Chibly Langlois' comments about Vodou would probably have gone unnoticed had he not been recently selected by Pope Francis to become Haiti's first Roman Catholic Cardinal. In an article published in The Guardian on July 13, 2014, the cardinal is quoted as saying that Vodou offers only magic, but no real solutions to the politically voiceless people of Haiti.
The Catholic Church has a long history of criticizing magic while applauding miracles. Vodouists do not divide spiritual intervention along those same lines. Rather, they believe that events have either natural or supernatural causes. To address the natural cause of disease, they use herbal remedies, while to address supernatural causes, they use incantations. For Vodouist, magic and miracle are equally supernatural. What is miraculous to one person, is simply magical to another. Cardinal Langlois cannot criticize magic while upholding a mountain of miracles professed by the Catholic Church.
Church leaders recently invited the Haitian population to celebrate the 125th anniversary of an alleged miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary in stopping a smallpox epidemic estimated to have killed some 100,000 people. Church leaders attributed the end of the epidemic to the efficacy of prayers to Mary. They seemed not to understand that the epidemic stopped because many received a traditional inoculation, while others developed their own natural immunity, having acquired a less malignant form of the infection. In other words, the Virgin Mary's intervention was a non-event that could only be regarded as part of the superstitions that the cardinal claims to be combating.
Unbeknownst to the cardinal, Vodouist have ventured beyond superstitions to make significant contributions to modern medicine. One of the earliest publications to report on inoculation (vaccination) came from the island of Haiti. There, Vodouist were addressing the natural cause of disease by introducing into the skins of healthy people the secretions from those sick from smallpox to prevent the infection from spreading (Gazette de Medicine Pour Les Colonies- 1778). This preventive measure was called achte vèrèt. Physicians present on the island, like Joubert de la Motte, helped to popularize the technique and that contributed to the development of modern vaccination (Weaver, 2006). Since concrete medical contributions like this are unknown to the Cardinal, he says that Vodou offers no real solutions as if his church's claims to miracles were more tangible solutions to disease treatment.
As shown by the neurologist, Bruce M. Hood, the human mind is superstitious in its thinking. For this reason, no religion is free of superstition. If Cardinal Langlois wants to purge religion of superstition, he ought to start with his own. He should ask all Catholics to remove crosses from their homes, cars, and necklaces as talismans for protection. The fact is the world is a better place when people can keep their religious articles so long as they do not violate the rights of others to practice their own religions and superstitions. If the Cardinal wants to eradicate superstitions, he can study whether Catholics can distinguish between tap water and holy water. Such an experiment might be useless to his congregation, but it could help tame his arrogance.
The cardinal's disparaging remarks about those who seek medical care from Vodou traditional healers is out of touch with reality. He is apparently unaware of the World Health Organization's publication showing that the cost of modern health care is prohibitive for 80% of the world's population (Kroll and Associates, Archives of Internal Medicine, 2007). Like Haitians, most people on the planet get their medical care from traditional religious healers who have been the cornerstone of herbal medical knowledge. According to the World Health Organization, traditional healers treat three times more daily ailments than modern medicine. To make even better use of these traditional treatments, in 1992, the US National Institute of Health established the Office of Alternative Medicine.
Contrary to what the cardinal assumes, it is not the poor alone who seek the council of pastors, priests, hougans, and manbos when modern medicine is either unavailable or ineffective. Particularly when faced with incurable illness, people all over the world seek comfort from their religious leaders. Comfort-care is itself an important element of modern medicine and is best offered in a culturally meaningful manner. Hougans and manbos offer that. The cardinal needs to step aside and let the people be comforted. He should refrain from giving the impression that modern medicine is a Christian heritage because it is not. It is a world heritage. In fact, scientists have often had to combat Christian resistance to apply scientific theories to therapeutic ends.
The cardinal may be familiar with Catholic catechism, but he is an untrustworthy source for explaining Vodou rituals. He claimed that ceremonies take place at night so that people can practice in hiding. The truth is that the timing of Vodou ceremonies reflects the Haitian belief that the world of spirits is the opposite of ours. Whereas we are mortal and visible, spirits are immortal and invisible. Whereas we are most active during the day, spirits are most active at night making nighttime the best time for religious service. Moreover, it escaped the cardinal that Haiti is in the tropics and Vodou services involve live music and dance, something best done in the cool of night.
Cardinal's Langlois' attempt to scapegoat Vodou as a “big social problem” disregards historical events that placed Haiti at a competitive disadvantage in the international struggle for control of world resources. He bypasses the 300 years when the vast majority of people on the island were forced to produce wealth for Spain, and then France, while creating poverty for themselves. The territory's customs and laws prevented enslaved people from inheriting anything from their parents. This ensured that nearly all people of African descent, on the island, would be born into poverty. France, the last colonial power to rule the area, ruled for nearly 100 years and built not a single university.
Despite this damaging history of racism in the Americas, it is shocking that the cardinal points to Vodou as the big problem. It is past racism that created wealth disparities along ethnic lines. Throughout the Americas, Native people and people of African descent are generally poorer than those of European ancestry. With the landing of Christopher Columbus' crew, modern racial discrimination first took place in Haiti and it is there that it left its most palpable scar. As the first Haitian Catholic Cardinal, surely Langlois must find it problematic that it took more than 500 years for his Church to promote a member of African-Haitian descent to the status of cardinal.
Cardinal Langlois presented his involvement in Haitian politics as though it were something out of the ordinary. Catholic Church leaders have a 500 year history of political involvement everywhere on the island. This longstanding history enabled the Church to enjoy preferential treatment, securing salaries for its priests from the Haitian state's coffers. The cardinal's immersion in politics is not the blazing of a new path. It is a continuation of the status quo. Blaming the victim also helps to preserve the status quo. It does not risk the wrath of the Vatican, of powerful foreign governments, nor of powerful Haitian leaders who have all played a part in impoverishing the people.
Cardinal Langlois declared that Haitians cannot be Catholics while having African religious beliefs. But it doesn't seem to bother him that his own Catholicism is a mixture of such religions as Mithra and Judaism. The merger of traditional European beliefs with Middle Eastern beliefs is apparently sacred in his mind and need not be pulled apart. But somehow the fusion of Christianity with African beliefs is utterly disturbing to him.
The cardinal's misguided statements show that he is out of touch with reality. Rather than blame Vodou, Cardinal Langlois should apologize for the harmful policies the Church sanctioned in the past. Just as Haitians cite their Ancestral Lwas to justify their present actions, Cardinal Langlois can reference Pope John Paul II who apologized for many ills the Church committed worldwide. Inspired by the pope, the cardinal can focus his own apology on the Church's detrimental actions in Haiti, and pave the way for more religious tolerance in the future.
Published on July 18, 2014, on Nelson Mandela's birthday