What the hell is going on in Mexico? The BBC reports that Catholic exorcists have their hands full thanks in large part to the rise in devotion to Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death.” Excerpt:

Over the years, more and more people started arriving to pay tribute to the skull figure in a dress. And now thousands gather for the cult’s most important ceremony on 31 October, the eve of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival.

“She loves us and heals us. People come here to ask her for help – a son in prison or with Aids, or something to eat,” says Romero.

During my visit, some people reach the shrine walking on their knees. One of them is a man who carries a 20-day-old baby in his arms. He’s come to present his daughter to the skull.

I also see ordinary working-class families, pregnant women asking Death to protect the life of their unborn child, and plenty of people heavily tattooed with the female skull.

Are these people possessed, as the church says?

“No, I also believe in God, in the Virgin, and all the saints, but I am more devout to [Saint] Death. She is the one that helps me the most,” says Jose Roberto Jaimes, a man in his 20s who’s come on his knees to thank the skull after surviving three years in jail.

I get similar answers from all of the cult followers I talk to.

Romero says the church itself bears responsibility for the rise of the cult, having shot itself in the foot with the worldwide child abuse scandal.

“They finished off our faith with the things that the priests did. What can they criticise? That we believe in Death? That is not bad. What’s bad is what they did,” says Romero.

But does she feel comfortable knowing that people behind horrific crimes also follow this cult?

“We are in a free country and everyone can do what they want. We all will have to answer to God at some point,” she says.

Three years ago, Small Wars Journal ran a piece based on social science research in Mexico, claiming that the narcoterrorization of Mexican society had a strong spiritual component. Excerpt:

These activities only serve to further elaborate concerns amongst scholars, including Sullivan, Elkus, Brands, Manwaring, and the authors, over societal warfare breaking out across the Americas. This warfare— manifesting itself in ‘criminal insurgencies’ derived from groups of gang, cartel, and mercenary networks— promotes new forms of state organization drawn from criminally based social and political norms and behaviors. These include a value system derived from illicit narcotics use, killing for sport and pleasure, human trafficking and slavery, dysfunctional perspectives on women and family life, and a habitual orientation to violence and total disregard for modern civil society and democratic freedoms. This harkens back to Peter’s thoughts concerning the emergence of a ‘new warrior class’ and, before that, van Creveld’s ‘non-trinitarian warfare’ projections.

A recent insight, gained by the authors after the conclusion of a major research project on Mexican drug groups, is that this insurgency has at its basis a spiritual, if not religious, component that threatens the underlying foundations of our modern Western value system. This component is derived from the well known cartel technique of offering an individual ¿Plata O Plomo?—take our silver or we will fill you with our lead. As a tactic taken by groups with a theological bent, such as La Familia, this offer becomes Faustian, join us and in the process give up your soul or die, a choice historically associated with incidents of religious conversion at the tip of a sword. That technique is typically carried out by young religions, such as militant Christianity and Islam, during their expansionistic phases. These post-battlefield mass conversions are considered by the victors as actually saving the souls of those joining the righteous ranks of God’s chosen.

Back in 2010, a Dominican brother wrote this to me:

I spent my pastoral year working at our mission in Mexico, and I also work with Hispanics here in the states.

As a cult, La Santa Muerte is growing in Mexico and other parts of Latin America and the United States, and it is setting itself up with Temples, “priests”, and so forth, and it is making an attempt to challenge Catholicism, which is not silent about it in Mexico or here. I know, for example, that Card. George and other bishops in this country have spoken out forcefully against it as have bishops in Mexico. I myself as a deacon and in my adult catechism classes have preached against it. Sometimes, members of La Santa Muerte have attacked Catholic churches, and some people have destroyed their temples. The problem is complicated.

We tend to think of Mexico as a Catholic country, and it is — or was — in a way. But, as you know, things are not always as they seem. In the first place, it is not always and everywhere a well-catechized country, much to our shame. The faith is often not more than superficial. Also, there is the Mexican Revolution, the Cristero War, and 70 years of anti-Catholic legislation and rule by the PRI. In the center of the country — Guanajuato, Colima, Jalisco, Edomex, Puebla, for example — the faith is much deeper, but in the north and the south it is not so strong and never really has been, although it varies from place to place. I found in the north, along the border, a great deal of indifference to the faith. There is also a lot of superstition and syncretism.

Some of this is the fault of the Church. Often priests are elevated to a new social status by ordination, especially when they come from poor families, and they act like it. They rarely appear in public as priests (partially a left-over of seventy years of laws against wearing religious garb in public), they wear fine clothes, and they drive fine cars. This is, of course, a generalization, but the exceptions prove the rule. Further, it seems to me that the Church hierarchy has never really gotten over its loss of political power with the coming of the Mexican Revolution and the fall of Porfiriato, and they should worry more about their moral voice rather than a political one. But the other problem, as you rightly pointed out in another article, is a crisis of holiness and, to be honest, a willingness to shed ones blood as a witness to the faith.

Back in ’09, religion scholar Joseph Laycock wrote in Religion Dispatches:

Shrines can be found in Mexico City and Tijuana, as well as almost every town on the Mexican border. Devotees leave offerings of flowers, fruit, tequila, rum, and tobacco. Immigrants crossing the border illegally have been found with icons of the saint. While no one is certain where the movement originated, some have speculated that Vatican II deprived Mexican Catholics of devotional practices, causing new traditions to be invented. Others believe Santa Muerte is the product of hybridity: a Catholicized incarnation of Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec queen of the underworld. A book entitled El libro de la Santa Muerte contains novenas to the saint as well as hechizos (spells) invoking her aid. Police in Oaxaca purchase packets containing “dust” of Santa Muerta to hang in their cars.

The cult of Santa Muerte is a massive challenge to American ideas of religious freedom. We tend to think of all religions as being basically good, or at least socially positive. But this? Is it really possible to be neutral when confronted with a new religion with these values? The idea of people presenting their babies to a death goddess with a skull face is horrifying. Seems to me that American ideas about religious liberty developed within a context in which religions like Santa Muerte did not figure into our deliberations. That may change.