Vatican’s Amazon Synod Document Glorifies Tribal Culture And Condemns The West

Vatican’s Amazon Synod Document Glorifies Tribal Culture And Condemns The West

The Amazon Synod’s bishops eulogize indigenous people, and this idealization is, at heart, an inversion of the bishops’ grudge against the West. It's as risible as it is dishonest.
Maureen Mullarkey
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The Vatican’s Amazon Synod is done. But its mischief lives on in the ideological distortions of its final document, “Amazonia: New Ways For The Church And For A Holistic Ecology.” The crudity of its j’accuse against the developed world disfigures classical Christian stress on responsibility to the poor.

A fusion of reflexive leftism and religious idiom, “Amazonia: New Ways” is a showpiece of crisis-mongering, nature mysticism, and hostility toward technological development. The text clamors for “environmental conversion,” a demand built on overwrought borrowings from the climate change script (e.g., the rainforest is in “an unbridled race to death”).

Militant ecology and social justice are believed to be “intrinsically linked.” Consequently, promotion of “social transformation” — a.k.a. activism — is a necessary aim of education. In sum, the synod provides a syllabus for rancor toward the West, its supporting structures, and its people.

Amazon Synod Idealizes Indigenous Peoples

The document repeats Pope Francis’ animus toward fossil fuels, which he delivered last year to a conference of oil executives and investors: “The use of energy should not destroy civilization!” Jabs at “predatory extractivism,” in tandem with other ecological sins, are a recurring refrain.

In the dock are fossil fuels, plastics, and Western eating habits (“excess consumption of meat and fish/shellfish”). The developed world must atone with “more sober lifestyles.” Shrill demand for “radical energy transition” accompanies support for divestment campaigns against “extractive companies.” There is an urgent call for “new economic resources” — read taxes — as penance for Western affluence.

Most worrisome is the text’s preoccupation with aboriginal ethnicity (“peasants, people of African descent, mestizos, river dwellers”) and the glorification of tribal cultures unsoiled by modernity. Young Amazonians must be educated “for solidarity” in the romance of “a common origin.” In this context, it is a short walk to the enthusiasms of blood and soil.

Insistence on an “Indian theology, theology with an Amazonian face,” follows earlier liberation theologies, such as black theology and Palestinian liberation theology. In practice, each variation affirms the primacy of race, distorting the concept of the people of God (and consequently condemned by Pope Benedict). “Amazonia: New Ways” explicitly moves church goal posts from the “preferential option for the poor” (a liberationist trope established in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968) to a “preferential option for indigenous peoples.” Implicit in that swap is what Pascal Bruckner called “the racism of the anti-racists.”

Idealization of “original peoples” is, at heart, an inversion of the bishops’ grudge against the West. In 1935, Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas famously identified the idealization of primitive society as “the unending revolt of the civilized against civilization.” Vatican lust for a “Church with an indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendent face” is the current mutation of a mindset, rooted in antiquity, that bore tragic consequences within living memory. At what point belief in cultural and spiritual supremacy slides into notions of ethnic or racial superiority is a matter of ongoing argument among scholars of the Völksgemeinschaft, a phenomenon to which the ethnic essentialism of the synod’s “integral ecology” bears unwelcome similarity.

The Toxic ‘Theology of the People’

Apotheosizing of indigenous peoples is the crux of Pope Francis’ “teología del pueblo,” a body of thought largely articulated by three Argentinian priests in the orbit of liberation theology. One of them, Jesuit theologian Juan Carlos Scannone, had mentored Jorge Bergoglio early on.

The “theology of the people” is a Latin American parallel to völkisch ideology, a toxic bloom of Romantic primitivism that colored German thought throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. In the 1970s, Argentina sifted that lingering mythic consciousness through a Peronist sieve. Catholic intellectuals added a Christian inflection to the dominant political creed.

The “teología” emerged in the charged atmosphere of Juan Perón’s return to power after exile in Franco’s Spain. Jorge Bergoglio, then a 34-year-old novice master, promoted the cause of Perón’s return, acting as spiritual director to the student wing of Peronists of the Guardia de Hierro, or Iron Guard.

He also contributed to Perón’s “Modelo Argentino para el Proyecto Nacional” (1974), a political testament which declared, “Peronism is essentially of the common people.” The “Modelo” posited a new identity for Argentina born of its racial mix (“el mestizaje”) and the destiny of the land (“destino de la tierra”). Such is the legacy Bergolio brought to his pontificate.

A German imprint marks the entire synod. German bishops, which Francis selected, spearheaded the synod’s rupture with traditional church protocols. And the “teología” carries the thinking of anthropologist and philosopher Günter Rodolfo Kusch, an admitted, much admired influence on Pope Francis.

Kusch, born in Argentina to German parents, transferred an inherited cultural fascination with the Völk to the relation between indigenous peoples and what he termed “the gravidity of the soil.” As Francis explained approvingly in 2017, “The ‘people’ is not a logical category; it is a mythical category.”

Francis’ “teología” shares with the Völk an oracular identity that is the imagined privilege of underdevelopment. Nineteenth-century German culture was engrossed in the special place of Germans among other Europeans. Shaped by nostalgia, dogma held that the economic backwardness and simplicity of German peasant life forged strong kinship ties and a more stable society. Industrialization disfigures man, transforming him into a philistine and a bourgeois. Natural man, bound to the soil and uncorrupted by materialistic civilization, comes entrusted with an historic mission.

The Amazon Synod Misrepresents Tribal Privation

To the synodal mind, Amazon indigenes are similarly endowed. Their unique traits include a visionary role that raises them above modernity’s decadence and evades the drawbacks of linear thinking. Western rationality pales beside the orphic understanding of native peoples and their consequent freedom from the “the logic of greed, typical of the dominant technocratic paradigm.”

The thinking of indigenous peoples offers an integrated view of reality, which is capable of understanding the multiple connections between everything that is created. This contrasts with the dominant current of Western thought that tends to fragment in order to understand reality. … We also find other values in the native peoples such as reciprocity, solidarity, a sense of community, equality, family, social organization and a sense of service.

The Amazonian Völk, like its European ancestor, provides a model of the “simple and sober life” that rejects “the false sheen of urban culture.” The “wealth of the people” resides in their cosmic wisdom and cultural values in which “we find teachings about life“ and discover “the seeds of the Word”:

The life of Amazonian communities not yet affected by the influence of Western civilization is reflected in the beliefs and rituals about the actions of the spirits of divinity, named in innumerable ways … and in relationship with nature. … In the jungle, it is not only plants that are intertwined and link one species with another; people also interrelate with each other in a network of alliances that benefits everyone.

The synod’s bishops eulogize indigenous people as “custodians of the rainforest”:

Let us recognize that for thousands of years they have taken care of their land, their water and their forests, and have managed to preserve them until today so that humanity can benefit from the enjoyment of the free gifts of God’s creation.

This is as risible as it is dishonest. Idealizing the mortal deprivations of primitive societies misrepresents tribal privation as guardianship, a selfless donation to all humanity. The bishops lend their authority to artificially petrified subsistence cultures. Their staffs are planted in a mythology of their own making, one requiring indigenous peoples to accept an identity as museum pieces.

Bowing to the West-Detesting Times

What of people who refuse the confines of that identity? Are they expelled from the “pueblo” if they leave the rainforest or seek their way out of ghetto poverty? If they want their children to have access to the middle class, to electricity and plumbing? And what of us who are not impoverished, not “riverines,” not Afro-descendent, or Afro-Brazilian? If we are not of the “pueblo,” are we unpeopled? Do we count as non-people?

No need to wait for the bishops to answer. Stripped of religious rhetoric, the temper of their documented pensées condenses to a recent rant by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She incarnates the defining vulgarity of our times to which the synod genuflected:

The way we inoculate ourselves from continuing to burn up our planet at unsustainable level, triggering feedback loops that we have not even begun to comprehend, is by honoring indigenous wisdom and allowing it to guide our climate policy. … That also means — and what Naomi [Klein] talked about as well — is directly, consciously combatting white supremacy.

Such is the mood cherished by ordained men who would wash from the planet — if not themselves — the stigma of Westernization.

Maureen Mullarkey is an artist who writes on art and culture. She keeps the weblog Studio Matters. Follow her on Twitter, @mmletters.

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