigenous faith traditions. The detailed survival of native African faith under harsh conditions of slavery and religious persecution is one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Some people might use “devout” to refer to one’s practices, but it seems more commonly used to refer to the intensity of belief – simply that a person takes their religion or spirituality “seriously,” whatever that means. In the workplace, in my experience, a person who talks about God a lot, or has strong, religiously-formed opinions about current issues, will be called “devout,” even though their co-workers know nothing about his personal life or religious practices. Especially in a small office or business, people can get pigeonholed – “the Catholic,” “the evangelical,” “the Mormon” – and become the designated representative for that religion, whether or not their beliefs and practices are in line with the standards for that religion.

  • Matt

    Can “devout” be used fairly to describe someone who demonstrates an intense belief and practice, even if those beliefs and practices are heterodox? In this use, it would mean something close to “zealous.”

    I do understand the objection to a slanted use of the term that seems to imply that someone who is deeply involved in heterodox practice can still be a “devout Catholic” in the sense of “good Catholic.” I think this implication should be avoided, and in terms of journalism, I agree that it is a term best avoided.

  • astorian

    I agree that journalists often use the phrases “devout Catholic” and “devout Christian” in a lazy manner. But in this case, we can’t blame the phrase on an uninformed or lazy reporter, because the reporter was merely quoting Miller’s boss.

    Miller’s boss referred to him/her as a devout Catholic. Was he right? I don’t know. He may have made that judgment superficially, basing it solely on a tatoo of a Catholic icon. Or the boss may have known first-hand that Miller attended Mass every Sunday.

    In any case, ordinary people use the phrase “devout Catholic” as casually and thoughtlessly as journalists do.

    I believe that Arican spirit religions are incompatible with true Christianity, which means that, in my book, practitioners of Voodo and Santeria aren’t real Catholics. But the fact remains, many people who practice Voodoo and Santeria regard themselves as devout Catholics.

    It gets tricky, to say the least.

  • Darel

    As others have said, “devout” is a mostly or even wholly behavioral term. It strikes me that the problem here is less with use of the word “devout” than with its use as a modifier for the word “Catholic”. Hamilton was certainly “devout” — and clearly not a “devout Catholic”.

    Reporters appear increasingly loath to question their subjects. Recall Stephen Colbert’s 2006 description of the role of the MSM:

    “Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home.”

    Thus assertions about self — or in this case, a stand-in for such an assertion — stand unchallenged.

    Make, announce, type.

  • tmatt

    The story says this:

    Miller said Hamilton was a devout Catholic …

    However, if you look at the copy, this material is not inside quotation marks. It is not a direct quote from the boss.

    In other words, we do not know if the newspaper is claiming that the boss spoke the words “devout Catholic” or not.

  • Julia

    The comments here kind of reinforce the idea that “devout” is how somebody looks to a by-stander.

    Sounds about right to me. It has nothing necessarily to do with the actual standing of the person according to their faith community’s official criteria.

  • Julia

    And then there’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from Grease.

    It’s how a devout person looks to others who don’t get it – maybe.

    After all, the term has a negative connotation in the secular world, not just in the MSM.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The problem is that too many in the MSM have no idea what constitutes true devotion to a particular religion. Thus, a nominal believer in a religion which has a strong set of orthodox doctrines can be described as a “devout” believer in that religion even if his personal faith is clearly wildly heterodox.

  • Jerry

    I happened to have run into this use of the word devout earlier tonight:

    The highest art is always the most religious, and the greatest artist is always a devout person.

    Abraham Lincoln

  • Julia


    Very interesting. I think there’s a connotation of emotional attachment and intensity that goes beyond belief and following the rules. Tim Russert is a good example – he was apparently an enthusiastic and emotional Catholic.

    Some overt kinds of devotions – such as lighting candles and crawling to the church on your knees and old ladies wearing mantillas and mumbling rosaries and wearing medals blessed by the Pope and getting emotional at 3 PM on Good Friday – is off-putting to most Americans. That probably explains why the press (and many people at this blog) often use “devout” for somebody who appears to be following the rules. But the person with the Guadalupe tattoo is actually a pretty good example of devotion in his culture.

    Being a “devout” person consists in devoted behavior as a habit over time. There are perfectly good Catholics who are not devout and others who are. And it can vary over time. Saints write about going through “dry” times when they just don’t feel it. And it can be wrong-headed. Most of the SSPXers are devout.

    How the press uses the term is another matter.