Mixing Catholicism With Voodoo—How Do You View It?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
SEVERAL years ago, in Brazil, a well-known television personality had her adopted son baptized. In the morning he was baptized according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, in the afternoon according to the ritual of candomblé (Brazilian voodoo). Later, he would be baptized according to the Messianic and the Rosicrucian rituals. The proud mother explained: “This is so that he will have the protection of all the religions when he grows up.”
Does her broad-minded view of religion surprise you? Could it happen where you live? In Brazil it is not uncommon. Even the clergy are affected.
Some time ago a Roman Catholic priest moved to Bahia, Brazil, to study Afro-Brazilian religions. He ended up joining one! His story appeared in the International Herald Tribune, which said that he had served for four years as a voodoo church leader. As such he regularly called up spirits to intercede for his parishioners. “But that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his Roman Catholicism,” declared the Tribune. The priest explains: “I always talk with God through Jesus and never through the spirits.”
There is a technical word to describe this mixing together of beliefs from different religions. It is “syncretism.” Perhaps to you it is startling, but millions of Brazilians find no difficulty in mixing Roman Catholic observances with the worship of ancient, pagan gods. How did it all get started?
“In Brazil, syncretism is an old phenomenon, for from the beginning of colonization we find it in the quilombo dos Palmares (hiding place of fugitive slaves) . . . we find it in Cuba, in Haiti, in the same form as in Brazil.” Thus wrote historian Roger Bastide in his book Contribuição ao Estudo do Sincretismo Católico-Fetichista.
The Mixing Process
He goes on to explain that it followed the importing of slaves from Africa: “Arriving in Brazil, the blacks [slaves] were catechized [taught basic Catholic doctrines] in a vague way, [and] were, at least, baptized. However, they understood nothing of that religion which was forcibly taught to them.” What did the black slaves do? They went through the motions of this new religion, but in their minds and hearts continued to worship the gods they remembered from back home in Africa.
The result? Gradually, “Catholicism changed into . . . a way of disguising his traditional beliefs: in reality, the [Catholic] saint was not worshiped, but rather the corresponding orixá [African deity] behind it. Catholicism became merely a front to hide a secret ritual. . . . In the syncretism, Christianity furnishes only the Portuguese words; all else is fetishism,” according to Bastide.
A similar thing happened with the native Indians. Another historian wrote: “The natives of this country, although taught the Gospels for a long time, are no more Christians now than they were at the time of the conquest. . . . In present-day Bolivia and the south of Peru, the old pagan divinity Pacha-Mama (Mother Earth) still remains alive, although absorbed into the Virgin. . . . In Mexico, veneration of the virgin of Guadalupe has its roots in the cult of the goddess Tonantzin (Mother of the gods).”—Mecanismos da Conquista Colonial, by Ruggiero Romano.
William H. Prescott, historian of the conquest of Mexico, added regarding the Indians in that country: “It is only required of him to transfer his homage from the image of Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent deity who walked among men, to that of the Virgin or the Redeemer; from the Cross, which he has worshipped as the emblem of the god of rain, to the same Cross, the symbol of salvation.”—History of the Conquest of Mexico, by William H. Prescott.
While Catholic ritual was thus being grafted on to African and native forms of worship, non-Christian beliefs were filtering back into Catholicism. Waldemar Valente says: “Catholicism . . . became spotted with superstitious ideas, with absurd beliefs, with magical-fetishist concepts.”—Sincretismo Religioso Afro-Brasileiro.
Is It Good or Bad?
How do you view such a religious mixture? Some may be offended, feeling it is a corruption of Christianity. Others, though, may view it as no bad thing. Throughout history, countless victims have died in religious wars, crusades, persecutions and riots. What is happening in Brazil, they may say, is at least better than that!
Others, again, may wonder what all the fuss is about. They could point out that the Catholic religion itself is a product of at least three religious traditions: Biblical Christianity, Greek philosophy and the popular pagan religions of the Middle East and Europe. How was that?
The Catholic Church teaches that the Bible is the Word of God, and from this come many of the names and concepts it uses in worship. However, Catholic theologians were strongly influenced by the philosophies of the ancient pagan Greeks, and this colored their teachings. For example, the doctrine of the inherent immortality of the human soul does not appear in the Bible. (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) However, it was taught by the Greek philosophers and is now a fundamental doctrine of Catholicism.
The third tradition, popular pagan religions, is seen in many Church beliefs. Christmas and Easter, the use of the cross and images in ritual, and the worship of a “Trinity,” “saints” and a “Mother of God” all come—not from the Bible—but from these religions. On this point you may recall that John Henry Cardinal Newman in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine gives a long list of traditional practices, including “incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings . . . holy water; asylums; holydays . . .” and then says that they “are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church.”
Hence, it could be said that the religious mixing, or syncretism, that is going on in Brazil is merely a continuation of a historical process. Is that how you would view it? It is interesting that many in the Roman Catholic Church do not. Statements by some of its leaders show deep uneasiness.
Time magazine reports that Pope John Paul II during his visit there warned that Christianity can accept the “cultural expressions of any people” but must not “mutilate” its own teachings. Cardinal Brandão Vilela feared that the Brazilian people are entering a period of “Africanization.” When he saw the multitudes that turned out for a ceremony in honor of the goddess Iemanjá, he attacked the “abuse of religious syncretism.”—Veja, January 7, 1981.
These two Church leaders criticized “mutilation” of doctrine. Of course, this will not trouble anyone who views religion as merely a matter of personal opinion. To him, one doctrine is as good as another. But many are aware that such “mutilation” has had disastrous results in past times.
What It Leads To
For example, in the days before Jesus Christ walked the earth, the Israelites attempted to mix the beliefs of their pagan neighbors with their worship of Jehovah God. As a result, they got involved in sex worship, “sacred” prostitution, even child sacrifice. This led Jehovah God to withhold his protection, and they became easy prey for the empire-building Assyrians. (2 Kings 17:16-18) Why such an extreme reaction?
The reason is obvious. The worship Jehovah gave to the Israelites promoted high moral standards. When observed faithfully (without mixing in pagan teachings), it protected them physically, as well as spiritually, and prepared them for the coming of the Messiah. Adding pagan elements degraded it, just as adding polluted water to fresh water will pollute the fresh water.
The same holds true for Christian worship. The apostle Paul warns: “Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers [those who do not believe in Jesus Christ]. For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness? . . . Or what portion does a faithful person have with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s temple have with idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16) Consider how history has proved the wisdom of Paul’s words.
Christianity is a whole. It is a way of life involving our relationship with God, and it includes Bible-based beliefs—particularly with regard to the place of Jesus Christ in God’s purposes—a code of conduct touching all aspects of life and a special responsibility to spread the faith to others. Compromise in any part weakens the whole.
Thus the willingness to compromise that allowed the entry of pagan doctrines also allowed unchristian immorality, cruelty, oppression, and so forth. As a result, some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by people claiming to be followers of Christ. Only those who have striven to hold to Bible Christianity in all its facets—doctrine as well as conduct—have been able to maintain the high standards of apostolic Christianity.
In view of this, a sincere person would share the concern of the Catholic theologian who said: “Speaking objectively, syncretism is not justified because it perverts the Word of God, . . . syncretism is very deplorable.”—O Estado de São Paulo, by D. Estevão Bettencourt.
Jehovah’s Witnesses feel that way, too. They believe that everyone today should be free to choose how he worships. But they also believe there is only one true religion, the one based on the teachings and life of Jesus Christ. How can we identify that religion?
The apostle Paul pointed to “the holy writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation.” He went on to explain: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”—2 Timothy 3:15-17.
Hence, Jehovah’s Witnesses go to the Bible to learn of the true religion. In doing so, they avoid the kind of syncretism that is happening today in Brazil. They also avoid the syncretism that occurred hundreds of years ago, which brought hellfire, the immortal soul, the Trinity, images, the cross and other pagan beliefs into Christendom’s system of worship. If syncretism that “mutilates” doctrine is wrong today, surely it was also wrong hundreds of years ago.
Why not read the Bible yourself and find out what true worship really is? You will thus avoid polluting your service to God with pagan rites, and—with God’s help—you will gain the wisdom that leads to salvation.