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Mike's Mailbag: Pachamama edition
"A letter from a concerned priest"
My recent longform retrospective on the “Pachamama” hysteria that began in October 2019 was widely read and shared, and most of the feedback I received was extremely positive. It was my intention to pull together the many threads that resulted in this manufactured controversy that continues today.
Of course, many critics didn’t engage the content of the article at all, tweeting things like this:
Mike Lewis and the folks over at "Where Peter is" (aka Where Pachamama is)...who went to great lengths trying to tell everyone Pachamama was not an idol. Don't believe your lying eyes.
2 years on and these losers are still coping and trying to excuse the worship of idols representing "mother earth" pagan goddess pachamama.
What a sad, pathetic ignorant dufus he is.
O who's a cute lil' idol worshipper? Leave it to Lewis and the other lunatic liberals defending this abomination
But a few of the comments were charitable and thoughtful. Unfortunately even these missed the most crucial points I made. Below is a message I received from a diocesan priest. He makes a few good points, but unfortunately his arguments don’t address the central points of my article.
His message and my response are below. I have withheld his name.
In response to your article, "A moral panic... two years on" I am obliged to respond as a priest who has a fair amount of parish experience assisting those dealing with spiritual issues.
Your article quoted a number of media personalities and others who suggest that the "Pacha..." wooden figures are not intended to be expressions of foreign deities. The article is, at best optimistic and somewhat wishful thinking. To be sure, Catholics of all national and ethnic backgrounds, to some extent, inculturate the faith. Or to put it another way, the Catholic traditions and past times expressed in one culture and not exactly the same as in another.
As some have pointed out, Europeans inculturate the faith as much as any other society. Part of the reason is not religious, it is the incorporation of social or cultural traditions that are simply worked into the expression of the faith. There is also reverse inculturation, where religious traditions such as Christmas are secularized and celebrated as non-religious holidays. As a Catholic priest, though, it's my job to protect the spiritual well-being of the community and to point out when inculturation becomes unhealthy, counter-productive or blasphemous.
This is not an unusual event. Any priest who works with recent immigrants from certain parts of the world will attest that sometimes the faithful stray off course. They will do things like visit card readers, other magicians, or worse, those who explicitly claim that they practice pagan rituals with the intent of achieving certain outcomes for those who are naive, lack power, money or influence, or who are desperate for help.
Often times, clergy are notified of these matters after-the-fact: after the situation has spun out of control, and after the individuals participates in these ceremonies only to see their life take a serious turn for the worse. Getting back to my point, some inculturation is harmless. Some inculturation is in poor taste, or lacking any theological or spiritual basis. And some inculturation goes beyond that: it may be offensive to God, where the inculturated ritual contradicts of offends the faith, or the communion of saints.
Your article insists that Pacha... is not a deity but merely a symbol of the earth. Yet any cursory search on the Internet states that Pacha... was recognized as an Andean deity. Your article is too quick to write off the possibility that the deity itself is so offensive to God that any association with it if off-putting to the Almighty. Sometimes, we as people are slow to see how we offend God. Sacred Scripture tells us that a group of people can persist for centuries doing things that are offensive to God. As a priest, an officer of the Church, and as someone who has been called to assist those dealing with spiritual issues,
I would be very slow and very deliberate in moving to approve, recognize or excuse the inculturation of a "thing" that was once considered a foreign deity. We don't do this out of contempt for someone's culture, we show caution because we wish to avoid offending God. PS - Many Saints have said God is quick to vindicate the reputation of his Son's Mother. I would agree, and I think all of us, as Catholics, need to be careful not to endorse inculturated habits that may offend the Mother of God. She is, after all, one of our principal human advocate in Heaven, and an enemy of the fallen angels.
Dear Fr. X,
Thank you for your message regarding my article. However, I would ask you to read it more closely, because you missed three key points that are central to the entire controversy:
1) The figure used at the St. Francis feast day prayer service is not, nor has it ever been a representation of Pachamama. This is key to the entire controversy. It's just a decoration, a piece of folk art sold in a Manaus, Brazil. It was bought by the representatives of REPAM as one cultural symbol among many others. Some of the indigenous people gave it a Marian significance. In other words, it was a nonreligious piece of art, with no significance and no connection to Pachamama, which was given a Christian significance by some of the native people. It is not pagan, and never was pagan. But because it has no name, it was given the name "Pachamama," and it stuck, which is why the pope used it.
2) You wrote, "Your article insists that Pacha... is not a deity but merely a symbol of the earth. Yet any cursory search on the Internet states that Pacha... was recognized as an Andean deity."
I believe you must have missed the paragraph in which I quote Sr. Mila Diaz Solano, who spoke to that very topic (emphasis added):
Sister Díaz Solano says that it is true that among members of ancestral non-Catholic indigenous religions in the Amazon, Pachamama (the land itself), “is their goddess…what we can call ‘mother nature,’ as well as is the water, and other elements of creation. Pachamama has no representation, but many pictures represent the relationship between the people and the land.” But this is distinct from how Pachamama is understood by the Catholics in the communities in whose life she has participated.
Yes, "Pachamama" is the name given to an Andean deity. It also "has no representation" (once again, that statue was not Pachamama). But the word Pachamama means "mother earth" and is used by Catholics to describe their reliance on God's creation. It's an abstract concept that we could probably discuss for days, but I reiterate - Pachamama had nothing to do with the Prayer service on October 4, 2019. That was pure media invention.
Sister Mila's entire blog post is well worth reading.
3) Finally, I did not merely rely on "media personalities," but on Sister Mila and on Pope Francis himself. Additionally, I interviewed Barbara Fraser, who is a journalist who arrived in South America 30 years ago as a Catholic missionary and never left. Nevermind that the bishops, priests, and spokespeople of the native Amazonians all made clear there was no idolatrous intent. Yes, I also relied on journalists and writers who covered the synod because the focus of this article was the moral panic orchestrated by TFP and the anti-Francis Catholic media. But my article also links to some 32 other articles that we published that almost certainly address each and every concern that you might have, from inculturation and syncretism, to the history of Pachamama, to the extent of influence by Tradition, Family, and Property-affiliated people and groups in undermining the work of the synod.
I only wrote a few of them myself, but I edited and checked the sources of every single one of them. I assure you, I am not naive on the topic. In fact, the closer one looks at this, the more ridiculous the claims become. This was not about fortune tellers or voodoo dolls. This was a craze over an inoffensive figure (who, I repeat, was not Pachamama) in a deliberate attempt to undermine the synod.
Finally, the fact that the word "Pachamama" is invoked by so many who are violently critical of the Holy Father and the Second Vatican Council (Arroyo, Schneider, Marshall, Vigano, Burke, etc) should be a red flag in itself. It's clear that this was manipulated to attack the pope.
I hope that this addresses your concerns. Unfortunately, what I've found is that once someone's made up their mind that it was idolatry, no amount of evidence can convince them otherwise. But I hope you would be willing to take a critical but open look at the extensive and thorough research we put into this question before accusing the indigenous people of the Amazon of practicing idolatry again.