Santeria (and a number of similar religions) exist in many Catholic countries, and make liberal use of Catholic images in their worship. Some anti-Catholics think that such religions are legitimate expressions of the Catholic Faith; this is further "proof" in their minds that Catholicism is pagan. But is this the case? Is Santeria really Catholic?

What is Santeria?

Santeria originated in the religion of the Yoruba or Lukumi peoples of Africa. Like most African religions, the Yoruba faith believes in the existence of a great Creator-God (whom they call Olodumare), who is too exalted to be concerned with the everyday affairs of men and women on earth. So the Yoruba invoke certain nature spirits, called orishas for help, appeasing them with sacrifices of food and animal blood.

Yoruban Religion Comes to the New World

Centuries ago, when the Spanish were settling Cuba, slave traders sold captured members of the Yoruba tribe to the Spaniards as slaves. Priests would baptize these enslaved Africans, who were then expected to practice Catholicism. Yet many of them were understandably reluctant to give up the religious traditions of their people and embrace the same religion which their captors practiced.

Since they could not practice their beliefs openly, the enslaved Yorubans "hid" it behind Catholic symbols and practices. They identified their orishas with various saints, so that their captors would think that they were devoted to saints while they were in fact worshipping the African spirits. This way, they could continue to practice their religion in secret.

When the Spanish noticed that their slaves seemed to be paying excessive attention to the saints rather than to Christ, they called the slaves' religious practices Santeria, or "the way of the saints". This was originally a derogatory term, and those who embraced the hidden Yoruban religion did not use it to describe themselves. In recent years, however, some followers of that religion have begun to use the term "Santeria", much the way Western Catholics now call themselves "Roman Catholics" (originally a derogatory term coined by Protestants!). Some, however, still object to the word "Santeria", preferring other terms like La Regla Lukumi (the Way of the Lukumi).

Santeria in Cuba has suffered under the Castro regime, another victim of atheistic Communism's hatred for all religion. But it has flourished in Cuban immigrant communities in Miami, New York, Los Angeles and many other U.S. cities

Similar Religions

A similar phenomenon took place in other parts of the Caribbean. In Haiti, for instance, various African religious traditions merged with one another, adopted some Catholic symbols, and formed the religion called Voudun (or "Voodoo"). And on the island of Jamaica we find a similar religion known as Shango. Santeria, Vudun and Shango are sometimes collectively called Afro-Caribbean religions, since they originated in Africa and developed their peculiar traits in the Caribbean.

The same process also occurred in Brazil, producing religions such as Candomble and Umbanda. Sociologists often refer to these as Afro-Brazilian religions. Though the title of this article specifically mentions Santeria, the conclusions it reaches will apply to all the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian religions. The latter will be collectively called the "sister religions" of Santeria, since they all blend African beliefs with Catholic externals.

Some Teachings and Practices of Santeria

Until fairly recently, all of these religions were highly secretive. Practitioners had long hidden their faith for fear of persecution. But with the increasing acceptability of neo-paganism and New Age religions over the past decade or so, Santeria has begun to come out into the open. Adherents have written books and posted web sites explaining their beliefs and practices. The following description of Santeria's tenents and rituals is based on such material.

Like their Yoruban ancestors, practitioners of Santeria believe in a great, transcendent Deity called Olodumare (they sometimes call him Olorun, "owner of heaven"). They invoke him first at their ceremonies to pay him primary homage, but since they believe that he does not get involved in human affairs, they do not pray for his help with everyday concerns.

Instead, in time of need they invoke various orishas. Among the most popular are Eleugga, a trickster spirit associated with doorways and crossroads; Obatala, a benevolent sky-father; Chango, the orisha of thunder; Yemaya, a maternal ocean-spirit; Ochun, the very popular orisha of love, prosperity and rivers; Bablu-aye, the spirit of illness; and Ogun, the wild orisha of iron.

In hiding their animistic religion behind Catholicism, enslaved Yorubans identified Olodumare with the Christian God and hid each orisha behind one or more Catholic saints. They associated the trickster Eleugga with either St. Anthony of Padua, St. Martin de Porres, or St. Michael the Archangel. Sometimes the association was made based on a perceived "common trait" of both the saint and the orisha. So Obatala was associated with Our Lady of Mercy, because she wears white, which is Obatala's color. The thunder-spirit Chango was associated with St. Barbara, a saint commonly believed to protect people from lightning. Yemaya was associated with Our Lady of Regla (a Cuban Madonna who protects sailors), Ochun with Our Lady of Charity (possibly because charity means "love"), Babalu-aye with St. Lazarus (portrayed as a sick man on crutches) and Ogun with St. John the Baptizer (who lived in the wilderness) or with St. Peter the Apostle.

These associations were made in Cuba, so they exist only among Cubans. The Yoruba in Africa do not recognize these Catholic saints, and although Santeria's sister religions worship some of the same spirits, they tend to associate them with different saints. (For instance, the Haitian equivalent of Eleugga is called Legba, and is associated with St. Peter the Apostle.) Also, a particular saint may be associated with one spirit in one religion and a totally different one in another.

Each orisha is said to possess a power known as ache. The devotee must appropriate the ache of a particular orisha in order to get what he or she wants. This can be accomplished by casting spells or by offering animal sacrifices to a spirit. Each orisha has a favorite animal for sacrifice; for instance, Ochun likes white chickens while Yemaya favors ducks or turtles. The blood of the sacrificed animal is sometimes said to be the orisha's "food", which strengthens the spirit's ache so that he or she can help the devotee.

The ache of each orisha is also said to abide in certain stones. Chango's power, for instance, is said to exist in meteorites (since they come from the sky like thunder), Yemaya's in rocks and shells from the ocean, Ochun's in stones from rivers, Ogun's in rocks containing iron ore, etc. Such rocks are held sacred by the Santeros, who keep them in their homes and sometimes "feed" an orisha by pouring the blood of sacrifices over their rocks

Santeria has two priesthoods. The first is open to both women and men (the priests are called santeras and santeros respectively), and the second only to men. He who holds the latter priesthood is called a babalawo. He can perform all the spells and ritual sacrifices, and also can consult the Ifa, (a form of divination using pieces of coconut).

Divination plays a big part in Santeria and its sister religions. In addition to traditional African forms like the Ifa, these religions have also adopted many elements from Western occultism, including astrology, tarot cards, palmistry, charms and psychics.

Santeria also has special celebrations in which certain people are "mounted" ("possessed") by the orishas, who dance, act and speak through them. A person must go through an intensive initiation ceremony before he or she can become a vehicle for the orisha. This ceremony requires a lot of animal sacrifices, and is perhaps the chief reason why animal rights activists and law inforcement have hassled Santeria in the past. (In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Santeria's practice of sacrificing animals is protected under Freedom of Religion.)

Catholicism and Santeria Compared

Anyone who knows the Catholic Faith will quickly see the big difference between Catholicism and Santeria. Though both profess belief in a Supreme Being, Catholics do not believe that God is distant and unconcerned with the affairs of the Earth which He made. Rather, He is omnipresent and deeply involved in the history of humankind, even to the point of becoming one of us in the Incarnation! We believe that God loves us as His children, He hears and answers prayer, and wants a relationship with us.

The saints are our brothers and sisters in Christ who love us, care about our welfare and intercede for us as prayer warriors before the Throne of Christ. Saints can be either angels (like St. Michael, St. Gabriel and St. Raphael) or human Christians who have gone before us to heaven, but none of them are "nature spirits". In fact, Catholicism does not teach the existence of "nature spirits"! And any similarity between some saints and certain orishas is coincidental; just because some people ask St. Barbara to pray for their protection during a thunderstorm does not make her identical with the Yoruban orisha of thunder.

Catholics do pray to saints, asking them to ask God to supply our needs, but we do not sacrifice animals to them - nor to God, for that matter! The saints in heaven do not need nourishment, and God no longer demands animal sacrifice for sin. The only sacrifice which Catholics recognize is the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, which becomes present to us on Catholic altars at every Mass. The Sacrifice of Calvary and the Sacrifice of the Mass are one and the same. As Christ offered Himself to the Father, so the Mass is offered to God alone, never to saints! Sacrifice is divine worship, and no saint deserves the worship due God alone!

The concept of ache is also foreign to the Catholic Faith. We do not believe that the saints have any power in and of themselves, and we do not seek to connect with any such power. All of their virtue comes from the Holy Spirit of God, and the Power of the Most High is the only power which we need.

The stones held sacred by devotees of the orishas are not considered sacred in Catholicism. The closest thing which we have to that are relics, which are body parts of saints and objects which they used during their lives. We believe that God works miracles through these relics even as he healed the sick who were touched by St. Paul's handkerchiefs (Acts 19:12) and raised a dead man whose corpse touched the bones of the Prophet Elisha (II Kings 13:20-21). This is not animism nor superstition; it is biblical! And the "power" behind relics is the power of God, not of a particular saint.

Catholicism has one ministerial priesthood; it does not admit women and is quite distinct from the priesthood of the babalawo. The priesthoods of Santeria or its sister religions are not Christian priesthoods, so the Catholic Church does not recognize them. We also do not believe in spells or divination; Holy Mother Church strongly forbids all such practices, as the following quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church shows:

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity. (CCC 2116-2117)

Moreover, our Faith has no "initiations" like those of Santeria. We do not believe that the saints can "possess" people; the Church in fact condemns spirit-possession and combats it with exorcism.

Finally, the Catholic Church does officially condemn Santeria and its sister-religions. This fact does not always filter through to the people who practice these religions; many of whom also attend Catholic Masses and consider themselves Catholic. Many priests in countries where these religions exist are unfortunately lax in making the Church's view on this issue known. Even when a priest speaks against these religions from the pulpit, his sermon is often dismissed as "the kind of thing priests say". Like the originators of Santeria centuries ago, their decendants are still reluctant to part with their religion and their beloved orishas.


Santeria borrows profusely from Catholicism, and many of its practitioners even consider themselves members of both faiths. Yet Santeria is clearly a very different religion from Catholicism. Its theology is vastly different, its priesthoods are distinct from the Catholic priesthood and most of its practices directly violate Catholic teachings. The same is true for all of Santeria's "sister religions". Each one sports Catholic externals but is at heart an African religion.

Ever since Santeria began to come out of hiding, some within that belief system have called for its "purification". They wish to remove all the Western trappings - both Catholic and occultic - and restore La Regla Lukumi to its African roots. It would then be essentially identical with the Yoruban religion from which it came. It is unclear whether this will ever happen, but if it does, the Catholic Church will not complain.

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