Incoherence in the Amazon?

Watch Robert Royal’s most recent appearance on “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo by clicking here.

In any large organization, but especially a global and universal one like the Catholic Church, the chief executive has to take special care about two things. There will, of course, be different views, perspectives, emphases, ideas on various sides, and the boss must, first, make sure that they are all contributing to the central purposes of the body. And second, he must be extremely cautious that he himself does not undermine those purposes.

And that’s why the Synod on the Amazon, a region of considerable importance but not quite so unique as is being claimed these weeks, will go down in history, if a true history is ever written.

Everyone has by now seen the naked pregnant female figure, painted red, that has popped up in the Vatican gardens, before altars, and in a formal exhibition in the Carmelite Church a few hundred yards from St. Peter’s Square. No one has come forward or been able to delve into the reality to say what, exactly, that figure and other indigenous objects mean.

Yes, she’s probably Pachamama, goddess of the earth or world/universe in some areas of the Amazon, fertility goddess in Peru, etc. To anyone who takes the First Commandment seriously, this is not kids playing with dolls, but the kind of idolatry or worship of “strange gods” that, from first to last, the Bible and our whole tradition warn against.

That’s already one scandal, and there’s as second quite as bad. Everyone in the Vatican who has been asked about the presence of that figure at the synod passes it off as if it’s no big deal.

In fact, there have been rather embarrassing, fumbling denials by official Vatican spokesmen. Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, and his close collaborator Fr. Giacomo Costa, Secretary of the Commission for Information, have in the past referred some close questioners to REPAM (the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network), which organized the indigenous ritual. They try to smile and pass it off as some kind of celebration of “life.” Ruffini yesterday sought to diffuse concern by saying that it was “nothing more or less than” a tree-planting ceremony on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, openly transmitted live on Vatican television.

And therefore not a problem?

But here’s a further question: Should the leader of any organization show up to bless, implicitly if not explicitly, such an installation without knowing what he was blessing? Either Pope Francis knew and, like the spokesmen, didn’t think playing around with indigenous spirits is all that serious. Or he didn’t know – he doesn’t seem to take much interest in theological or liturgical matters – and has invited the controversy that now surrounds the synod, as he’s invited controversy at so many points during his papacy.

Another interesting item cropped up at yesterday’s press briefing. It’s long been known that the German church provides the funding for the synod and probably also the REPAM displays. But our friend Edward Pentin pressed Brazilian Archbishop Roque Paloschi, the president of the Latin American Bishops Conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council, about over a million dollars that the Council has received from the Ford Foundation, which promotes abortion and gender ideology, some of which probably found its way into the coffers of REPAM.


The archbishop responded that the Brazilian government had examined the donations, as well as his personal bank accounts, and found everything in order. But the question was not about the legality of international fund transfers or the archbishop’s personal probity. It was about the prudence of accepting large amounts of money from a foundation with quite different goals than those of the Catholic Church.

This is not an isolated incident. Figures throughout the Church and close to the pope seem to think nothing of taking money from large American foundations that promote abortion and gender ideologies. And not only the Ford Foundation.

At the same time, those same figures cry “conspiracy” because a few American journalistic outlets of traditional inclinations such as EWTN and the National Catholic Register – who are sometimes critical of the confusion (and worse) coming from Rome – have wealthy supporters like Catholic philanthropist Tim Busch or the Knights of Columbus.

But enough of such double standards for now. There’s a temptation in reporting on an event like a synod to fixate solely on what seems to be going wrong – which gets readers’ attention. So it was refreshing to hear Bishop Pedro José Conti of Macapá in Brazil say the other day that “extractive” practices are not automatically wrong. The indigenous people too “extract” what they need from the rainforests but with as little damage as possible.

After studying native peoples in several contexts, I doubt this. Everyone has heard, for instance, of how American Indians would herd hundreds of buffaloes off cliffs as the easy way to hunt them. And there are other instances – native peoples breaking whole branches off trees to harvest fruit, etc. But the good bishop identified a principle that is helpful in all contexts, though when some of the large industries needed to support large populations arrive, the picture gets complicated.

A Venezuelan bishop complained the other day, for instance, that 35 corporations operate within his diocese without proper licenses and are “extractive” in the bad sense. No doubt his diocese is not the only one to suffer such abuse. But this is a case of poor regulation, or more likely bribery and corruption within Venezuela. It’s not so much an “ecological conversion” that’s needed as an internal effort to demand good government from public officials. If you misidentify the problem – as capitalism and lack of ecological consciousness – you won’t find a solution. In this instance, you need the rule of law. Good law.

And there may also be better solutions to the problem of the lack of evangelizers – and hence the alleged need of ordaining married men and finding formal roles for women. A bishop with the grand name of Wellington Tadeu de Queiroz Vieira, of Cristalândia in Brazil, revealed the other day that there are different approaches being spoken of in the synod hall. But that for him the main obstacles to drawing new vocations are our sins, failures, and “incoherence” in the Amazon.

Yes, he said, we need new ways, but ways of holiness, of faithfulness. If we live a faithful life of sanctity, of simplicity of life, with a missionary spirit, understanding suffering without losing reference to transcendent, we won’t lack for young men. Indeed, he concluded, formation is not just about numbers but the way existing priests work.


*Image: Pilgrims accompany a statue of Our Lady during an annual river procession in the Amazon jungle [Vatican News]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.