Thrown in the River: Justice or Bigotry?

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 by Nathan Jones and Luke Parker

N.B. The following opinions on the “Pachamama” controversy surrounding the recent Amazon Synod are those of their respective authors and do not officially represent Clarifying Catholicism’s position on the issue.

The following is a series of two very different perspectives regarding the recent Pachamama statue controversy from the Amazon synod. Because of this current event’s controversial nature, we at Clarifying Catholicism thought it would be wise to feature two opposing viewpoints to illustrate the diverse ways Catholics have approached this issue. We encourage dialogue in the comments below.

Nathan Jones

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My Point of View:

The abduction of the statues from the church appears to be an unjustifiable, immoral action. My first objection concerns the identification of the statues, which have been referred to by the Holy Father as “Pachamama”. It is suspected that he used this term colloquially because the statues have not been identified in any other way by most people. The artist never referred to the statues as Pachamama, and, in the clip of the presentation to the Holy Father, reference is made to “Our Lady of the Amazon”.

Therefore, I feel that individuals making a presumption concerning the intention of the artist are wrong. They have no way of verifying their presumption. They seem to not understand differentiating cultures and how they may demonstrate their faith. The “worship” of the statues as “idols” is not verifiable. The intentions of the indigenous people are unclear, as their culture is not readily present in the world today.

If the artist and/or the other people meant for the statues to represent Mary, or in some way a depiction of the sacredness of motherhood and fertility, then I believe in no way does this contradict Church teaching.

Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican communications dicastery, said Wednesday he sees the figure as “representing life.” 

“Fundamentally, it represents life. And enough. I believe to try and see pagan symbols or to see… evil, it is not,” he said, adding that “it represents life through a woman.” He equated the image to that of a tree, saying “a tree is a sacred symbol.”

Ruffini’s statement can be found here.

The second objection is that bowing before the statues is not inconsistent with the way most people show respect/veneration in church or any kind of charismatic venue. It is not realistic to expect these indigenous individuals to have the manners seen in Europe and America, which tend to be more rigid.

The theft of the statues remains unjustifiable even if the indigenous people are discovered to have committed the sin of idolatry.

Since no one can “own” a god, if the statues were seen as gods to be worshipped, it could have been possible that there was no true ownership claim over them and for the “theft” to be merely putative. In the case of St. Boniface and the Tree of Donar, the Tree, apparently seen as having at least some quasi-divine status, does not appear to have been owned by any entity or even all of the people collectively. Today, in India, “sacred” cows wander throughout the country without anyone claiming ownership over them, yet they are treated with respect by every person that passes them. It is as if Indian culture has an understanding that these cows are not possessable.

However, the thieves apparently took the statues without this thinking, understanding the statues to be the property of the indigenous people and showing no concern at all for their rights. The “justification” which has been used is pathetic: that if something in a church is found by individuals (apparently not even just regular attendees of the parish!) to be detestable, it can be taken and discarded. (What could be said of individuals found to be detestable in churches?) And why stop at “purifying” Catholic churches? Why not “purify” the whole world, violating the rights of all non-Christians, even all non-Catholics? The “logic” used seems contrary to Dignitatis Humanae.

Lucas Parker

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“‘Splash’ goes Pachamama!”  

Such was my mind upon hearing that three of the Amazonian Pachamama statues had been cast into the Tiber River in Rome.  Always elated to see paganism take a dip, literally and figuratively, I was convinced that this incident was a victory for monotheism: something to be celebrated without question.   

I was in the #pachamamanachamama crowd.  Now, I am not so sure. 

Since the Pachamamas took a swim, I have heard more reports of Amazon natives seemingly describing their statues as the Virgin Mary, “Our Lady of the Amazon.”  This shook my certainty. Were the dissenting voices, hoarse with criticism on supposed idolatry, so loud that we could not hear the good will of the Amazonians in their attempt to grasp our doctrine through the window of their own customs?  Far be it from me, or anyone, to rashly burn bridges between foreign culture and theological understanding!  

I think this presents two excellent opportunities: 1) growth in humility and 2) reaffirmation of Christ as King.

The mixed concoction of reports on Pachamama coming from the Vatican and various news sources is nothing less than pandemonium.  I now grant the possibility that, beneath the chaotic din, all Amazonian intentions behind the use of these statues, at least at the Vatican, were innocent of intentional paganism.  If this is so, I feel ashamed over my initial biases.

That said, we shall never back an inch when it comes to our treatment of idol worship.  It is a stain on any culture that practices it, and ought to be rooted out for the salvation of souls.  One of the chief concerns surrounding the Pachamama debacle is that, even if considered a representation of the Blessed Virgin, it bears an undeniable association with the actual worship of natural objects and processes, like the earth, fertility, and motherhood: all created things, not creators.  Again looking for some excuse for pagan-like behavior at the Amazon Synod, perhaps this mishap is due to theological naiveté, resulting in an inappropriate crossover between idolatry and Marian devotion.  This does not warrant admiration for its novelty and exotic nature, but rather correction.  Nothing is worse in these moments than to let everyone drift into doctrinal uncertainty and wander into spiritual destruction.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon the clergy to unequivocally, albeit compassionately, stamp out any sign of paganism, thereby lifting all eyes from graven images heavenward.  We have yet to see decisive clarity on this issue from the Vatican.    

However, some brave clergy have taken Pachamama to task.  

Bishop Emeritus José Luis Azcona Hermoso, once bishop of a Brazilian diocese, proclaimed “Pachamama is not and never will be the Virgin Mary. To say that this statue represents the Virgin is a lie. She is not Our Lady of the Amazon because the only Lady of the Amazon is Mary of Nazareth.” 

These strong words are corroborated by those of Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who, in an extensive letter (found here), reveals the intrinsically pagan nature of Pachamama, going so far as to compare it to the golden calf that the Israelites worshipped in Moses’ absence.  The Amazonian statue’s very essence, as it was created to do, exudes idolatry. Bishop Schneider emphasizes the importance of completely shunning any hint of paganism, condemning it as nefarious and jeopardizing to the soul. 

Many Catholics have rushed to defend Pachamama, decrying the perceived insensitivity to unfamiliar customs.  They may think that more traditional Catholics simply do not tolerate the spiritual plurality of various cultures.  Ah! But this is where the beauty of the truth in Christ is especially resplendent! God, in His goodness, uses culture as a canvas on which to paint His glorious divinity as He sees fit, not as conceived by the limited cognition of humanity.  He quite literally did this when He allowed the image of Mary to be fused into the tilma of St. Juan Diego.  This example is quite different from Pachamama in that Mary appeared as herself, the Mother of God, in a way that was especially significant to Juan Diego: a young, indigenous woman, wearing native clothing, and affixing her own likeness to his cultural apparel.  By doing so, Mary succeeded in conveying the full truth of Christ as Savior and God as King, all in a language St. Juan Diego clearly understood. With Pachamama, there appears to be an incredible amount of blurred lines between creation and creator, seeming to pull God down to earth, rather than drawing earth up to God.    

Our God is a jealous God, and He will not share His rightful place as Lord and Creator with man-made objects.  We get into trouble when we merely entertain the idea of honoring nature, fertility, Mother Earth, etc. Who can bow before any form of creation when we are constantly in the presence of Almighty God?  With all this in mind, for the glory and honor of Our Lord, perhaps the Pachamama indeed belongs in the toxic depths of the Tiber.    

This is a message of joy, not of cruelty.  May we all indiscriminately leave behind our belongings, our cultural, spiritual, and material idols, renouncing the things of this world, and follow Our Lord.

Edited by Luke Parker

6 Responses

  1. “The “logic” used seems contrary to Dignitatis Humanae.”

    That’s because the logic of Dignitatis Humanae, that humans have a natural right to worship false gods, is contrary to Catholic teaching. Good thing Dignitatis Humanae isn’t infallible.

  2. I appreciate the comments of Bishop Emeritus José Luis Azcona Hermoso, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider. It seems to me that Bishop Emeritus Hermoso is from the Amazon area and has direct knowledge of such things. He stated that they do NOT represent the Virgin Mary. I will go with his opinion. Two great essays…..Thank you.

  3. The first article is absolutely and unjustifiably wrong on SO MANY counts!

    First — There’s such a level of uncertainty and insecurity, except for the accusation of “theft” and “abduction.” There are many “if’s” and “but’s” — “appears to be unjustifiable,” “it’s suspected,” “worship is not verifiable,” “intentions are unclear,” “their culture is not readily present in the world today,” “If the artist meant,” etc. No article should ever be written this way. If the writer has no clue as to what he is writing about it, then he should give up trying to defend what cannot be defended.

    There is no doubt that Pachamama was always worshipped as a deity — sacrifices were offered to it, even human sacrifices, including children. The only people who turn a blind eye to this fact are those who want to defend the Holy Father’s decision to participate in that scandalous event – not all the actions of the Pope need to be defended, especially if they are wrong!

    The indigenous cultures of the Amazon are still in existence. The simple fact that the writer of the first article was not aware of their existence does not mean that “their culture is not readily present in the world today.” This limited way of looking at this problem explains why the article was written with the level of uncertainty with which it was written.

    “If the artist … meant to represent Mary …” It has been clarified that the statuettes were not meant to represent the Bl. Mother and the writer should have known that if he had done minimal research!

    AND then at the end, the writer says that the removal of the statuettes is unjustifiable even “if the indigenous people are discovered to have committed idolatry”! It is clear from this that the intention of the writer is to attack and condemn “the theft” rather than actually attempt to clarify what really happened in the Vatican Gardens. It does not concern him whether idolatry was committed, whether the Holy Father failed in his responsibilities as Vicar of Christ, whether the faithful were scandalized or not, whether God was dishonored, and/or whether reparation needs to be made.

    FINALLY, the writer seems more concerned with everybody’s rights except God’s rights and his commandments. How sad!

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