[Note: this article has been updated. See here]
On Friday, October 4th, a ceremony took place in Vatican gardens in preparation for the Synod on the Amazon. This ceremony was not organized by the Vatican itself, but by the Order of Friars Minor, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, and the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network. Here is Vatican’s press release issued before the ceremony. A video of the entire service can be seen below.
The high point of the ceremony, as the Vatican press release shows, was the planting of a holm tree from Assisi (see video from 1:03:00 to 1:09:00,) as “a visible sign of integral ecology” and to consecrate the upcoming Synod to the protection and intercession of St. Francis. There was also prayer and preaching, as well as a very interesting and moving segment where soil from the Amazon and other places on the planet (symbolizing a host of social problems worldwide) was added to the place where the tree was going to be planted.
Papal detractors on social media have, however, chosen to focus their attention on a 5-minute segment at the beginning of the ceremony, where some indigenous leaders perform a ritual (see video from 07:00 to 12:40) that that they interpret as being pagan in origin.
Is there any truth to this claim?
Before Francis’ election, the idea that a seed of Truth resided in every religion and culture of the world was paraded by apologists as a perfectly orthodox notion. The Second Vatican Council mentioned, in its Decree Ad Gentes #11, the semina verbi (“seeds of the Word”) lying hidden in other national and religious traditions. I am reminded of when people in Catholic media have promoted Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man” as one of the most excellent book recommendations for Catholics: a book that was very careful to classify religions in 4 types – religion of God, of gods, of demons, and of philosophers; only the third being completely unredeemable. Just as I remember fondly when videos such as this one were shared, using the partial truth contained in every religion as an argument for the existence of God.
All of this, and many other Catholic teachings that were constitutive of the apologetics movement when I was growing in my faith (like the doctrine of mitigating circumstances or the assent of mind and will owed to the teachings of the Pope in faith and morals, even the non-infallible ones,) have been forgotten since Pope Francis was elected. The growing distaste for this pontiff drove many formerly-faithful apologists to cultivate something completely different entirely: a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”
According to this hermeneutic, every single act and word of the pontiff must be scrutinized with the following interpretative lens: he is trying to undermine the Deposit of the Faith, either directly or indirectly. Year after year, they have dedicated all their time to spinning every single act of the Pope in the worst possible light, so much so that one marvels at this “inverted miracle” whereby a single man (especially one that is covered by Jesus’ promise that the gates of Hell shall not prevail, and that, according to Donum Veritatis, receives Divine Assistance even in promulgating Church discipline) can get everything wrong and do nothing right, ever.
For a certain sector of our Church, especially in the West, this constant and incessant propaganda has molded their perception of the current pontiff in an indelible way, so that they now accept these distortions uncritically. And every new action of the pope is followed by a new spin that consolidates their view further and further. On this website, we have dedicated ourselves to debunking their accusations, while we are perfectly aware that Brandolini’s Law places us at a disadvantage. However, for those affected by the hermeneutic of suspicion, facts will not suffice. Every attempt at contextualizing their claims and refuting them will be dismissed as spinning, the same activity they have engaged in incessantly for years. If it is proven that the Pope did not do what he was accused of doing, then the goal posts will be moved: the Pope did not do it, but he was purposefully ambiguous so as to give the impression that he had done it. The Pope is suspect, and the suspicions become non-falsifiable claims. This is how the hermeneutic of suspicion operates.
This is important, because the promoters of this hermeneutic have already laid out the groundwork in preparation for the Amazon Synod, priming their audience for the spin they will unleash over the next three weeks. They have built a narrative around this Synod: that it is an instrument for promoting paganism and heresy. There have been crusades of prayer and fasting and even exorcisms to prevent the alleged errors of the working document of the Synod (which is not magisterial and is meant only to direct the discussion) from being approved. Since the Synod is only a consultative body that advises the Pope, who will make the final decision and write or approve the final document on the matter, one wonders how these fears can well-founded, unless they don’t believe Francis is trustworthy to filter out heresies and heterodoxy.
The controversy around the October 4th ceremony is a product of this hermeneutic of suspicion. More than that, it is a textbook example of the hermeneutic of suspicion at work. The fact that many have already started reading Francis’s actions as validation of their narrative at such an early stage is an ominous sign of difficult times ahead (but unfortunately, not surprising.) In this sense, it behooves us to address this.
The remainder of this article has two objectives: 1) to debunk the false claims about the ceremony; and 2) to show how media reporting, even from sources that might not be directly engaged in building this culture of the hermeneutic of suspicion, are being used to stoke the fire of this pernicious worldview.
The alleged pagan idols
The main accusation being leveled against the ceremony is that it is a “pagan ritual” and should not have a place in the Vatican. First, this ceremony was not a Mass, where obviously no paganism should be allowed. Apart from its Catholic mission, the Vatican indeed has a wealth of pagan art in its collection.
That said, one can argue that it is very different for the Vatican to collect and display pagan art and for it to host a pagan ritual, especially in front of the Pope. This is a fair assessment. But was this a pagan ritual to begin with?
Catholic News Agency (CNA) initially reported that “people held hands and bowed before carved images of pregnant women.” And elsewhere, that they “knelt and bowed in a circle around images of two semi-naked pregnant women.” A screenshot of the original wording can be seen below.
This wording seems to leave who those pregnant women were open to interpretation.
Later on in the article, this identity lacuna is (whether the reporters intended it or not) filled in with additional information: “Participants sang and held hands while dancing in a circle around the images, in a dance resembling the ‘pago a la tierra,’ a traditional offering to Mother Earth common among indigenous peoples in some parts of South America.”
From that point forward, many people on social media who adhere to the hermeneutic of suspicion narrative were irreversibly convinced that this was a pagan ritual directed to Mother Earth, and that the statues of pregnant women were fertility idols. Later, they found validation for this suspicion of theirs in the caption of a picture from Getty Images:
Yet this view does not hold up to scrutiny. The ritual is preceded by speeches in Italian that have nothing but Christian terminology. The rest of the ceremony is also perfectly Christian. Are we expected to believe that there was a pagan ritual inserted in the middle of a Catholic prayer service, without any mention of the abrupt change in religious context, without an introduction to the alleged fertility goddesses; without any explanation whatsoever? The more reasonable explanation, given the context, is that this ritual was also Christian.
Later, one of the statues was taken by one of the indigenous women to the Pope for his blessing. The statue is then announced (in a language that is either Spanish or heavily accented Portuguese) as “Our Lady of the Amazon, [inaudible] of the Church” (can be seen and heard from 13:20 to 13:35 in the video).
The identity of the statue as Our Lady of the Amazon is strengthened by a tweet by Vatican journalist Christopher Lamb, where a similar representation of Mary is shown in a Catholic chapel. His tweet can be seen below:
This explains that it is not an idol of a fertility goddess, but an icon of Our Lady. In other words, the figure is not pagan, but Catholic. Given the precedent in our iconography, I think that it is safe to assume that the representation of two pregnant women in which one of them is Our Lady is a representation of the Visitation.
Later in the day, Catholic News Agency amended the article, revising it to say: “people held hands and bowed before carved images of pregnant women, one of which reportedly represented the Blessed Virgin Mary.” They also inserted a new paragraph later in the article:
I believe that such an important change to the article, especially given the controversy about allegedly pagan idols erupting in response to it, should not have been made quietly, but should have been clearly and conspicuously featured at the beginning of the article. Admittedly, CNA notes at the end of the article that it had been updated, but it does not say where or how. In the interest of truth, I think CNA has a responsibility to try to dispel misinterpretations that their article helped to create, by being more forceful and specific in their updated information.
Additionally, the mention to the “pago de tierra” was not helpful and should be clarified. Saying that a dance “resembles” a “pago de tierra” is a subjective assessment and should only be brought forth if the “pago de tierra” was explicitly mentioned by the organizers in relation to the ritual. Perhaps that is the case, but if not, I urge CNA to remove the reference to the “pago de tierra” as off-topic and potentially misleading.
Either way, it is already established that one of the statues is Our Lady, and the two pregnant women are most likely a representation of the Visitation. Many people keep hammering away the line that this is an idolatrous practice, since the participants were bowing to statues. Of course, Catholics in particular, and apologists in particular, that there is nothing wrong with bowing to a statue of Our Lady, and that there is a difference between adoration (latria) and veneration (dulia).
The phallic man
When confronted with the above facts, many of those who have subscribed to the hermeneutic of suspicion will point out to another statue, allegedly and apparently featuring a lying man with an erection. Such representations are typical of pagan fertility cults and many counter-apologists tried to link the two pregnant women to the phallic man as some kind of fertility triad.
There are two problems with this assertion. First, the alleged “phallic man” does not occupy a central position in the mandala as the two pregnant women do. I do think it is not accurate to link the three statues as if they were one single set.
Secondly, and more importantly, this accusation crumbles on its own, since this is not a phallic man at all. It was none other than Michael Voris who brought this to our attention:
That the protrusion is an arm and not a penis, can be clearly seen in the video on the 06:43 mark. A few second before that, a friar mentions that the center of the mandala contains various symbols, including what seems to be the Italian word for “martyr.” Might this figure, lying down with a hand reaching out to heaven, be that representation of the martyrs? I cannot say, but it is a possibility.
Regardless, this figure does not occupy the center. It appears that the people are bowing to the representation of Our Lady. Not only is this plausible, it is much more charitable to interpret it this way than to reactively accuse others of “heresy” or “paganism” for engaging in a ritual one does not understand.
The appropriateness of the representation
After being shown the overwhelming evidence that the statue is, in fact, a representation of Our Lady, some have moved the goal posts again and started calling into question the appropriateness of the representation. They claim that it is blasphemous to portray the Virgin Mary as a naked woman.
It bears mentioning that the point of the representation is not to show Mary naked, but to show her as an indigenous person from the Amazon. The Catholic Church has a venerable tradition of representing Jesus and Mary in ways that resonate with the people who are praying and worshipping.
The Virgin Mary is here being represented as an Amazonian. Her nakedness is the same tribal nakedness as the peoples of the Amazon. Some might insist that it is still inappropriate to represent the Virgin Mary in this way. This echoes the same criticism that Michelangelo received centuries ago when painting the Sistine Chapel. Even though he painted a fully clothed Virgin Mary, all the other figures, including Jesus and saints, were painted completely naked: a scandal at the time. Representing Catherine of Alexandria and the Apostles naked was also not regarded as appropriate by many at the time.
Looking at the statue, it is not clear to me that Mary’s nakedness is being exposed in a way that is meant to highlight her body in inappropriate ways. The icon is very representational and with very little detail. She is kneeling in a reverent way and the center of attention is her baby, which is featured as if her belly was translucent.
Some critics have tried to draw attention to the statue’s breasts. I do not think they are being represented in an inappropriate way, and I also draw attention to the fact that bare-breasted representations of the Virgin Mary are also very traditional and not considered inappropriate.
Since all their charges thus far have crumbled under the weight of the facts, the proponents of the hermeneutic of suspicion have taken refuge in saying: “Perhaps this was a statue of Mary, but it is still wrong, since it is not Catholicism, but syncretism.” Syncretism is a loose word that they can stamp on this ceremony in order to be done with it. But is this really the case?
We must distinguish between syncretism and inculturation. The International Theological Commission published in 1988 a document on Faith and Inculturation, in which it mentions how, even if Catholicism contains truths that transcend every culture, still Christianity established itself in history and therefore, subject to cultures. Namely, early Christianity underwent inculturation from Jewish and Greco-Roman milieus. Regarding inculturation of faith in non-Christian religions, the Commission said:
“From its origin, the Church has encountered on many levels the question of the plurality of religions (…) Given the great place of religion in culture, a local or particular Church implanted in a non-Christian sociocultural milieu must take seriously into account the religious elements of this milieu. Moreover, this preoccupation should be in accordance with the depth and vitality of these religious elements.”
A few years earlier, Pope St. John Paul II published his apostolic exhortation Sapientia Christiana, where he makes important distinctions:
“Also, its exposition [of Divine Revelation] is to be such that, without any change of the truth, there is adaptation to the nature and character of every culture, taking special account of the philosophy and the wisdom of various peoples. However, all syncretism and every kind of false particularism are to be excluded.
The positive values in the various cultures and philosophies are to be sought out, carefully examined, and taken up. However, systems and methods incompatible with Christian faith must not be accepted.”
Can we really say that this ceremony has gone beyond the adaptation to the nature and character of the native Amazonian culture and made a change to truth instead? Can we say that this ritual has not taken up the positive values of their culture and philosophy and has adopted methods incompatible with Christian faith?
If someone says that, then that person should be the one to provide irrefutable evidence. “This is obviously pagan” or “this doesn’t seem Catholic to me,” does not cut it. Rather, it betrays a view of Catholicism that confuses our religion with a certain expression of it, typical of Western culture. Granted, historically, Western and European culture have dominated Catholicism. But this does not mean that it is the only possible expression, or that non-Western or non-European expressions of Catholicism are not legitimate.
On the contrary: “Catholic” means “universal.” There is nothing more Catholic than conveying the Gospel, a message that transcends cultures, to every single culture in the universe, shaping it according to Christian principles. “This does not seem Catholic to me,” when confronted with a legitimately inculturated ceremony, is one of the most un-Catholic things to say, if we take the etymology of the word “Catholic” seriously.
There is no evidence that this ceremony was an expression of syncretism. What we do know is this: people bowed to an image of Our Lady and the rest of the ceremony was imbued with Christian messages and language. There is, for me, no evidence that it was an attempt to make paganism equal to Christianity, but of inculturating aspects of native Amazonian culture (which might have been partly influenced by its pagan past), while still being completely Christian. The syncretism charges are, completely unsubstantiated and are being used as an escape route to save face.
The black ring
The CNA article also mentions that one of the indigenous women approached the Holy Father and offered him a “black ring.” This did not receive as much attention as the allegedly pagan ritual, but there were still some people focusing on it to consolidate the narrative.
We don’t actually know if it was a tucum ring or not. CNA says that “it appears” to be one. Secondly, we must remember that, just because the Holy Father receives a gift, that does not mean that he endorses it.
However, assuming it is a tucum ring and that the Pope has nothing against this gift (two plausible assumptions in my opinion), one must ask: was it such a bad thing?
CNA associates the tucum ring with liberation theology. However, the tucum ring precedes liberation theology. During the colonial era (just like today) gold rings were used to symbolize marriage and commitment. Afro-Brazilian slaves and Natives, unable to afford these gold rings, started to carve rings made out of the dark “tucum” palm tree. Eventually, it became a symbol of their shared culture, of fraternity between them and of resistance against those who would oppress them. Later, in addition to being associated with liberation theology, it also became a symbol of social causes and commitment to the poor.
The ring was offered by a native woman to a Pope who, despite widespread propaganda, is not a Marxist, but has a serious commitment to the poor. Again, I think the association with liberation theology was unhelpful and the most reasonable explanation is that the tucum ring was offered as a symbol of Pope Francis’s commitment to the Amazonian people.
The Pope’s absent remarks
Many people have also made inferences regarding the Pope’s response to this ceremony. At the closing part of the service, after the organizers announced that the Pope would make some final remarks (around the 01:09:00 mark,) he simply prayed the Our Father and made no other statement. Some have assumed that the Pope was just trying to get out of there with fear of being associated with such a ritual.
It could very well be the case, but this is an assumption. There are many other possible explanations: lack of time, the Pope’s tendency to improvise, even his health. Other news outlets mentioned that the Pope seemed tired, sitting at a blazing noonday sun. In fact, the Pope’s voice during the Our Father sounds very hoarse (cf. 01:09:07).
Many problems have already been caused by filling out the vacuum of information with assumptions. We should not view this act of the Pope necessarily as a condemnation or repudiation of the ceremony. Until further clarification on the Holy See’s part, we should refrain from judgment.
As usual, the narrative built up by the hermeneutic of suspicion does not hold up as time passes and new facts gradually dissipates it. Unfortunately, we have seen how easy it was for these hermeneuts to take a simple ceremony and create, in a few hours, an entire account of the events amenable to their worldview, which then went viral. We should expect more of this as the Amazon Synod keeps unfolding.
We cannot refute all their charges in real time; they are inevitably overwhelming. With each new commenter, new charges are raised ex nihilo as he finds something to pick on, based on his uninformed opinion of the situation, which is then readily shared uncritically by every likeminded person. Many times, the truth takes time to surface. Facts often are noticeable only after the dust settles. By then, many people will already be convinced and closed to the truth and facts as they come.
This article is based on my viewing of the entire ceremony (including my knowledge of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) and on conversations with many people who are more knowledgeable than I on what happened. However, I am still not privy to many of the details. As a Westerner, much of the culture that shaped this ritual may have eluded me. New information may emerge that may prove some of these points wrong. I am open to being corrected, as long as this is done with primary sources and by unbiased people in search of truth, and not of validation of a preconceived ideological narrative.
I have already implied one of the main conclusions of this article: do not jump to conclusions. The hermeneutic of suspicion will intensify in the following days. Do not despair, even if the arguments shown by the catastrophists seem irrefutable. You do not need to form an opinion on everything, and you do not need to form it in real-time or very quickly. Wait for the dust to settle and try to listen to authoritative or primary sources before you decide. Most especially, be aware that there is a campaign to undermine the Holy Father, led by people who spin every single action and word of his in the worst possible way. Disinformation is bound to come to your doorstep, so proceed with caution.
My second conclusion is a plea to the media, especially Catholic media. I urge you to consider context, and to be responsible in the way you report these events. Try not to make loose associations and try not to fill the lacunae of information with assumptions, no matter how grounded you find them to be. Try to stick to what is objective (in this story, there was much on the ceremony that could have been reported and that was simply glossed over in favor of a 5-minute segment). If you find yourself to have reported some error or imprecision that may have fueled the hermeneutic of suspicion, do not be afraid to apologize or retract. If you update, do it in a noticeable fashion. It is not just the Holy Father’s reputation that is at stake, but a commitment to truth itself.
In this particular context, CNA reported that “no explanation was provided by the event organizers as to why the dance was performed (…) or what it symbolized.” I think it would be interesting to pursue this further and to try to understand the details of this ceremony and the meaning of the symbols from the people who arranged and participated in it.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.