Santeria, Catholicism and Cuba

What is a Catholic Cuban? Or, better yet, who can be a Catholic in Cuba? An Associated Press story that looks at the forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba through the prism of his refusal to meet with Santeria leaders makes some claims on these points. But are they valid?

I’m not so sure. The article entitled “Cuban Santeros wary of Pope visit after JPII snub” in the version printed in the Seattle Times is confusing. It has an odd array of assumptions about how religion works. The story also has an anti-Catholic, perhaps I should say anti-clerical pro-regime tone — its choice of verbs and the sentence/argument structure makes clear the dislike the authors feel for the Vatican.

But it is the binary view of faith practices and of cultures in the first half of the story that does not strike me as being true to the Cuban experience. The second half of the story offers the voices of experts who see speak to the transcultural nature of religion in Cuba, but this is then followed by boilerplate language that could have come from Granma (the party newspaper.) There is a feel of a committee’s hand in the writing of this story — several minds (who do not agree) at work.

The story opens …

They cast snail shells to read their fortunes, proudly wear colorful necklaces to ward off illness, dress all in white and dance in “bata” drum ceremonies.

But although their Afro-Cuban Santeria religion owes much to Roman Catholicism, many are decidedly unenthusiastic about Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26-28 tour of Cuba, even if it is being hailed as a watershed moment for a church seeking to boost its influence on this Communist-run island.

Santero priests still remember the last time a pontiff came to town – and flatly refused to meet with them. They are expecting no better treatment this time, and some are openly disappointed.

Their religion is by far the most popular on the island, with adherents outnumbering practicing mainstream Catholics 8-1.

The article offers some historical background noting that while John Paul II met with the leaders of other faiths during his 1998 visit to Cuba, he “never deigned to meet with the Santeria practitioners.”

The article goes on to report that:

Experts say as many as 80 percent of islanders observe some kind of Afro-Cuban religion, be it Santeria, which is more properly known as Regla de Ocha-Ifaor, or one of its lesser-known siblings. Practicing Catholics number fewer than 10 percent, and as elsewhere in Latin America, that share is under assault from conversions to Protestant and evangelical denominations.

The AP reports that the Catholic Church does not believe Santeria has an “institutional leadership” with which the Vatican could engage and quotes a statement made by the Vatican press office that Santeria “is not a church” in the traditional sense. The article adds that …

A decision not to meet with Santeros is in keeping with Benedict’s history of vehement opposition to any whiff of syncretism – the combining of different beliefs and practices – on the ground that it could somehow imply that all faiths are equal.

The article shifts its ground at this point. It notes there is no leadership structure in Santeria that could meet with the pope, and that  Santeros are not excluded from the Catholic Church.

Scholars say Santeria, which was imported to Cuba through slaves brought from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, remains on the political margins due to its scattered, nonhierarchical nature, centuries of taboo and the latent racism that keeps Afro-Cuban faiths from being fully accepted in the fraternity of religions.

“Santeria is as much a religion as any other,” said University of Havana ethnologist Maria Ileana Faguaga Iglesias. But “its structure is not vertical; it does not have a maximum leader, it has no buildings and it has never been part of any political power.”

… “At the time of the 1998 visit, the official line of the cardinal, and I think the church generally, was that people who practice Santeria are Catholics,” said Quigley, a former Latin America policy adviser at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “They are just another – maybe deviant, but not absolutely heretical or schismatic – form.”

The article then closes on a grating note. John Paul II’s decision not to meet with Santeria leaders was:

just another sign that on an island with a white majority, some still see it as a slave-barracks faith, an idea that goes against Cuban ideals of respect for diversity.

John Paul’s decision to ignore the Santeros, Cuesta said, was a decision “to deny our national patrimony … brought to us by men in chains who arrived as slaves in this country.”

Let’s move from the minor to major points.

Language. The use of derogatory verbs and adjectives indicates a disdain for the Catholic position.  The pope did not “deign” to meet with Santeros, or incredulity that Benedict would not believe that “all faiths are equal”, are just a few examples of this tone — as is the nasty close.

Racism. The charge of pervasive racism in Cuban society is tossed out twice, but the story closes with the statement about “Cuban ideals of respect for diversity.” Which is it? What is being implied? Is Cuba a racist society that promotes ideals of respect for diversity? How does that work?

The article would have been better served by offering discussion or the role of race rather than working from an assumption. Are the majority of practicing Catholics of European descent? Are Santeros of African descent? How many black or mestizo Catholic priests are there in Cuba? While racism may be understood by a Cuban reader, will an AP reader understand its importance?

Numbers. What is the source for the statement that 80 per cent of Cubans follow some form of Santeria? The numbers are defensible, but are not defended. The U.S. State Department in its 2011 religious freedom report on Cuba notes:

There was no independent authoritative source on the size or composition of religious institutions and their membership. The Roman Catholic Church estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the population is Catholic.

Some sources estimate that as much as 80 percent of the population consults with practitioners of religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River basin, known as Santería. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some even require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately total membership of these syncretistic groups.

… Catholic Church officials estimated that its membership was seven to eight million persons but that only 4 to 5 percent of baptized Catholics regularly attended Mass, while membership in Protestant churches was estimated at 600,000 to 800,000 (out of a population of 11.5 million).

The article should have spelled this out by reference to sources. The experts say, without saying which experts, doesn’t work when you are making a controversial point.

And the controversial point is the relationship between Catholicism and Santeria. By saying that 80 per cent of the population follow Santeria, but “practicing Catholics number fewer than 10 percent” of the population, the story is making an either/or statement about Cuban religion. This perspective comes from a Western ethnocentrism and European anthropology for Cuba.

There is a sense in this article that religions of African origin such as Santeria are amoral (not immoral), meaning they are deprived of regulatory values. While the article does not use the word “cult” to describe Santeria, but calls it a “religion”, the story frames Santeria as a fetish, not a faith.

Now I am making assumptions here which may be as dubious as those I see in the story. But I see this view as arising from the application of Western values to a culture that has an entirely different worldview. Santeria, and its related Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Caribbean faiths, has a system of values based on the balance of all forces of good and evil. Its cosmology focuses on life on earth and has little concern for eschatology.

I would argue that it is this balance of concerns — life on earth, the life to come — that allows 80 per cent of the Cuban population to practice some form of Santeria and for the Catholic Church to claim 60 to 70 per cent of the Cuban population as members. From a Western perspective lax religiosity implies religious indifference. Should this judgment be applied to Cuba?

Are mass-going Catholics the only true Catholics? Was the article justified in using religion observance statistics to advance an argument about faith? How can journalists report on a fluid religious scene for readers coming from a fixed religious landscape?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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  • Martha

    “They cast snail shells to read their fortunes, proudly wear colorful necklaces to ward off illness, dress all in white and dance in “bata” drum ceremonies.

    But although their Afro-Cuban Santeria religion owes much to Roman Catholicism”

    That opening made my jaw drop, because usually when you start off with “Examples of practices, qualifier, what is qualified, opposite”, the practices have something to do with the thing being compared.

    As you might start off with “They wear green, celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and have a harp on their flag, but this is not County Cork, it’s Montserrat, a small island in the Caribbean”.

    Now, unless the “Seattle Times” believes that the Pope practices divination and dances in drum ceremonies, one of these things is not like the other. Then again, perhaps the “dressing in white” part confused them? So easily done!

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    It is odd, and there has to be something we are not being told, considering that in 1993 John Paul did not hesitate to meet with houngans in Benin. (Google reveals extensive denunciation by “traditionalists”.)

  • http://www.ecben.net Will
  • Dave

    Will, JPII’s stated reasons for not meeting with Santeros is that they are a Catholic variant and “you don’t do interfaith work with yourself.” (That’s as near word-to-word as I can recall.)

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    “fraternity of religions”? That’s funny. Clearly, the authors have not read their Aristotle.

  • Jerry

    I’m mentally putting this topic alongside the question of Buddhism and Catholicism which has also been a recent issue. Because clearly Catholicism + things that don’t conflict with Catholic doctrine is different than the case where there are things that conflict with doctrine. And given that some Buddhists believe in God, it sounds like both situations are somewhere in the messy grey area which makes clarity and precision in reporting all them more critical.

  • Maureen

    From everything I’ve read, it’s not necessarily easy to get to Mass in Cuba, depending on where you live. Also, there are many people who are actively prevented from attending by the government. So, although normally Mass attendance is a good measure of whether one is a practicing Catholic, it’s not a fair measure in Cuba.

    Re: meeting with santeros, the Pope isn’t going to give a veneer of legitimacy to occult practices or practitioners, or to any syncretism with paganism. He’s also not going to give any paranoia fodder to anti-Catholics or schismatic groups, because they already love to claim that Catholicism is pagan and teaches idolatry. JPII’s houngan thing got plenty stupid as it was.

  • http://jvictoriasanders.com Joshundaa

    It seems like the coverage of the pope snub follows suit with most mainstream coverage of Santeria/Voodoo/Yoruba practices. I agree that this article seems to combine some of the worst elements of Western journalism as imposed on a black/Latino non-Western worship. It also has an undertone of, “Of course the Pope snubbed them, where are their leaders?!” Which is really annoying.

  • ronk

    Personally, I think it is high time that Aborisa stop with this syncretism with the catholics. We have been around for 10,000 years to their 2,000 and we need to be more orthodox. Regarding racism, one need only look at the PBS series ‘Black in Latin America’ to realize that racism is alive and thriving in Latin America; it was fascinating to see people of color outrightly rejecting the notion that they themselves were of mixed race. They even have made-up names to explain this phenomenon.


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