A Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Pope Francis’s Critics & the Amazon Statues
A wooden statue of a pregnant woman is pictured in the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina as part of exhibits on the Amazon region during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome Oct. 18, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Amazon Synod was remarkable for so many good things. Pope Francis showed genuine respect to the indigenous people of the Amazon, the bishops addressed the pastoral needs of the region with breakthrough recommendations to ordain married men and formally recognize the ministry of women, and participants raised up ecological degradation and predatory practices toward both the earth and the poor as urgent challenges of our time. It’s a shame that what many will remember from this synod instead is a two-foot-high wooden statue of a pregnant woman, which became the focus of ire, misunderstanding, fear, public controversy, and ultimately vandalism.

The small statue I am speaking of is, of course, the folk-art depiction of a pregnant woman that was placed on display, first at a tree-planting ceremony organized by Franciscans and later in a Roman church. At the tree planting a number of items representing life in the Amazon were arranged in a central position on the lawn of the Vatican gardens, with the assembly gathered around them in a circle: a canoe; a cloth covered with images of a river and plants; representations of birds and fish; a net; and several human figures, including martyrs to the faith and two pregnant native women, kneeling, in an introspective pose, with a child visible in the womb of each one. During the ceremony, an Amazonian woman picked up one of these folk-art pieces and presented it to Pope Francis, who blessed it. She called it “Our Lady of the Amazon” as she presented it to him (a video of the event shows this clearly, although not all of her words are audible). Some speculated that the two pregnant women together represented the Visitation, although this was never stated.

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No one in the delegation who set up the display, nor those in the organizing committee of the synod who had experience in the region, seemed at all ruffled by the presence of the images of the pregnant women. Pope Francis, who has a great respect for popular piety, was the least disturbed of all. He received the woman kindly, and gave his blessing to the image. When asked about the provenance of the figure, Fr. Fernando Lopez, SJ, an itinerant preacher who travels to the remote regions of the Amazon with a missionary group, said they had been using this image for years. They bought it in an artisan’s market in Brazil.

He explained that it represents life—an explanation similar to those offered by Paolo Ruffini of the Vatican Dicastery of Communications, and by Bishop David Guinea, a missionary bishop in Peru, who pointed out that he had seen this image on other occasions. “We all have different interpretations: the Virgin Mary, Mother Earth…women, fertility, life; Amazonia is meant to be full of life,” he said. The bishop’s answer, although hardly satisfying to those who wished to pin down the meaning to one thing, offered a good example of how multivalent symbols work. The cross, to take a classic example, embraces both suffering and glory, redemption and solidarity—it is never just one thing. Fr. Lopez was also comfortable making reference to the allusive qualities of the image of the pregnant woman: “We were all born from a mother, and we all have a mother who was pregnant and delivered us to life…. It’s a mystery, life itself, that signifies in a way that God is also mother, he’s engendered us and cares for life.” All of these interpretations are, strictly speaking, Christian.

Afterwards the display was transferred to the Carmelite church of St. Mary Transpontina, down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These figures and objects were intended to rest there as a sign of the living realities and theological perspectives that are part of the Amazonian region, realities that the synod wished to engage through their work and deliberations. The idea—familiar to anyone who has ever prepared a prayer corner or a focus table for a religious gathering—was that these tangible objects would bring to mind the spiritual realities we naturally associate with them, such as the sacredness of life, the beauty and fragility of the rainforest, the blessing of work, the necessity of witness, and so on, and so inspire people to pray for the synod. At least, that was what was supposed to happen.

What actually happened was a good deal less edifying. A flurry of outrage, prompted by the false idea that the statues and the ceremony itself were idolatrous, broke out in the right-wing press and across social media. Every explanation offered for the presence and meaning of the statuettes was subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion, and the more reasonable interpretations were discarded in favor of the most damning ones. Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, whipped into a frenzy of zealotry by the speculation that the figure actually represented Pachamama, an Andean female deity, stole the artworks from the church and threw them into the Tiber.

There are plenty of images of Pachamama, and some show her pregnant, but not one of them looks like the statuette from the Vatican ceremony.

Although the actual act of vandalism may have been spontaneous, the breakdown of understanding and civility that preceded it was the fruit of organized efforts to sabotage the synod. Indeed, charges of idolatry were being made before the synod began or anyone had seen the statue. Concerns about the “dangers” of inculturation, and dark warnings about the supposedly pagan nature of ecological themes in Pope Francis’s teachings, were already in the air.

To give a couple of examples: In June, the retired German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller published a public condemnation of the synod through journalist Sandro Magister’s blog. This broadside against the synod was released simultaneously in five different languages. Brandmüller deemed the working document “heretical” for its references to “Mother Earth,” which he decried as expressions of a “pantheistic idolatry of nature.” He was soon seconded by American Cardinal Raymond Burke, with whom he had coauthored the famous “dubia” in 2016, challenging Francis on the orthodoxy of his exhortation Amoris laetitia.

Journalist Christopher White, writing in Crux in September, also profiled a group called the “Pan-Amazon Synod Watch.” This “hub of resistance” was sponsored by the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute (IPCO) and the Societies for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), a traditionalist right-wing Brazilian organization devoted to capitalism. Oliveira, who died in 1995, was himself a traditionalist and strongly opposed to Vatican II. He was also particularly disdainful of indigenous peoples, whom he considered crypto-pagans. Their communitarian impulses, in Oliveria’s view, constitute a threat to civilization, which is bound up with private property. The TFP hosted a conference in Rome at the time of the synod, where they showcased their critique of everything they associated with it, from climate science to liberation theology. Cardinal Burke attended, and Cardinal Brandmüller closed the conference.

LifeSiteNews also attended this conference and interviewed a tribal leader who spoke at it, Jonas Marcolino Macuxi. Macuxi is an Evangelical Protestant. According to the article, he said the ritual on the Vatican lawn looked “decidedly ‘pagan.’” But Pedro Gabriel, a Portuguese doctor who has written extensively and carefully about the controversy at the website “Where Peter Is,” noted that if you actually listen to the video, you can see that Macuxi never used the word pagan. He says that the use of smoke for purification is primitive, and “we don’t do that.” But one is left to wonder if he might have said the same thing about liturgical uses of incense or about praying before statues of the saints—Catholic practices that many Evangelicals regard as improper. This is but one example of how an eagerness to tar the synod and Pope Francis with charges of syncretism and heresy ran ahead of the facts.

As the synod wore on, critics of the pope continued to fan the flames of anxiety and alarm—some even going so far as to compare the presence of the female figures to “the abomination of desolation” spoken of in Scripture, or to call their introduction into a church “a grave sin, a crime against the divine law” (this last from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who ought to know better). Some who viewed the video of the tree-planting ceremony spied what they thought was a phallic symbol in the display, and their panic deepened. They later were forced to admit that what they saw was merely the upraised arm of another statuette, lying on the ground, representing one of the martyrs of the Amazon. Scandal and outrage were easily aroused by, well, reading into things stuff that wasn’t there.

It is worth noting that there was nothing particularly Pachamama-like about the statues that were thrown into the Tiber, except that they were women. (Pope Francis called them “statues of the pachamama” when he announced that the police had recovered them from the river, but his use of this name was only because the Italian media had used it, according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.) You can look online for images of Pachamama and there are dozens. The Andean goddess’s name has been emblazoned on all kinds of things, including tours, ecological institutes, music groups, artworks, face creams, and more. There are plenty of images of Pachamama, and some show her pregnant, but not one of them looks like the statuette from the Vatican ceremony, whose outstanding qualities are (a) her humility, and (b) the child within her womb, who is visible and depicted with care as an individual. More typically, Pachamama is shown with an effusion of fruit and flowers around her, proud of her fertility, which is abundant; the child in her womb is not so important because, after all, she is a nature goddess and the fecundity of nature is wider than that.

It therefore seems clear to me that whether or not one could dig up a layer of indigenous nature-religion underlying the images that were brought into the Vatican and later vandalized, the image as it stands possesses genuine Christian qualities—specifically humility, dignity, and respect for both women and unborn children. These qualities may have drawn Christian believers to it in the first place, when they saw and purchased it in a market in Brazil. It is good that the Pope received it respectfully and blessed it. It belongs within the church, as a gift of the Amazonian people to the rich and varied patrimony of Catholicism.

Pope Saint Paul VI, in his landmark exhortation on evangelization in 1975, wrote that “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself” (no. 15). He also wrote, with great respect, that non-Christian and pre-Christian religions “are all impregnated with innumerable ‘seeds of the Word’ and can constitute a true ‘preparation for the Gospel’” (no. 53). There it is again—the symbol of pregnancy—this time used to describe the church in its work of evangelization. Perhaps rather than the image of the pregnant woman suggesting nature-worship, it ought to suggest to us that the Amazonian people are bringing to fruition the “seeds of the Word” that they have received. Perhaps if we could accept it in the right spirit, we might even be a little more evangelized ourselves.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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