Crisis editor Eric Sammons recently wrote an article in which he claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic is God’s way of punishing the world for the “idolatry” of “Pachamama.” WPI has published many articles refuting the idea that Pope Francis promoted, participated in, or condoned idolatry, but the accusation simply won’t die. Unfortunately, even an unsubstantiated charge begins to sound credible if it is reiterated often enough. Like the original idolatry accusation, the hypothetical COVID connection is hard to take seriously. It requires us to believe (among other things) that retributions for communal sin fall heavily on the poor and vulnerable, but lightly on those directly responsible for the hypothetical offense.

The Sins of Others

As well as being factually mistaken, these accusations of idolatry produce an unhealthy emphasis on the perceived sins of others. Sammons calls for public acts of reparation for the sin of “Pachamama idolatry.” Presumably, those who will heed his call are not those who were involved in the “Pachamama incident.” Those who participate in such acts of “reparation” will be tempted to see themselves as a righteous remnant deflecting the wrath of God from the Church.

Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Mexico City burns effigies of the Amazonian figure in “reparation” for the alleged “idolatry” in the Vatican.

We are all tempted to focus on the sins of others rather than on our own. Christ memorably encapsulated this in the parable of the splinter and the beam, and nothing has changed in the 2000 years since. This beam-induced blindness can affect social groups as well as individuals. We are tempted to focus our condemnation on the sins typical of “outsiders” or “opponents”; such indignation can blind us to the sins typical of our group or tribe.

Conservative Catholics want the Church to focus on denunciations of abortion and sexual sins, while progressive Catholics want the Church to focus on social justice. Our various political tribes slice the teachings of the Church up and package them into a range of comfortable and non-threatening moralities. These packaged selections can then be used to demonize the opposition. By contrast, a complete and truly “catholic” presentation of the Church’s teaching challenges every political ideology and every individual.

Traditionalist Catholics have spent a lot of time and energy denouncing the supposed idolatry of “Pachamama.” Even if such idolatry had occurred, it wouldn’t be within their control to do anything about it. Meanwhile, other forms of idolatry go unnoticed. There are, of course, the many kinds of informal idolatry to which human beings are prone. Wealth, power, status, and comfort can all become idols. Affluent Americans engage in conspicuous consumption merely to display their wealth. Meanwhile, Christ starves in the poor. Such behavior is certainly idolatrous.

As well as these informal types of idolatry, there is a more formal kind that particularly affects traditionalists: the worship of private judgment and the isolated conscience. Pope Francis writes about the isolated conscience in Let Us Dream:

No matter which realm we’re examining, it’s important to understand the effect of a bad-spirit temptation to withdraw spiritually from the body to which I belong, closing us in on our own interests and viewpoints by means of suspicion and supposition. And how this temptation turns us, ultimately, into beleaguered, complaining selves who disdain others, believing that we alone know the truth.

In the history of the Church there have always existed groups that have ended up in heresy because of this temptation to a pride that made them feel superior to the Body of Christ. In our own time, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) we have had revolutionary ideologies followed by restorationist ones…among Catholics of an isolated conscience, there is never a shortage of reasons for criticizing the Church, the bishops, or the Pope: either we are behind the times, or we have surrendered to modernity; we are not what we should be or supposedly once were. In this way, they justify withholding and separating themselves from the forward march of the People of God. Rather than throwing themselves into the great task of evangelizing our world in communion with the Body, they remain huddled in “their” group of purists, guardians of the truth. To the self beleaguered by the isolated conscience there is never a shortage of reasons for staying on the balcony while real life passes below. Thus are sown the seeds of division…

Those who declare there is too much “confusion” in the Church, and that only this or that group of purists or traditionalists can be trusted, sow division in the Body. This, too, is spiritual worldliness. The same is true of those who claim that until the Church ordains women as proof of its commitment to gender equality, the local parish or bishop cannot count on their involvement.

Further on, he writes:

It’s remarkable how quickly the isolated conscience deteriorates, spiritually and psychologically. Having separated them from the body of the People of God, the devil continues to feed such people fallacies and half-truths that close them off ever more in their Tarshishes of self-righteousness.

A clear example of this idolatry of the isolated conscience is the traditionalist claim that any well-educated and devout Christian has a “supernatural instinct” that can be used to judge the official magisterium of the Church. As I explained in a recent WPI article, this stance makes each individual into his or her own ultimate authority. Traditionalists claim to be following various reputable authorities or “the perennial teaching of the Church” rather than their own personal interpretations. In reality, however, each traditionalist is inevitably involved in making private judgments about which authorities to follow and about what the “perennial teaching” really is.

Of course, as Pope Francis points out, a similar dynamic can be found among Catholic “progressives.” While traditionalists tend to fall into an idolatry of the isolated conscience, the temptation is certainly not unique to them.

The Subtle Nature of Evil

When First World Catholics think of idolatry, they tend to think exclusively of bowing down before a “graven image.” Such an understanding makes it easy to miss the less dramatic forms of idolatry. There’s also more than a little implicit racism at work here. First World Christians feel free to casually label the marginalized Christians of the Global South as idolaters while being completely oblivious to their own worship of mammon.

This focus on more sensational forms of sin is a widespread and systemic problem, particularly for more conservative Christians. Obvious sins such as abortion and sexual sins are seen as belonging to the secular world “out there.” This means that Christians can mistakenly think that they are living “radically” simply because they reject the blatant evils to which they were never particularly prone. Meanwhile, they can go about living a selfish, materialistic, and self-satisfied life under the guise of piety.

It is of the very nature of evil, however, to deceive. In Matthew 24:24, Jesus predicts the rise of false prophets and false messiahs who will deceive (if possible) even the elect. This means that we must always be on our guard. The “spiritual warfare” to which we are called is not against external foes or political enemies, but primarily against the powers of evil and our own concupiscence. The devil won’t bother to tempt us to commit sins which have no attraction for us.

C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

“The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”

For this reason, we should be careful whenever we find ourselves becoming too comfortable in any group or faction or political ideology, no matter how good or holy or correct it might seem. Every group contains certain failings and spiritual dangers. As part of our Christian witness, we should always be on the alert for ways in which our group is not living up to the Gospel. An excessive focus on the faults of opponents will destroy the clarity of vision needed for self-criticism, repentance, and conversion.

Main Image: Vatican News

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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