Vodou and Catholicism Part One – Historical Context

Preparations have been made.

People have assembled.

Houngans, mambos, and hounsi, dressed in white, have gathered, and there is a pregnant moment of expectation, a soft and subtle stirring of something, and a knowing that we are about to begin.

The fet opens–the words, in French, of the Our Father are chanted, beginning, “Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié…” They are followed by the Hail Mary, the Apostles’ Creed, and depending on the particular House or ceremony, by others, such as the Act of Contrition. Then comes music–central to any fet, and the presiding houngan or mambo begins to sing Catholic songs in French (or Kreyolized French), engaging in a call and response with the congregation, frequently beginning “L’ange de Seigneur dit a Marie…” or “Venez mon Dieu, venez…”

A fet is a celebratory time, but also the building of a strong, spiritual charge that, like the Eucharist, is meant to lead to the manifestation of spirit in matter, although in Vodou this occurs via possession, in the bodies of the celebrants, rather than the unleavened bread and wine of the Mass. Or, as Wade Davis was told, “one goes to Catholic Mass to talk about God, but one goes to a Vodou ceremony to become God.”

This overt Catholic element at the start of a fet is part of a legacy and heritage woven into Vodou and the service of the lwa, but the presence of Catholicism is not limited to the formalities of beginning. However, before we can look at those other fingerprints of the Church, entwined in this spiritual tradition, it behooves us to know a little about the history of Catholicism and Haiti. This subject is absolutely vast, so out of necessity I’ll only cover it in a shamefully brief fashion in order to provide a little necessary context. Without further ado, a short history lesson.

The Colonial Era

In 1492 Columbus landed on the shores of Hispaniola, the island that is now bifurcated into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The stink of raw irony followed him, as columbus is Latin for “dove”–an image of peace and sanctity. If he brought anything to the island, it was not this. The horrors of the colonial period are no secret, and I won’t review them in any detail, but will limit this discussion to the presence and influence of the Church. By 1511 two dioceses, Concepción de la Vega and Santo Domingo, were founded, and divided the island between them; their number rose to six by 1704. Different Orders, including the Capuchins, Dominicans, and Jesuits, would jockey back and forth over the mission of evangelizing the island until the eve of the Revolution in 1791.

An early voice in the colonies was a Spanish priest (later bishop) named Bartolomé de las Casas; named “protector of the Indians” he advocated for better treatment of the indigenous peoples of the island and decried the barbarous activities of the colonial powers. Unfortunately, de la Casas encouraged the use of white and African slaves in the colony, later claiming he was unaware of the atrocities being carried out to these ends. His works Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1542) and the revised version, Historia de Las Indias (final form completed in 1561) detail these inhuman policies and the treatment of enslaved peoples, and were intended to influence the policies of the Spanish Crown towards essential humanity. By this time in his life he had repented of his advocacy for slavery of any kind, writing, “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery…” and questioning whether this repentance would be sufficient in the eyes of God. Yet despite his efforts and the development of his personal views on the subject, he accomplished little to aid the plight of enslaved peoples. His voice on the matter may well, and justly, be considered tragically insufficient, and with modern eyes we can, with equal justice, marvel at the sheer inhumanity of suggesting the enslavement of any race, even if his motivation was to spare his charges.

The development of the first French colony in the Antilles, via a commission from Armand Cardinal Richelieu, contained a directive to bring the indigenous people into Catholicism; each subsequent commission contained the same clause, and Richelieu made the establishment of Catholicism a mandatory part of these licenses. The king of France, Louis XIII, had no real desire to institute slavery in the colonies, but was convinced to do so under the mantle of converting the enslaved to Christianity. However his successor, Louis XIV, had no qualms about the issue, and considered slavery to be a simple economic activity, reducing human lives to a line item in a business plan.

By 1685 Louis XIV’s Code Noir (Black Code) had legitimized and institutionalized the harsh treatment of enslaved peoples on the now French side of the island (what is now Haiti). The Code allowed and encouraged barbaric punishments, while outlawing others; made slavery a matrilinear, heritable condition; insisted on Roman Catholicism as the sole, enforced religion of the enslaved; and so on. The Code admitted the humanity of the enslaved, yet stopped short of insisting that these humans be treated as such. Indeed, the one real concession to their humanity was the right to a Christian burial. After a life of brutality, assuming he or she was baptized, an enslaved individual was accorded an essential dignity only after death. Non li se Robert Paulson. While at times priestly voices were raised in support of better treatment of the enslaved, many priests were at the same time landowners, and therefore dependent on the institution of slavery itself.

This was the place of Catholicism in Haiti on the eve of the Revolution–demanded of the enslaved, used to enforce barbarity, and, all in all, maintaining a powder keg of a status quo. Yet, simultaneously, offering an ethic and theology of salvation that, historically, has been appealing to many of the most marginalized and oppressed peoples, despite being accorded only lip service by the powers-that-be.

After the Revolution

On a humid night in late August, 1791, enough was finally enough and the Revolution broke out. Again, there’s plenty of information out there on it, so I’ll limit myself to the Church. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the celebrated leader of the Revolution, restored the Church’s place in Haiti in 1800. This act wasn’t simply an expression of faith but also part of a quest for geopolitical legitimacy for the newborn nation–if France would not recognize Haiti, perhaps communion with Rome would bring recognition.

However from 1804 until 1860 a schism divided Haiti and the Holy See. Under Dessalines, and then Christophe, the nascent government, John Merrill argues, learned the lessons of the revolution and saw that Vodou could be a tremendous threat to entrenched power. Fear of Vodou, alongside the absence of the Church, made for a complex melange of spiritual traditions without central direction, allowing the Haitian religious milieu to develop on is own. Catholicism didn’t die in the country, despite this; as researcher George Breathett wrote, “Yet, it is noteworthy, and an indication of the tremendous impact that the missionaries made…that the flame of Catholicism remained alive for more than half a century when Haiti was cut off from Rome.” This period allowed Vodou to flourish unimpeded, but not without the ghost of the Church–a figure called a pret savann, or bush priest, arose, serving as a sort of stand-in for a Catholic priest and reading prayers and other liturgical bric-a-brac at ceremonies. During the schism lay Catholic bodies, institutions, and confraternities were founded by Haitians, contributing to, in the words of Maria Ulrickson, “the process of nation building in Haiti, especially the presidency’s goal of a nationalized, Haitian Catholicism.” Lay-founded organizations provided mutual support to their members. The division was finally solved to a degree by a concordat created by the Haitian President, Fabre Geffrard, and Pope Pius IX. Haiti reserved the right to select candidates for bishoprics while Rome retained the right to approve them, and priests were able to return en masse (or en Mass, ha).

The Church attempted to re-evangelize the country, with some successes, largely among the upper classes. French catechisms were used exclusively, which made them inaccessible to the majority of the population. The 1930s and 1940s saw anti-Vodou legislation and a government-Church alliance in trying to eradicate Vodou. This went poorly, and helped bring the dictator Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, along with his anti-Church and pro-Vodou platform, to power. He saw a division in Haitian society between the urban, educated, French speaking elite and the Kreyol speaking majority and exploited this skillfully. By the early 1970s, during the Duvalier years, Kreyol began to make its way into Catholic services and outreach to rural Haitians was increased; the changes brought by Vatican II, combined with other influences (such as the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez et al, the Ti Legliz movement, and the rise of a native clergy) made Catholicism more accessible, and a range of social services were offered with varying levels of success. Further mobilizing of these efforts occurred in slums and rural areas following John Paul II’s visit in ’83, and the subsequent reclamation of Rome’s right to appoint bishops. The end of the Duvalier era brought about the Church-supported dechoukaj–the uprooting, an attempt to again eliminate Vodou. Houngans and mambos were killed–estimates ranging from 100-2000 dead have been put forward. While the Church claimed no official stance on the matter, individual priests certainly contributed to the mess via radio broadcasts, firebrand pamphlets, and the desecration of sacred sites, even going so far as to join forces with Protestants in their efforts.

In 1990, several years after the ousting of Duvalier’s son Baby Doc, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a soon-to-be laicized Silesian Catholic priest and leader in the Ti Legliz movement, was elected president. A bit of a thorn in the side of both the Church and remaining Duvalier loyalists, he was pushed out of power in a coup that occurred on the 200th anniversary of the Revolution, and exiled in 1991, returning to power in 1994 with the support of American troops and the UN. Out of power in 1996, Aristide won the presidency again in 2000. In 2003 Aristide had Vodou declared an official religion of Haiti-the first time it ever gained such status in a country steeped in its practice, art, songs, and influence.

The purpose, then, of this brief overview is to contextualize the Church in Haiti, and ‘boots on the ground’ Catholicism. The common wisdom is that Catholicism was used only as a mask to conceal Vodou, but history shows that Haiti kept Catholic beliefs and practices in place even during the schism with Rome; the interaction between the two is, of course, complex, and with this understanding we’ll be able to move on to a more relaxed consideration of Catholic elements in Vodou.

Coming soon to a blog near you.

This one.

Some Further Reading

Breathett, George (1962) Catholic Missionary Activity and the Negro Slave in Haiti, in Phylon (1960-), Vol. 23, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1962), pp. 278-285, Clark Atlanta University Press

Comhaire, Jean L. (1956) The Haitian Schism 1804-1860 in Anthropological Quarterly Vol 29 No 1, New Series Vol 4 (Jan 1956), pp. 1-10, The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research

Franchina, Miriam (2022) A Transatlantic Battle of Robes: French Priests in the Haitian Revolution, in French History, 2022;, crac002, Oxford

Merrill, John (1996) Vodou and Political Reform in Haiti, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Vol 20 No 1pp 31-52, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Ulrickson, Maria Cecilia (2020) The Sacred Heart of Early Haiti in The Catholic Historical Review, Vol 106 issue 4, The Catholic University of America Press

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