Cardinal Chibly Langlois issued a statement on July 24th to address the public outcry that followed his earlier condemnation of Vodou as a “big social problem”. While the cardinal criticized The Guardian newspaper for misrepresenting his statements in fragments, he offered neither a clarification, nor a retraction of the alleged misquotes. Instead, he reiterated the call for Haitian Catholics to distance themselves from Vodou and based this appeal on the Nostra Aetate, a document from the Vatican II meetings (1962-1965) that sought to modernize Church teachings. After referring to fragments of this document, the cardinal stated, “It is my responsibility to urge our people to remain attached to the Catholic faith and to live unequivocally avoiding any confusion.”
In truth, it is the cardinal who brings confusion because nowhere in NostraAetate is there a call for religious purity, or a declaration that Catholics must not honor African Ancestors. Such a requirement would be incompatible with Catholicism, considering that the Church has canonized many individuals as Saints and named them Patron Spirits of cities and countries throughout the world. The cardinal creates much confusion by overlooking all the feast days and church services set aside to honor European and Middle Eastern Saints, while urging Haitian Catholics to abandon their attachment to African Spirits.
For countless Haitian Catholics, Vodou makes up for the deficit of African Saints named by the Vatican. Vodou allows Haitians to see themselves represented in their faith, just like Europeans who see their likeness in the Church's images. In Europe, Ancestral Spirits are called Saints. In Ginen, the West Coast of Africa, the Nago people of Nigeria referred to them as Lwas. Like Saints in Europe, Lwas are African Ancestors, often called “Ginen yo”, meaning those from Guinea. Vodou and Catholicism are compatible because they both share a belief in God and in Saints. In Creole, this is said as, “Gen Bondye, Gen Lwa”.
Many Haitian Catholics honor or “serve” the Lwas because they know well that all people have worthy ancestors. Like Saint Louis, a former King of France, Lwa Kadya Bosou was the King of Dahomey (1708-1740). In 1727 he seized control of the Port of Whidah and closed this port to merchants trafficking African people. He was succeeded by his son, Ashade (1740-1777) who also ruled Dahomey as heir of the Agasouvi Dynasty.
The Cardinal misused Nostra Aetate, a document outlining how the Catholic Church should interact with non-Christian religions. The document sites numerous religions from around the world but states nothing about any Traditional African Religions. Consequently, such a document is irrelevant to the practices of Haitian Catholics. Moreover, the Cardinal's suggestion that Vodou is non-Christian is simplistic and inaccurate. Indeed some Vodouist are not at all Christian, but the vast majority are. The Cardinal is in no position to expel those who are non-Christians because they do not attend mass. In matters of religion, they answer to their conscience and not to a Church organization. The cardinal can only threaten Haitian Catholics who have African Religious beliefs. These Haitian Catholics know themselves to be Living Christians and contrary to what the cardinal says, the Nostra Aetate document does not apply to them. They are no less Christian than the cardinal. It is indeed because of their Christianity that they begin their Ginen Prayer with “The angel of God said to Mary...”
The synthesis of Christian teachings with African philosophy is reported by nearly all who have written about Haitian Vodou. Syncretism is not unique to Vodou. It is found in all religions because people interact with one another across borders and continuously adapt ideas from their neighbors. Catholicism is itself a synthesis of the religious beliefs of two neighbors, the Middle East and Europe. Religious purity is a fictitious idea that conflicts with how the peoples of the world have interacted. As the Catholic Church has gone global, at times by force, at times through dialogue, numerous people now come to its pews, bringing a multitude of cultural and religious backgrounds to the Church. This diverse population of Catholics do not agree on every Vatican doctrine particularly because they did not all have equal representation at Vatican II where current Church policies were shaped.
With such a diverse population of members, the cardinal is wrong to imply that the Catholic Church has no room for dissenting views. Such a position is baffling, considering that reform in Church doctrines has often come from Church adherents who sought to ameliorate Church teachings from within. One such policy changed by dissenting members was the Church's support for slavery. In the 13th century, Catholic Canon Law adopted by Pope Gregory IX, explained how slaves could be rightfully acquired. But at Vatican II, the Church reversed itself, and unequivocally declared slavery to be morally repugnant. This declaration came a century and a half after the Haitian Revolution helped to end slavery. During that era, the Catholic Church was the institution that owned the largest number of enslaved people on the island. Since the Church was morally wrong in the trafficking of Africans, it should tread ever so gently on issues concerning whether the descendants of these enslaved Africans can now honor them as Lwas / Saints.
Quoting the Bible, the cardinal stated that he cannot judge Vodou. While this statement is conciliatory, the Cardinal must be reminded that the authors of the Bible repeatedly call upon people to make judgments. They urge people to distinguish good from bad behavior and to forgive those who have done wrong. Forgiveness is not possible in the absence of the judgment necessary to recognize a wrong done. The cardinal cannot argue against exercising moral judgment by quoting a small fragment of the Bible. He certainly cannot do this while complaining that his own statements in the Guardian newspaper were misleading because they were fragments and therefore incomplete. The issue is not whether the cardinal should judge or not, but rather that he erred in his judgment as published in The Guardian.
His judgment of Vodou was wrong and devoid of understanding of Catholic Church history. Catholic missionaries first arrived in Ginen (West Africa) during the 15th century and with papal approval, they preached that Catholicism was wholly compatible with Traditional African Religions. This compatibility is evident in the Dahomean Catholic Catechism of 1658 called Doctrina Christiana. Largely because of King Jan Zinga's willingness to have the Kongolese people adopt Christianity alongside their own Traditional Beliefs, he was baptized Catholic in 1491. He is today honored in Haiti as Lwa Jan Zinga. His successor, his son Alfons, made Catholicism an official religion of the Kongo Kingdom (Nanchon Kongo). As a result Haitian Sèvitè say to honor their Kongolese Ancestors, they must recite Catholic prayers and say ThreeOur Father and ThreeHail Mary. It is said in Creole as“...Twa Patè, twa Ave Mariya, se lapriyè Kongo...”
African religious beliefs have had five long centuries of coexistence with European and Middle Eastern derived faiths. If these beliefs were incompatible, they would not have survived the test of time. The fact that people hold both religious beliefs and have done so for centuries is abundant testament of their compatibility. Catholic leaders need to recognize this so that they may better appreciate Haitian Catholics who have contributed, their lives, their labor, their land, their money, their time, and their religious philosophy to support the Church and to finally welcome an indigenous clergy.
Respect for Vodou traditions could lead the Cardinal to examine some of his own beliefs rather than persecute Haitian Catholics. Take for example the cardinal's reference to God as uniquely a father figure. Numerous Haitian Catholics consider God as both mother and father. This is why under the influence of Vodou, Haitian Catholics commonly say “Papa Bondye” as well as “Bondye Manman mwen”, meaning “Father God”, or “God my Mother”. They do this because in Dahomey, God was called Mawu-Lisa to honor both sexes (Mawu, the female; Lisa, the male). As a man, the Cardinal may prefer everyone to refer to God as a male, but he must recognize the African derived Vodou custom of giving women equal recognition at the highest levels. As women gain more and more rights worldwide, the Church may want to consider adopting this Haitian-African world view so that both sexes can feel fulfilled in their shared likeness to God.
Catholicism minus racism, minus sexism is very compatible with Vodou. Cardinal Langlois' call for a separation of the two traditions has no support in Vatican II's Nostra Aetate documents. His call is just a new urging for the past Catholic Church's Inquisition in Haiti called, Rejete. The Cardinal's comments reveal a lack of knowledge of Haitian-African history as this topic is not taught in Haitian schools controlled by the Catholic Church.
Finally, it must be recognized that Haitians are not less united with God because they honor their Ancestors, no more than Europeans are less united with God because they honor their Ancestral Saints. For as long as the Church continues to honor European and Middle Eastern distinguished Ancestors as Saints, it cannot chastise Haitian Catholics for giving the same reverence to their African Ancestors as Lwas.