The suspicion, hostility, and charges of idolatry being launched against the Amazon Synod, the Vatican in general, and the Holy Father are reaching seriously worrying levels. A statue lies at the heart of many of the debates: a statue of a pregnant woman, nude, carved in an Amazonian style, which was presented to the Holy Father shortly before a ritual dance performed near the beginning of the Synod by Amazonian people attending it. A number of traditionalist sites like Lifesite News promptly denounced the statue as the pagan goddess Pachamama, and this interpretation became popular enough that a pair of men styling themselves Cristeros broke into the church where the statue was being kept, stole it, and threw it in the Tiber.
The problems with this are frankly legion—for one thing, the real Cristeros risked something, where these two sacrilegious church-breakers did not. And I do say sacrilegious. Because the statue was of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We know this because the woman who presented the statue to the Holy Father said, quite clearly and on video, Nuestra Señora de la Amazonia as she did so, making the sign of the cross (skip to the 13.00 mark in the video for a little bit of the context; the actual title is expressed at 13.20). And even someone with very little Spanish will probably be able to recognize the title Our Lady of the Amazon. (Moreover, why on earth would Rome invite a large group of non-Catholic Amazonians to a synod in the first place? The region has been being evangelized for four hundred years; there is no shortage of Catholic Amazonians to invite.) It’s quite true that some Vatican officials, who may not have been close enough to hear or may not have been at this particular ceremony, had understood the figure to be a general representative of the earth and of life—which are still not exactly anti-Catholic concepts—but presumably an actual Amazonian Catholic may be trusted to know what the art of her culture means better than a Vatican official. But if we insist on taking other people’s words over hers, though for what reason I can’t imagine, we might try listening to Fr Roberto Carrasco Rojas, one of the organizers of the ceremony and himself a missionary in South America. He states in no uncertain terms that the statue was the Blessed Virgin Mary, connecting her to the Amazon and the earth in general, yes, but identifying her as the Virgin.
What’s more, Pachamama, whom traditionalists keep insisting (in the very teeth of the evidence) was really the being depicted, is not even an Amazonian goddess. Pachamama comes from the tradition of Incan polytheism, which flourished in the Andes, not the Amazon. This is like seeing a Norwegian painting of Mary depicted with the attributes of a Valkyrie and denouncing the painter as an unabashed worshiper of Athena. These accusers either don’t know what they’re talking about or don’t care about getting their facts right.
I think there may be some cause to believe the latter. One group that has fanned the fires of suspicion against the Synod is Tradition, Family, and Property (or TFP), a society of conservative Catholics originating in South America but with chapters in North America and Europe and ties to the National Catholic Register, Lifesite, and possibly Cardinal Burke and the Napa Institute. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, TFP’s founder, was a blatant anti-Semite, and called the Second Vatican Council “one of the greatest calamities in the history of the Church”; and, while it was blamed on overenthusiastic young members of the group and reputedly denounced by Oliveira, the organization apparently does not deny that a litany (modeled on litanies to the Blessed Virgin) was composed addressed to Oliveira’s mother, addressing her as, among other things, “Mother of the Doctor of the Church,” “Mother of the Unspeakable,” “Source of Light,” and “Mediator of all our graces”; titles not usual for persons whose cause for canonization has, so far as I know, not even been opened by the Holy See.
TFP itself, meanwhile, came to blows with the Holy Father while he was still Jesuit Provincial in Uruguay. It attached itself to the totalitarian and fascistic parties that arose in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile over the last several decades. In 1977, one Fr Vicente had to flee Uruguay after incurring TFP’s wrath for preaching against the murder of three Pallottine priests and two seminarians; Jorge Bergoglio, as he then was, assisted Fr Vicente’s escape. (Credentials on that and a number of the following scandals can be found here, both in the text and the sources it cites.)There seems to be a more general pattern of violent and schismatic ideology in TFP rhetoric and activity. The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, on TFP’s own showing, declared: “The lack of communion of TFP … with the Church in Brazil, its hierarchy, and the Holy Father [at this time St John Paul II] is well known. Its esoteric character, its religious fanaticism, the cult given to the personality of its leader and his mother, the abusive use of the name of Mary Most Holy … cannot in any way merit the approval of the Church. … The Bishops of Brazil exhort Catholics not to join TFP or collaborate with it.” (Archbishop Hélder Câmara, whom TFP urged the military government of Brazil to arrest, linked them to another murder, this one in Recife, of an aide of his.) In 1976, the TFP in Chile under Pinochet’s dictatorship published a book stating that Catholics were duty-bound to resist any priest who supported the episcopal hierarchy; in the same vein, a splinter group from the main organization, the Heralds of the Gospel, recently made the ludicrous assertion that a papal inquiry into them, prompted by concerns about their pastoral, formational, and financial activities, is “absolutely invalid and completely illegal.” It was also TFP which organized the Pan-Amazon Synod Watch (no I will not link to their website), because canon law says “The Holy See is judged of no one except he hath an internet connection.”
This “Synod Watch” began around the same time, I gather, that Cardinal Brandmüller denounced the Instrumentum Laboris, the Synod’s working document for discussion, as “heretical,” a rebellious and irresponsible claim to make against anything published by the Vatican without advancing any definite proof! Apparently he advanced it on the grounds: that the Instrumentum advocates ordaining women (it doesn’t); that it opens the door to ordaining married men (which is completely acceptable and is common practice in the Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic); that it syncretically mixes pagan elements into the Catholic faith under the guise of inculturation (which is not his to judge by himself—this is literally why we have a Pope); and he raises the question “What do ecology, economy, and politics have to do with the mandate and mission of the Church?” (when these issues impinge so obviously and seriously upon the poor, and especially the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, whose forests were recently devastated by massive fires negligently or maliciously ignored by the government of Brazil).
This is seriously bad news. The Catholic Church, especially here in America, has nobody but herself to thank for the distrust and hostility that many of us feel toward the hierarchy as a whole, including the Vatican; and criticisms of corruption are both just and called for. But criticizing corruption is one thing, and denying the teaching and governing office of the Pope is another. Refusing to distinguish the two is the essential root of Protestantism, and there is no amount of Catholic trappings or traditional rhetoric that can excuse deliberate revolt against the Holy Father’s office, whatever we think of his person.
The great poet Dante is famous for hating Pope Boniface VIII, who embodied everything that he, Dante, believed was wrong with the Church in his time. Frankly, Dante was right: financial corruption, ecclesiastical tyranny, and illegitimate interference with politics were rife in the fourteenth century Vatican. The poet denounced the Pope repeatedly in the Divine Comedy, condemning him to a soon-approaching damnation, and describing a terrifying roar arising from the saints as his corruption is discussed in heaven; and when Boniface was taken captive by soldiers of the King of France and so badly treated that he eventually died of it, the poet called it “Christ led captive and crucified in the person of his Vicar.” That is the kind of theological and moral clarity we must aspire to, and pray earnestly for.
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