In 2014, Haiti‘s first cardinal of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Chibly Langlois told The Guardian in an interview that voodoo worship was a “big social problem” in his country.
In one of the world’s poorest countries, Cardinal Langlois said people felt voodoo offered magical solutions to the myriad of problems they had.
“If a person is well educated and has the financial means, they will go to a doctor [instead of the voodoo priest] when they get sick. If that same person went to the court to get justice they would not go to the voodoo priest to get revenge. It’s a big problem for the church. And for Hait,” the cardinal was quoted as saying.
Cardinal Langlois’ sentiments are shared by many today as they were then. At least, Pope Benedict XVI once advised Christians in Benin to give up on what he believes is “syncretism which deceives”.
What the two men perhaps understand but wish was not so is the fact that voodoo is the cultural basis of their audiences’ identities. Like Hinduism to the Indians, the voodoo faith cannot be supplanted according to the whims of the worshippers of new gods.
Whether in Benin or in Haiti, voodoo is steeped into the weltanschauung of the people. It is actually Catholicism that has to convince them it is worth the try.
The history of the relationship between voodoo and Catholicism in Haiti has always been the latter forcing its way into the consciousness of the people of African descent.
What is known as voodoo in Haiti today is a mishmash of traditions from Central and West Africa with what is at the base largely from among the Fon and Ewe of modern Benin and Togo.
To the so-called New World, African slaves took their gods and their traditions. Apart from the purpose of spirituality, their religion was supposed to foster a sense of community.
But in 1685, a decree by Louis XIV of France known as Code Noir targeted the faiths of the Africans in the Caribbean through two provisions.
The first provision disallowed Africans from openly practising the religion from whence they came. Second, all slaveholders were to convert their slaves to Catholicism within eight days of their arrival in Saint-Domingue, later Haiti.
Catholicism was, therefore, a tool for the suppression of the identity and humanity of the slaves. That was essentially the point of the slaveholders and nobles in France.
But what happened afterward saw the Africans syncretizing their faiths with the Catholic religion. The rituals, the saints and even rosaries and statuettes were all adopted into voodoo practice.
Some of the saints were re-imagined including the Virgin Mary as Ezili. Saint Jacques as Ogou, and Saint Patrick as Dambala. Some ceremonies and rituals were also incorporated with Catholic elements such as the adoption of the Catholic calendar.
For hundreds of years, as Catholicism swept over the country, along with other brands of Christianity, voodoo worship lurked beneath in Haitian society.
But that which was considered sorcery was banned in 1934 in Haiti’s penal code. The 1940s saw a widespread persecution of voodoo practitioners in what was known as “anti-superstition” campaigns.
This was even after Haiti had gained self-government and remained so until 1987. In 2003, voodoo worship was recognized as one of the official state religions.
Four hundred or so years of hiding had apparently been brought to an end with what happened in 2003. But voodoo practitioners are thought in some way, to practise a faith that is inferior.
Cardinal Langlois epitomizes this sense when he says, “That’s why voodoo ceremonies are conducted at night–time. They are ashamed to say they practise it.”
What Langlois does not understand is that voodoo is Haitian. Catholicism is what is not.