The Pope Doesn’t Meet With Non-Institutional (ie “Pagan”) Faiths

The Pope Doesn’t Meet With Non-Institutional (ie “Pagan”) Faiths March 5, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is making a historic trip to Cuba at the end of March, the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. This high-profile trip has many people buzzing as to its significance, and what it means as Cuba’s communist government looks towards a post-Castro era. What is clear, is that the Pope will not be meeting with any leaders or practitioners of Santeria / Lukumi during his three-day stint in Cuba, despite a hurtful snub from the last Pope’s visit.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

“The 84-year-old pope’s schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul’s five-day visit was, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter. A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict’s schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santería representatives. Lombardi said Santería does not have an “institutional leadership,” which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions. “It is not a church” in the traditional sense, Lombardi said.”

During Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Santeria practitioners were blatantly left out. The Catholic Church’s head met with representatives from Jewish, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches, institutions that oversee tiny minorities on the island, while an estimated 80% of Cubans participate in some form of Santeria or other syncretic African religious practice. Can you imagine a religious tour of a land that ignores 80% of the actual religious practice and still be seen as valid? At least one Cuban Santero, Lazaro Cuesta, is bitter over the treatment his faith received from Catholic leaders in the past.

“…we live in the basement, where nobody sees us …we have already seen one pope visit … and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us.”

One should not be surprised, for as much as Pope Benedict likes to talk about dialog with indigenous and traditional non-Christian faiths, he seems hesitant to actually engage in it. Even when perfect opportunities lay before him.

On Saturday, he traveled to Ouidah on Benin’s Atlantic coast, more or less the Vatican of voodoo. Historically, Benin has been the cradle of voodoo in West Africa, and it remains a huge presence. A famed python temple is right across the street from Ouidah’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a reminder of how Catholicism and voodoo live cheek by jowl.

One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism.

Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe. That produced some resentment in a country that’s proud of its unique religious heritage — Jan. 10, for instance, is marked as “voodoo day.”

If Benedict won’t deign to visit practitioners of Vodun in its very birthplace, even after much speculation that he might, what hope does Santeria have in Cuba? One can only imagine that this trend of avoidance goes beyond mere discomfort, or fear of unscripted moments of truth-telling, or even traditionalist furor, into outright animus against any and all non-monotheistic “pagan” faiths. Benedict, when he was Cardinal, lashed out at Catholic interfaith efforts when he thought they might be getting too chummy with African animists, he also called Buddhism narcissistic in nature, and predicted it would replace Marxism as the Church’s main enemy.

This behavior continued once Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizersAt the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism.” During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession.

Only the most blinkered Catholic partisan could look at these instances and not see a unifying theme. A message that true “interfaith” and “dialog” only exists in the Catholic Church between faiths it is forced to respect through social or political power. Or in very rare instances, when it is shamed into changing its behavior. Twelve years ago Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for the sins of the Catholic Church. He apologized to Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and to native peoples. But apologies have to be backed by action to mean something. So long as Benedict continues his trend of ignoring or insulting “non-institutional” indigenous, traditional, and Pagan religions, we all, to paraphrase Lazaro Cuesta, will continue to live in the Catholic basement.

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  • Will

    “During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession.”

    …I am Legion, for we are many…

  • Anonymous

    All the more reason to be wary of a Santorum / Opus Dei presidency.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The line about “institutional leadership” is a joke. Judaism doesn’t have any office parallel to the Papacy, but Popes have met with Jews.

    I’m not ruffled by this Pope’s refusal to meet with non-monotheists because it would only a means to his ends: to wipe out my religion.

    We don’t live in the Catholic basement; we live in Gaia’s bosom.

  • The Papal Mitre surely does look phallic.

  • Mark

    Perhaps they should consider moving out of the Catholic basement and pitch a tent within the Modern Pagan encampment.

  • Obsidia

    >We don’t live in the Catholic basement; we live in Gaia’s bosom.

    Thank you for that, Baruch…..Love it!

  • Obsidia

    I wonder if the Pope is against “non-institutional leadership” because it can include BOTH women AND men as leaders.

    Look at the lineup in the photo in this article…All those men in dresses! LOL!

  • Valk

    If I wanted to meet with him, I wouldn’t have given up Catholicism 18 years ago. Never trust a guy with his own cobbler & tailor.

  • Pitch313

    I hear overtones of the Pantheacon controversy here–If it’s not for “all,” then who, exactly, comprises the “some”?

  • Anna

    I’m not even surprised, really.

  • Obsidia

    Yes, Pitch, this is a time of questioning Authority everywhere!

  • kenneth

    Why would any pagan leader want to meet with him even if the offer were extended? The pope never meets with ANY religious leaders in good faith, even closely related protestant Christian sects, and he never meets any other religious leaders as equals.
    I have some deep misgivings about the “Interfaith Outreach” crowd within paganism for this reason. It seems like at some level they feel the need for an acknowledgement or “place at the table” with the Big Three in order to legitimize what we are doing. I don’t feel that need at all. I’m happy to dialogue with whoever is willing to do it in good faith, but as for the rest, I have no use for them. They have nothing that I need or want and I refuse to feed them power to grant or deny the authenticity of what I’m doing by their willingness or refusal to acknowledge me or my movement.

  • Guest

    I guess if someone works really hard they can find nice things to say about this Pope.

  • Anonymous

    Of course it is. Just like steeples.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Kenneth, let me put on my Unitarian Universalist hat for a moment.

    UUs like interfaith outreach for many of the reasons some Pagans do, plus one: Institutional cooperation. Eg, members of the local UU congregation in my town volunteer-staff the overnights wherein the local Catholic church (which has its own building) serves as a temporary shelter for homeless families.

    With a few (precious) exceptions, Pagans don’t have the robust institutionalization that UUs do, so this last bit is missing. But I have hope that Paganism will eventually change in this regard, and then the Interfaith Outreach wing will have paved the way so we can hit the ground running in this regard.

  • Ursyl

    “It is not a church, in the traditional sense.”

    Right, because religion started with churches and buildings and formalized hierarchies. Quite ironic to hear the new kid on the block labeling the older form of faith as not traditional.

  • kenneth

    I don’t think most pagans really want much of an institutional structure or bishops or buildings or any of it. I may be proven wrong one day, but I just don’t feel much interest for those sorts of things in most quarters of the pagan community -except for those sorts who hope to be full time clergy. Nor do I think the Catholic animosity towards us is really just because they can’t talk bureaucrat to bureaucrat with us.
    If some local Catholic church or anyone wants to work with us on some project as we are, I’m all for that. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to remake my religion to try to make it “real” in their eyes for the sake of interfaith work. If we’re beneath their notice for lack of hierarchy or because they think we’re Satanic or whatever, then screw em. Let them staff and fund their own efforts without our help.

  • Saetssage

    Seriously, what do you expect from a man that was the head of the inquisition office before he became pope? He has zero intention of ever listening to any other religion because we are all heretics!

    This link will give you the info on him being the head of the office of inquisition

    I wouldn’t walk across the street to meet him and really don’t feel the need for my beliefs to be acknowledged by him or his church!


  • By trying to do reach out and work with other religions, I don’t think that most Pagans are trying to make our religion “real” in the eyes of other religions. I know I, for one, am trying to dispel the misinformation that they have of the big “us”. If we can show a few people that we *aren’t* all evil Satan worshippers, like they’ve been led to believe, maybe one day we won’t all have to hide our religion in fear.

  • The best revenge is to render one’s enemy obsolete. In fifty years, the Pope will be looking to meet with indigenous faiths because they’re growing at a faster pace than Catholicism. The Vatican is not meeting the emotional/physical/spiritual/intellectual needs of their constituents. Those faiths, including ours are.

  • Deirdre Hebert

    Benedict is taking the Catholic church backward – retreating to the past. I almost wonder how long it will be before they start selling indulgences again.

  • Castus

    I have conflicting feelings on this. On one hand, I really like Pope Benedict’s stance against the liberalisation of the church and his campaign for keeping everything traditional; on the other hand I have a very hard time seeing how meeting with other faiths degenerates Traditional Catholicism.

  • Crystal Kendrick

    I can sort of see both sides of this argument. On one end of the spectrum, I agree with Kenneth that interfaith is most effective when the religions that we’re working with come with open minds. I think the work that Patrick McCollum is doing in India, for instance, is invaluable. Most Hindus don’t have a problem with us. The Dalai Lama is another religious leader who has no problem meeting with people from all religions, but naturally, he’s on the Pope’s poop list too. I also agree with Kenneth that there is a small faction of Pagans who do clamor for the approval of the big monotheistic religions and the unfortunate side effect has been a whitewashing of several varieties of Paganism, whether we like it or not. This has, in my opinion, created just as great of a misunderstanding of our values and ethics than the original misapprehensions of the monotheists when left to their own devices. However, on a more local level (and I know several local Catholic institutions that mostly ignore the Pope like some folks ignore their embarrassing old uncle at family gatherings) if interfaith *in good faith* can be accomplished it should be.

  • Crystal Kendrick

    He wears nice shoes?

  • Crystal Kendrick


  • Crystal Kendrick

    Yes, the traditional church was so pleasant, the epitome of its reign of course being the Inquisition and the Crusades. Hoorah!

  • Castus, just as all that glitters is not Gold, all that is old and crusty is not Tradition.

  • I can’t tell, his robe is too long.

  • Castus

    Then what is? Evola can go to hell if you bring him up.

  • Castus

    Hoorah for misinformation! By Traditional Catholicism, I meant the more conservative and insular kind of Catholicism more often seen before Vatican II; not Mediaeval Catholicism.

  • When people try to say nice things about Christianity it usually comes out as “oh, well, you know, they’re not nearly as bad as they used to be!” But even this inevitably turns out to be, at best, significantly overstating the positive.

  • Lori F – MN

    The Pope is an outdate figure. How many Christians actually follow his leadership? Catholics? Protestents? What what percentage of world populace is that? And what’s with the entire city for a religious leader? No wonder the priests have to take a vow of poverty.
    I have never understood why there is a pope.

  • Mary K. Greer

    As a young teen, I asked permission of our priest to attend a service with my best friend, whose father was a Baptist minister. (This was at a military chapel where all services were held in the same building—different times.) I was given a resounding “No”, with the admonition to never ask again. I was told that any ‘visiting’ would be considered an acknowledgement that another religion might have some legitimacy – which, of course, they didn’t!

    This is one resounding nail in the coffin of my Catholicism.

  • Merofled Ing

    Walk across the street to avoid him, rather. Run.

  • Anonymous

    Traditionally, the Church claimed to have exclusive claim to spiritual truth. Any other spiritual claim was, then, in error and anyone who fell into spiritual error was going to be condemned to eternal torment. Thus, treating the representatives of other spiritual traditions as if they are somehow legitimate would simply be to encourage those who, through their words and deeds lead the unwitting into hell. By the traditional logic of Catholicism, then, dealing with such people is, in essence, dealing with servants of Satan. Why would a traditionally minded pope want to do something like that?

  • Mark

    I think you hit the nail on the head.

  • His robe is too damned see-through. *shudder*

  • firefright12

    This all ties back to the Churches biggest nightmare. Becoming irrelevant. It also brings up there other nightmare, being reminded that there was something before monotheism. They can’t stand the idea of there being any religion that not only has no concept of sin and judgment, but are a living reminders of what there “holy book” says they must fight against and what they couldn’t squash a thousand years ago. I think because the church can no longer try and crush pagan religions, they are trying to ignore them and hop they go away. On a final not, the Christians have destroyed countless holy places of pagans over the centuries. I wonder what would happen if an army of pagans came to the vatican with sledgehammers and began beating away at it?

  • Nick Ritter

    I think the Church *can* try and crush pagan religions, it just can’t go in with fire and sword. Economics and media are today’s weapons.

    “I wonder what would happen if an army of pagans came to the vatican with sledgehammers and began beating away at it?”

    I wonder, rather, what would happen if pagans revived those “countless holy places”.

  • Nick Ritter: “I think the Church *can* try and crush pagan religions, it just can’t go in with fire and sword. Economics and media are today’s weapons.”

    And they still employed the sword openly until quite recently (in historical terms). The US invasion of the Philippines was in part justified in explicitly religious terms, and when president McKinley announced the annexation of the Philippines he declared that it was America’s responsibility “to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.” That was in 1889.

    Even more recently, during the savage British war against the Mau Mau uprising, Lord Milverton gave a speech before Parliament in which he described the aims of the African rebels as follows: “to drive out all foreigners; the destruction of Christianity; the seizure of all land for African use; the restoration of ancient customs and independent self-government … It is, of course, easy to see why the destruction of Christianity occupied such a high place in their aims, because any study of this emergency cannot help attracting one’s attention to the fact that the core of the resistance amongst the Africans to Mau Mau has been among the African Christians That was in 1955!

  • Rhoanna

    Minor nitpick, but those examples involve Protestant or Anglican Christianity, not Catholicism. Not that that means the Catholic Church has been any better, just that those examples aren’t it.

  • Well, for the Catholics there is always Francoist Spain, where Catholic doctrine had the force of law (and “law” under a Fascist State, no less) until 1975!

    There is also the close alliance between the Catholic Church and those other two notable fascist states: Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.