Theotokos or Pachamama?

Theotokos or Pachamama? October 24, 2019

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.

Images via Pixabay

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  • Neko

    This piece is excellent. Thank you.

  • Ame

    Gloria Andalzua’s “Borderlands/La Frontera” largely influenced my appreciation for how indigenous and folk religions regard Our Lady, especially given the tragic history of colonialism and suppression of cultures.

    I do think there are many ways for the Church to show respect for difference in worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, even if not yet orthodox, and devotion to His saints, to make reparation for the Church’s involvement in colonialism and racism (and celebrate what the Church did right for the indigenous peoples). For instance, in the Yaqui reservation in Arizona, the local parish may not be involved in the Easter celebrations that mix Christian and pagan elements, but such customs are discussed as a point of reference for catechesis of the the Yaquis.

    While the Church can inculturate elements of indigenous customs and imagery as indigenous peoples contribute to the building up of the Church, it’s not right to appropriate a statue that even some indigenous people suspect is an idol and pass it off as a Christian religious icon suitable for the promotion of Christian worship or devotion. I see this as a fault of the Vatican failing it’s pastoral duties, the right of indigenous to come up with a way to merge their roots into traditional Catholic symbology, like in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Give the Christian indigenous peoples more credit to their faith than blanket generalisations that a clothed Virgin Mary is unrelatable.

  • Tony Correia

    Gabriel, so much verbiage trying to defend the indefensible. I will not even attempt to print so many words.
    It is obvious to any reasonable Catholic that some strange syncrentinistic things are occurring at the Vatican during the Amazon Synod. Even some of the indigenous people there said they recognized the Vatican gardens ritual as being pagan. The modernists in the church are bringing their foul plans to fruition.

  • Brilliant post, thank you. All this nonsense about Pachamama is upsetting. Essentially the anti-Catholics are now Catholic themselves, condemning all and sundry because of their dislike of Pope Francis and anything he says and does.

  • Carolyn Schuster

    Nope, you need to keep up. NO ONE called the idols the BVM. This was affirmed over and over and over as a fertility symbol and as such an earth-worshipping IDOL as all pagan idols are. And the fact that it was worshipped and ensconsed in front of the Holy of holies is profane. It really is clear and simple as Truth always is.

  • Carolyn Schuster

    Our Lady of Guadaloupe is not symbol, she is real and her image is real. The only colonials in this mess are the germans who USED these people from South America, flown in at great expense by the anti catholic Ford Foundation and propped up for show by the German clergy. The hubris and arrogance of a pre-written “synod” and a parade of earth-worshipping simpletons as some sort of reason for accepting women in men’s clearly ordained roles is what this is all about. And it is not stopping here. In May the Popes “education alliance” will continue the drumbeat of an ecumenical, earth-focused global religion. The Amazon Synod and the contrived Youth Synod are the introduction and attempt to transform the Church and is is not letting up. People will need to choose whom they will serve and as Jesus said, “My people perish for lack of knowledge”

  • Ame

    You have misunderstood me. Yes, Our Lady of Guadalupe is real. And the tilma has many indigenous symbols incorporated into it that has made it possible for one of the greatest mass conversions in history.

    While it does seem that colonialism has taken on a new flavor, what had been done to to the indigenous peoples by colonialists, including those who were part of the Church, was garbage, not Gospel.

  • Bev Mabry

    even Pope Francis referred to them as pachamamas …

  • H S

    There is outrage that the people of God are being taken for a ride. Please take time to read what you want others to. Your arguments are soooooo ludicrous, not worth refuting.

  • Neko

    Wouldn’t be so quick to vilify “earth-worshipping simpletons,” since it appears you’re a bit of a simpleton yourself.

  • Neko

    You wrote:

    Nope, you need to keep up. NO ONE called the idols the BVM.

    False. It’s on video. Why is it so important for you to believe otherwise?

  • H S

    Now that the Pope has said it IS pachamama, what do you have to say?

  • Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas

    You can call it what you want. It is inappropriate in a Catholic Church anywhere, and is an obscenity when compared to the self-portrait of Our Lady imprinted on the tilma of Guadalupe. The issue is important because Our Lady is important, more important than the profanities attached to the pachamama in the vatican.

  • Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas

    Ad Hominem.
    Bad form.
    Sign of a failing argument, to resort to name-calling.

  • Neko

    OK, let’s try this again: your susceptibility to silliness and demagoguery would suggest you’re unsophisticated.


  • Neko

    It’s not a “pachamama.” Pope Francis’s spokesman said the pope used the word because that’s how the statue was dubbed by the Italian press. Apparently “Pachamama” is an Andean goddess. However, the women invited to the Vatican are Amazonians. I guess “earth-worshipping simpletons,” as you so charmingly referred to them, are all the same. Aren’t they supposed to be your sisters in Christ, or does that only go for white people?

  • Yo bud, no need to bring the whole “you’re a racist” into this stuff. Anyone who accepts Jesus as Lord and is baptized into His Church is my brother and sister. Pagans ain’t, even white ones who worship money and other urban false gods.

  • Bruh, it’s been dubbed “Pachamama” by the Italian press because that’s what it friggin is:

  • Context. The pope never said it was Pachamama. He referred to them in the way the Italian and other media were referring to them, for clarity. He also made it clear that no idolatry was involved. The Vatican cleared all this up, so there’s no need to latch onto one word, ignore the explanations about it, and ignore the rest of the facts. Believing the pope when he says what you want to believe, while rejecting what you don’t want, is Protestant.

  • Neko

    “Bruh”? I’m a woman.

  • Neko

    Was I talking to you? My comment was directed to Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas, who I am trying real hard to believe isn’t a character in a pastiche.

  • Haha, whoops, I’m so stupid. Sorry *facepalm*

  • Sorry, I can’t help but jump into the conversation mate.

  • Neko

    It’s no biggie, bruh.

  • Jim the Scott

    The reactionary trads are inconsistent here. The Statues are called “Our Lady of the Amazon” by the people performing the ritual. Now wither the ritual was an appropriate way to honor Our Lady or wither or not it is appropriate to use unauthorized and unconventional statues of Our Lady in a ritual in the presence of the Supreme Pontiff is a fair and proper discussion to have. Also if the specifics of the ritual cross the line from inculcation The Vatican spokesmem have said the statues are not Mary but they also said people where not blowing down during the ritual. The empirical evidence contradicts both claims yet they treat the spokesmen’s claims the statues are not Our Lady as Gospel but they call them out on claims no prostrations took place? Yes the Pope referred to the statues as “the pachamama statues” but his spokesmen clarified he was refering to them by the label the media gave them not the goddess. Yet that part is ignored and the trads are claiming Pope Francis has all but decreed Ex Cathedra these statues are of the false goddess Pachamama.

    I am all for fair and principled criticism of this Pope but I have no use for unfair and inaccurate criticism.

  • H S

    The Vatican news said this; ‘ Pope Francis’ words

    Good afternoon. I want to say a word about the statues of the pachamama that were taken from the church of the Transpontina – which were there without idolatrous intentions – and were thrown into the Tiber.’

    And you said: ‘ Because the statue was of the Blessed Virgin Mary.‘

    Can you still not see the contradiction? Come on i am not that naive…

  • sancho

    Nice article Gabriel. Welcome to Patheos. Try not to let the Jack Chick Catholics get under your skin. They just “know” an idol when they see one, just like Chick did. Anyway you seem very thorough and well educated as well as a genuinely nice person. God bless.

  • H S

    “It is not the Virgin Mary, who said it is the Virgin Mary?” said Vatican Communications official Fr. Giacamo Costa, SJ, at a press conference on the Amazon Synod on October 16. Cristiane Murray, vice director of the Holy See press office, pointed journalists desiring more information about the statue to make inquiries to REPAM (Red Eclesial Pan-Amazónica/Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network), which organized the ceremony.

    Please next time get your facts right.

  • H S

    THIS article says this: “ And I do say sacrilegious. Because the statue was of the Blessed Virgin Mary.“ did i miss something?

  • Mark

    I agreed with this post up until I found out that several weeks before the synod the Italian bishops published a prayer to pachamama.

    I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt even after Pope Francis called it pachamama because I thought “well that’s what everyone’s been calling it so he’s just using the common reference, like in scare quotes.”

    But now we find out about that prayer from the Italian bishops and…it just feels like it’s harder and harder to keep explaining this away. The efforts to do so, in my own mind, started feeling more and more desperate.

  • vinny152

    Let’s face it:Religion of any kind- is simply a part of homo sapien’s evolutionary process,and will disappear gradually at the appropriate time of cerebral evolution-when”survival will include-kindness,compassion and love-J.L.(

  • ColoradoSusan

    This article is incorrect. Pope Francis himself, as well as Vatican officials, said he has no clue what the Pachamama signify. And then…he blessed them anyway.

    The significant fire point of the whole Pachamama affair is not about what the statuettes signify; it’s about a Pope who blesses them while admitting he has no clue what they are.

    Francis is a very gregarious person who loves to connect with people. Fine. But while he connects with people, he also needs to defend the faith.

  • Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas

    The Shaman who conducted the ritual describes it here. She would know best what she intended, rather than some European spokesperson who neither attended nor spoke the language.

    Statement by Ednamar de Oliveira Viana
    4 October 2019


    To plant is to have hope. It is believing in a growing and fruitful life to satisfy the hunger of Mother Earth’s creation. This brings us to our origin by reconnecting divine energy and teaching us the way back to the Creator Father.

    The Synod is to plant this tree, water and cultivate, so that the Amazonian peoples are heard and respected in their customs and traditions experiencing the mystery of the divinity present in the Amazonian ground.

    Planting in the Vatican Garden is a symbol that invites the Church to be even more committed to the forest peoples and all of humanity. But also, it is the denunciation of those who destroy our common house by greed in search of their own profit.

  • Neko

    Why do you have a problem with this? It’s lovely.

  • Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas

    The problem is not with its inherent beauty, but with its intent.
    1750 The morality of human acts depends on:
    – the object chosen;
    – the end in view or the intention;
    – the circumstances of the action.
    The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.

  • Neko

    Yes, yes. There is nothing wrong with the intent. All the evil in the world and you’re fixated on an innocent gesture.


  • Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas

    You see ‘innocence’ where the diabolical was intended and perpetrated. December 6 is to be an international day of Reparation and Repentance for Catholics around the world to atone for the apostasies and heresies of this pontificate. Please join us in prayer on that day, Neko, to deal with all the evil in the world.

  • Neko

    I don’t pray, but if I did I would pray for you to be delivered from this lunacy.