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The Catholic Church’s Amazon Synod Is Flirting With Religious Syncretism


If you want a window into the crisis the Catholic Church faces, look to the Amazon Synod now underway in Rome. The synod made headlines this week when two anonymous operatives entered the Santa Maria in Traspontina Church near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome early Monday morning, removed at least three pagan fertility statues from the side altars, and threw them into the Tiber River. They videotaped the whole thing and issued a statement saying faithful Catholics “are being attacked by members of our own Church.”

Why were pagan fertility statues—idols, really—on display in a Catholic Church in the first place? It’s a fair question that has yet to get an adequate answer. The statues, featuring an unclothed pregnant woman and representing “Pachamama,” or Mother Earth, have featured prominently in the synod. The Vatican insists they simply represent “fertility and life,” yet indigenous Amazonians bowed down to them during a ritual performed in the Vatican gardens in the presence of Pope Francis and then carried them in procession into St. Peter’s Basilica at the opening of the synod.

The Vatican responded to the theft and dumping of the pagan statues by accusing conservative Catholics of fomenting hate on social media, calling the incident a “violent and intolerant gesture.” It’s unclear how throwing a wooden statue into a river is “violent,” but it’s true that conservative Catholics have been unabashedly critical of the statues. One outlet, LifeSite News, started a petition this week to remove them, gathering more than 16,000 signatures.

For all the attention the Pachamama incident has gotten, it’s really just an outward manifestation of the serious theological problems underlying the synod. When the synod’s instrumentum laboris, or working document, was published this summer, it was criticized by a number of prominent cardinals as a betrayal of church doctrine and teaching, not just on questions about whether to ordain married men as priests or allow women to serve as deacons in the sparsely populated Amazon, but on fundamental theological questions like the concept of revelation.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a seven-page analysis of the instrumentum, criticizing it for seeming to suggest that the Amazon region, the territory itself, is a source of God’s revelation. “If here a certain territory is being declared to be a ‘particular source of God’s Revelation,’ then one has to state that this is a false teaching,” writes Müller, “inasmuch as for 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has infallibly taught that Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition are the only sources of Revelation and that no further Revelation can be added in the course of history.”

Müller wasn’t alone. Cardinal Walter Brandmüller called the instrumentum “heretical” and said it must be “rejected.” Cardinal Raymond Burke said it was “a direct attack on the Lordship of Christ” that amounted to “apostasy.” Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who is actually participating in the synod, said some prelates want to use the meeting as a kind of ideological test-case for enacting sweeping changes to church doctrine.

Multiculturalism Run Amok

There’s good reason for such objections. The instrumentum seems to advance a view of religion very much at odds with what the Catholic Church has taught for more than 2,000 years. In particular, it advances an understanding of “inculturation” that’s alien to Catholicism. The basic notion of inculturation, traditionally understood, is that the church must proclaim the gospel all over the world, and should therefore use whatever it can in each culture or civilization to get the message across.

It’s an ancient approach to spreading the gospel, first used by St. Paul in Athens, where he proclaimed to the Areopagus the meaning of the city’s idol to the unknown god. Simply put, inculturation means that the gospel shapes and transforms indigenous cultures, which are forever changed, and in a very real sense redeemed, by encountering and accepting Jesus Christ. This is because, as Dr. Robert Louis Wilken has written,

Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form taken by the community’s life is Christ within society. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.

This is not what the organizers of the Amazon Synod mean by inculturation. They mean, or appear to mean, something closer to the deification of indigenous Amazonian culture—hence the pagan statues and rituals, all of which has created general confusion about why these things have been included in the synod. No one seems to have clear answers to what should be simple questions, such as: what is the meaning of the Pachamama statue?

Arguably, the prevalence of pagan images and rituals alongside Christian ones suggests the synod is aiming not at true inculturation but at some kind of religious syncretism. If so, this isn’t just multiculturalism run amok, it is exactly what the objecting cardinals have said it is: heresy, apostasy, false teaching.

If the synod organizers’ ultimate goal is to change the church’s teaching on the ordination of married men and the role of women in ministry, then it’s easy to see how deifying Amazonian culture, presenting it somehow as uniquely divine or in and of itself a revelation, might serve those ends. If the Amazon is itself a source of revelation, if its indigenous culture is somehow divine, and if that culture embraces married priests and female deacons, why can’t the church change? Is this not the true meaning of inculturation?

This line of reasoning suggests there is likely a larger goal behind the synod’s mushy talk of inculturation and inclusion that strikes at the very heart of how the church understands itself and its role. Pope Francis has written that “grace supposes culture,” a play on St. Thomas Aquinas’ formulation that “grace supposes nature,” by which Aquinas meant merely that grace presupposes the gift of creation, which is redeemed and perfected by God’s grace.

What Francis means by “grace supposes culture” is something else entirely. As Douglas Farrow noted recently in First Things, the phrase “means that the culture in question is somehow divinely authored and designed, therefore good and revelatory in itself.”

Of course, cultures are created by fallen human beings and are not at all divinely authored, nor do they necessarily reveal anything good or true. Often, the truth they do reveal is that there is a darkness in the heart of man.

We are told by the synod organizers that the Amazonian peoples are living in a moment of grace because they are “living the culture of encounter.” It’s unclear what exactly this means, but it appears to mean something rather disturbing to any orthodox-minded Catholic. As Farrow goes on to explain,

The kairos, the culture of encounter, being lauded in the Pan-Amazon Synod is a Bergoglian kairos and culture. The church ‘called to be ever more synodal,’ to be ‘made flesh’ and ‘incarnated’ in existing cultures, is a Bergoglian church. And this church, not to put too fine a point on it, is not the Catholic Church. It is a false church. It is a self-divinizing church. It is an antichristic church, a substitute for the Word-made-flesh to whom the Catholic Church actually belongs and to whom, as Cardinal Müller insists, it must always give witness if it means to be the Church.

In other words, if the synod is going to assert that the physical territory and indigenous culture of the Amazon are in themselves sources of divine revelation, and that the church must, in the name of “inculturation,” adjust her teachings and practices to this new revelation, then what the synod asserts is not the gospel, but heresy.

And if this is the basis upon which the Catholic Church must change her teachings and practices, then what’s to stop other cultures in other parts of the world from proposing new revelations of their own?

Nothing at all—which might well be the entire point.