The depontification of two armfuls of carved wooden statues last week has sparked a flurry of controversy among the Catholic faithful. The statues were placed in the church of St Mary in Transpontina, in Rome, as part of an exhibition organised by the pan-Amazonian missionary body, REPAM. Some say that the statues were in fact idols of the pagan goddess Pachamama, and that their removal from the church put an end to yet another desecration of the Eternal City with idols – a desecration tacitly, if not overly, endorsed by the Roman Pontiff himself. Others give various identifications of these statues – the Blessed Virgin Mary, a symbol of life, or a symbol of Mother Earth – and say that their presence was legitimate and that their removal was an act intended to scandalise indigenous sensibilities. We here at the Abbey of Saint-Cyran have decided to produce a primer intended to clarify, for the benefit of the faithful, what exactly the situation might be. For each possible identity of the statues, we shall first assess that identity’s orthodoxy, and then its likelihood.
I. THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
The first identification is coeval with the first appearance of the statues. At the St Francis of Assisi prayer event, one of the statues was presented to Pope Francis by a woman who called it “Our Lady of the Amazon”; the Pope then blessed it.
The presence of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a church is clearly not idolatrous; nor are acts of veneration, which indicate the hyperdulia due to the Blessed Virgin herself.
Some have drawn attention to the statue’s nakedness. In the Amazonian indigenous cultural context, nudity bears none of the implications which would make such a statue blasphemous in intent or in act. One could make, very reasonably, an argument that a statue displayed in a Roman church should be conformed to the cultural standards of Rome to avoid scandalising the faithful; or that, even across all cultural contexts, Christianity places too high a value on modesty and on the royal garb of the saints to permit nude depictions of them. Even so, given the absence of bad intent, the proper way to make these arguments would be to ask for the statue to be clothed, not to cast it into a river.
Only on two occasions has this identification been made: once, of course, at the St Francis prayer event; and a second time, at St Mary in Transpontina, in an interview during which the exhibition’s organiser – one Fr Roberto Carrasco Rojas – said that the statue was carved by native Amazonians as a depiction of a “blessed mother” whom “we” (REPAM, of which he is a member, most likely?) identified as the Blessed Virgin, “Our Lady of the Amazon.”
(It must be noted that in Fr Rojas’ case, he goes on to say that “Our Lady of the Amazon … represents the Amazon”, because the Amazon is a life-giving mother. This is not necessarily problematic: the Blessed Virgin takes on a secondary signification, in some contexts, of some symbol or idea which is important to the people venerating her. Our Lady of Guadalupe, for example, has been a symbol of Mexican identity, of the Americas more generally, and of the right of indigenous peoples to take possession of their own Catholic faith from foreign missionaries. While these secondary significations are not problematic, one must not give too much importance to them and so forget that the Blessed Virgin Mary is a real, living person who hears our prayers. It is by no means proven that Fr Rojas has done this, but it is a note of balance to be added to our conclusion of orthodoxy.)
The fact that the identification of the statue with the Blessed Virgin has been made twice, by people closely connected to its appearance at the Synod and to missionary work in the Amazon, means that the identification almost certainly has some weight.
However, the facts of the handful of denials by Vatican officials that the statues are depictions of the Blessed Virgin, and of the numerous alternative identifications given by others involved in the Synod, mean that it is equally certain that this is not the whole story.
II. SYMBOL OF FERTILITY, LIFE, MOTHERHOOD
The second identification is the one which is generally given by Vatican officials when asked about the statues. Rejecting either an interpretation of the statues as depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary or as idols, they say that they are instead images of a “mother” who represents fertility and life.
There is a venerable precedent for the depiction of impersonal, symbolic realities in churches. The architects of the baroque, in particular, filled their churches with statues which symbolised both ecclesiastical realities – such as Religion, which overthrows Heresy – and more banal commonplace realities of human life – such as Time, and Plenty. This runs against the grain of the general tradition of Christian iconography, which depicts personal realities such as persons of the Trinity or the saints either directly or through symbols (for example, the pelican as a symbol for Our Lord). However, there is nothing idolatrous in itself about depicting symbolic realities in churches. One would have to condemn the Church of the Gesù if there were – and the Catholic Church has never done so.
These principles extend to fertility, life and motherhood – all of which are realities which have a place in the Catholic understanding of human existence. (If ‘fertility’ seems to have a whiff of paganism to the reader, we invite him to consult Genesis 1:28 and disabuse himself of that notion!) We would hazard that to bring these realities out of a pagan religious milieu and give them their true meaning in light of the Christian revelation is one of the key processes when missionising pagan peoples, and symbolic representation can be an aid to this.
Various Vatican spokesmen have endorsed this identification, or at least suggested that it is reasonable. Dr Paolo Ruffini, Prefect for the Dicastery for Communication, has repeatedly described them as symbols of fertility and life at “pressers” (Synod press briefings). Bp. David Martinez, a Peruvian missionary bishop and Synod Father, told a presser that they most likely symbolise “fertility, women, life” – and that there is no need to draw any connection to the Blessed Virgin Mary or to a “pagan element.”
If Dr Ruffini had not later referred to the statues as a symbol of “mother earth”, and if Pope Francis had not yesterday identified the statues as “pachamama statues”, the fertility-life-motherhood symbolism would seem to be the position of the Vatican. There are also indications, such as in this LifeSiteNews article, that the interpretation is shared by some members of REPAM who helped to organise the exhibition. But the fact that it has been contradicted, and that the Vatican officials regularly seemed confused and as if they were only speculating, means that it can only be part of a bigger picture at most.
III. SYMBOL OF PACHAMAMA – THE MOTHER EARTH
The very same LifeSiteNews article also cites several of the REPAM volunteers as saying that the statues were images of “Mother Earth” or the “Pachamama.” Dr Paolo Ruffini, in his most recent presser statement on the matter, described the statues as a representation of “Mother Earth.” And, of course, yesterday Pope Francis described the statues as “pachamama statues.”
At the Abbey, we believe it to be very likely that the ideas of “Mother Earth” and “Pachamama” are interchangeable in this context. A cursory search of REPAM’s website evinces a number of mentions of “Pachamama.” In most of the results, Pachamama is presented as a name of the Earth as symbolised by a mother, fulfilling the same function that the metaphor of “Mother Earth” fulfils in, for example, the Anglophone world. In a few, it is explicitly synonymous with the idea of “Mother Earth” itself. On one occasion, a master’s thesis by Fr Manuel Alfonso Vargas Reales O.F.M.Cap., the concept of the “Pachamama” is presented as equivalent to St Francis of Assisi’s “Mother Earth” from his Canticle of the Creatures.
The idea of “Mother Earth”, as employed by St Francis, is obviously not inherently problematic – else one would have to anathematize a saint in heaven! To ascribe to a material reality certain personal attributes based on its role in creation, and to therefore symbolically personify this reality, is therefore a legitimate conceit.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,“Canticle of the creatures”, st francis of assisi
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
One might point to Pachamama’s history as an Incan goddess to disqualify this use of it as a cipher for the personified Earth. But “Mother Earth” is rooted in Greek Gaia and Roman Tellus, both mother-goddesses of the earth. The pagan history of a name, or an idea, is not a barrier to its being Christianised. While possibly anthropologically illiterate (Pachamama is a goddess of the Andes, not the Amazon), REPAM’s use of “Pachamama” in this context is not pagan.
There remain a few issues. Although Fr Reales’ thesis acknowledges that one must also speak of the Earth as a sister, REPAM’s theology sometimes gives too little emphasis on the fact, made clear by St Francis, that the earth is as much a sister creature as it is a sustaining mother. REPAM’s tendency to lionise the indigenous worldview also comes dangerously close, often, to accepting its validity without a corresponding Christianisation. This tendency is apparent in, for example, two speeches by Ivo Poletto and an article cited by Fr Reales’ thesis, although Fr Reales does not use any problematic content from it. (The article is: Tancara, Juan, “El regreso de la Pachamama: racionalidad indígena y madre tierra”, Chritus 777 (2010): 22-23.)
However, the central conceit of REPAM’s use of “Mother Earth”/”Pachamama” imagery – that is, symbolically personifying it following the example of St Francis – is legitimate and, moreover, reflected without adulteration in most of their online literature mentioning Pachamama. As for the legitimacy of creating statues of ‘Mother Earth’ for use in churches: we see no grounds to take this practice to be illegitimate. We assume that St Francis did not carve any statues based on characters from his Canticle. But we see no reason why the tradition of depicting impersonal realities as personified symbols in churches, without thereby performing idolatry, should not be extensible to material realities such as the Earth and the function God has ordained them to serve in creation. After all: are Time, Plenty and Religion not also creations of God?
As for the likelihood that this is the identity of the statues, Pope Francis’ reference to them yesterday as ‘pachamama statues’ has been taken by some as definitive. While there are other possible explanations, such as that he was mistaken or that he was merely using their typical name in the Catholic press, the fact that he called them by that name requires an examination of their legitimacy, which we have attempted to provide.
That the Pope, Vatican officials, and REPAM organisers have all identified the statues as depictions of the “Mother Earth” or “Pachamama” is, in our opinion, strong legitimating grounds for this identification.
IV. IDOL OF PACHAMAMA – THE GODDESS
This is the favoured identification of traditionalist critics of the Amazon Synod. In their view, the statues are idols. To what, exactly, it does not entirely matter: the act of idolatry is evil enough without wondering which demon is specifically being worshipped by it. However, generally it is assumed that the idols are of “Pachamama”, although Pachamama (as a pagan goddess, not a synonym for Mother Earth) is indigenous to the Andes and foreign to the Amazon.
We do not consider it necessary to spend too much time discussing the orthodoxy of the statues if this were true. Idolatry is evil. It is a grave sin in which man withdraws the worship he owes to God and offers it to created things instead. In no circumstances are idols to be worshipped; their worship cannot be encouraged; and they cannot be placed in a church, before the Holy of Holies. The risk of idolatry is so great that one should not even offer a gesture of devotion, such as a prostration, before a created thing; the early Christians accepted death rather than burning incense to the Emperor.
Pope Francis said that the statues were placed in the church of St Mary in Transpontina “without idolatry”, and there is no real reason to doubt him. As we have seen, the statements of the organisers indicate that they were placed in the church only as symbols of realities which have a place in the Christian account of existence. There is no evidence that they were worshipped there.
However, one incident is a cause for concern. At the St Francis prayer day which preceded the Synod, one of the statues was displayed in the centre of a prayer mat. REPAM organisers formed a prayer circle around it, singing prayers, and at one point prostrated themselves towards it. (At time 12:00 in the video.)
We are aware that our refusal to definitively say that this was an idolatrous act will probably make some readers think that we are sophists or blusterers. Other readers will probably be able to interpret the prayers they sang and tell us whether they were directed towards God or to “Pachamama.” However, a few facts make a definitive conclusion of idolatry impossible for us: The lack of any positive evidence, at least available to us, that they intended to worship the statue. The fact that none of the REPAM organisers have ever evinced any belief that the statues represented anything more than symbols of impersonal concepts or depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary (as the statue was identified at the prayer event itself). And the fact that – although the statue occupied the central position – the prayer mat and its immediate vicinity contained other objects, including images of Catholic missionaries killed in the Amazon.
Even if it was not idolatrous, one could still argue very reasonably that it was imprudent. Perhaps the gesture of prostration is used by indigenous Catholics in all kinds of prayer. Among some Eastern Christians, certainly, the practice is widespread and frequent. In Rome, however, and in the Latin West more generally, prostrations are reserved for occasions of great solemnity and penitence. Prostrating towards a carved image, even if one intends to prostrate before God, can only be a cause for great scandal. This scandal was, plainly, not worth it. It has, no doubt, driven souls away from the Church.
Nonetheless, given the numerous affirmations that the statues are either Marian or symbolic, and that they were displayed without any idolatrous intent, we do not regard it as likely that they are idols of Pachamama or of any other pagan deity.
CONCLUSION – A COMPLICATED PICTURE
The picture is a complicated one, and it does not seem likely that there is any simple answer. Nonetheless, we shall deploy one fact which we have yet not examined to attempt to provide a unified account of these statues.
The reader will remember Fr Rojas, who said that the statues are of a “blessed mother” and were taken to represent “Our Lady of the Amazon.” Another priest – Fr Fernando Lopez SJ, a member of REPAM – said that the original statue was bought by REPAM’s Itinerant Group of missionaries at an artisan’s market in Manaus, Brazil. From the two statements taken together, we can reconstruct the following history of the statues:
The original statue was bought as a missionary aid in an artisan’s market. It was probably bought because the missionaries needed an image of a pregnant woman (a “blessed mother”) and it took on whatever meanings they needed it to take on. To some people, it represents Our Lady of the Amazon, and secondarily (just as Our Lady of Guadalupe has secondary meanings) the Amazon basin as a giver of life. To others, it represents fertility, life and motherhood. To others yet, it represents “Mother Earth” as St Francis spoke of it – which REPAM have taken to calling “Pachamama.”
All of these meanings, while there are certain problems with REPAM’s presentation of them, are fundamentally orthodox. And none of them make the statues into idols.
On the Saturday after the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time.