What can we Learn from the Pachamama Incident?
What can we Learn from the Pachamama Incident?

What can we Learn from the Pachamama Incident?

Luiz Ruscillo looks at inculturation possibilities and risks.

Much has already been written and discussed about events  that  took  place  at the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, in particular the apparent veneration of wooden statues said to represent the feminine figure of Pachamama, an earth mother (or more literally ‘world mother’) goddess common to several Andean cultures.

Defenders of what happened argue that although Pachamama was originally the name of a fertility goddess invoked by Quechua and Inca peoples, it has simply become a cultural symbol that stands for the goods of creation, maternity and the sacredness of life without any of the specific pagan religious implications.

On the other hand, critics such as Cardinal Müller could not have been clearer about what was at stake: “… they have no right to introduce pagan or non-Catholic rites into the Church’s liturgy ... bringing the idols into the Church was a grave sin, a crime against the divine law” (Interview in “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo, October 24, 2019).

In the context of this article, however, I   do not want to rake over the coals of the heated controversy provoked by those incidents, but rather to consider some of the wider questions about evangelisation and inculturation that arise from it.

Not a New Question

These are not really new questions for the Church. They confronted the apostolic generation right from the start. Preaching to the House of Israel was a matter of proclaiming that the longed-for Christ had come, and showing that all the prophesies were fulfilled in him. But preaching to the Gentiles was an altogether different challenge.

Jesus is indeed “the Light to enlighten the Gentiles”, but is the pagan world a realm of utter darkness or are there glimmers of grace and truth which evangelisers can appeal to and amplify? St. Paul famously preached to the Athenians by pointing out an altar to “the unknown god” and quoting a Cretan poet to the effect that “we are all his offspring” (Acts 17:28). The original poem actually referred to the Greek god Zeus, but St. Paul transferred the insight onto the one true Creator in whom “we live and move and have our being”.

He then went on to preach the full Gospel of God the Son who became flesh, was crucified for our sins and is now risen bodily from the dead. This stroke of evangelical genius came not only from St. Paul’s pastoral skill and missionary zeal, but also from the synthetic power of the cosmic vision of Christ he had received on the road to Damascus. At the same time, however, Paul was always clear that conversion to Christ entailed a clean break, not just from all forms of sin but from any participation in the worship of the old ‘gods’, no matter whether they be thought of as real (possibly demonic) or as mere mythical fantasies (1 Corinthians 8:1-11).

Historical Examples

In the next generation, St. Justin Martyr thought that classical philosophers who had sought the divine Logos were feeling their way towards the Lord, although he also thought pagan myths were diabolical counterfeits designed to distract from the truths of revelation (Apologia Prima, 1 & 14). Tertullian wrote that there were “naturally Christian souls” (Apolo- geticus, 17.6) among the pagans. And St. Bede records how St. Gregory the Great instructed St. Augustine of Canterbury to convert Anglo- Saxon shrines to Christian usage, although the idols within should be destroyed and the places exorcised and consecrated (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, 30).

Later still, the Chinese mission of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) provoked controversy over whether Confucian rites for honouring ancestors were cultural traditions which converts could retain or pagan rituals incompatible with the faith. Clement XI eventually forbade Catholics to follow them, but centuries later Pius XII relaxed that rule as long as they were just seen as civil gestures.

Purification  and Transformation

The Church has always, therefore, steered a course between two extremes. On the one hand, we cannot simply view everything outside the Church as diabolical. That would fit with the Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of fallen human nature, but it is not authentically Catholic. Such a perspective implies that there can be no connection between faith and culture, so the Gospel will always be an add-on or superstructure to the life of a community, instead of being truly redemptive and transformative.

On the other hand, we cannot simply adopt pagan elements unchanged into Catholic culture. That way lies the betrayal of the Gospel through syncretism and idolatry. In a 2019 sermon on the very topic of Pachamama at the Synod, Bishop Voderholzer of Regensburg pointed out that:

“St. Boniface, the apostle of Germany … did not dance around… the cult tree of the Germanic world of gods, and he did not embrace it, but he felled it and made a cross out of its wood and built a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter. This is a wonderful image for the implantation of the novelty of the Gospel in continuity and discontinuity with the previous one! … Without acertain break with the past, the novelty of Christ cannot be won” (St. Emmeram’s Abbey, Regensburg, 31.10.19).

Because of the profound wounding of original sin, cultural traditions must be purified and transformed in order to be adopted into the life of the Church.

St. John Paul II on ‘Mama Pacha’

Understood and implemented correctly, therefore, the concept of “inculturation” does have an authentic meaning. In 1982 St. John Paul II remarked that: “Faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, nor entirely reflected upon, or faithfully experienced” (Speech to Movimento Ecclesiale di Impegno Culturale, 16 January 1982). And during his 1985 visitation to South America he acknowledged some positive aspects of the local perceptions of “Pachamama”:

“The Church, in effect, welcomes the cultures of all peoples. In them there are always the traces and seeds of the Word of God. Thus your ancestors, when paying tribute to  the land (Mama Pacha), did nothing but acknowledge the goodness of God and his benefactor presence, which gave them food through the land they cultivated.”

But he was also careful to point out that:

“… [while] respecting the culture of your peoples and promoting all that is good… [missionaries and catechists must always]… try to complete it with the light of the Gospel. With this you do not destroy their culture, but you bring it to perfection, as Jesus Christ perfected the ancient law in the Sermon on the Mount, in the well-known paragraphs in which he repeats: ‘You have been told before… but I tell you’… Therefore, it is necessary to present to the faithful all the Christian novelty in the doctrinal and moral field” (John Paul II, Homilies, 1985).

Neo-pagan and New Age Movements

Some of the positive features of “Pachamama” have already been assimilated into the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially through devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. But this does not mean that we can carry on invoking the name Pachamama or introduce such images into Catholic devotions and liturgies. Those who promoted this at the Synod may have simply intended it to evoke a sense of caring for the environment and for indigenous communities who are threatened by global business interests. However, the risk of confusion and scandal is still very great. There is a resurgent and assertively pagan Pachamama cult observed across the Andean and Amazonian region, even with a specific feast day in August (St. Justin Martyr might have suggested that this is a diabolical attempt to subvert and  distract  from  the  Feast  of The Assumption), which is regarded a sacred month to ‘the goddess’.

What is more, the name has also been adopted by an increasingly influential NGO called The Pachamama Alliance, whose American founders claim that “… the spirit of Mother Earth, what the indigenous people call Pachamama” summoned them to the region and that this spirit informs their worldwide programs which are aimed at “changing the dream of our society’s addiction to consumption and acquisition that is at the root of so many of the global crises facing humanity today”. While this is not an ignoble dream, it is also clear that their blend of “indigenous wisdom (and) modern knowledge” translates to fashionable New Age neo-pagan beliefs and pantheistic spirituality. www.pachamama.org

Querida Amazonia:

A Welcome Intervention

Without clear magisterial guidance, the authentic sense of inculturation risks being lost in a blur of woolly thinking and erroneous practice. Happily, the 2020 Post-Synodal Exhortation Querida Amazonia (QA), without discussing particular events  at  the synod, does address the key issues raised by it all and aims to reaffirm the balance of orthodox thinking about them. It is an interesting and thought provoking document, and a welcome one. Nonetheless, we might respectfully suggest some further clarifications and developments which would support the theological foundations of that balance.faith.org.uk

Querida Amazonia clearly specifies that all peoples:

“… have a right to hear the Gospel… which proclaims a God who infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives” (QA 64).

While also pointing out that:

“It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry. A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error” (QA 79).

This must be done, however, in ways that lead people to the fullness rather than obscuring it. For example, we can and should be able to affirm all that is good in human cultures, but without compromising faith in a personal and transcendent God or compromising the first commandment of the decalogue.

“Certainly, we should esteem the indigenous mysticism that sees the interconnection and interdependence of the whole of creation, the mysticism of gratuitousness that loves life as a gift, the mysticism of   a sacred wonder before nature and all its forms of life. At the same time, though, we are called to turn this relationship with God present in the cosmos into an increasingly personal relationship with a ‘Thou’ …” (QA 73).

A Much-Needed Vision

In Faith Movement we also emphasise the evangelical and catechetical importance of revindicating the existence of God from the profound interconnectedness of creation, not merely as a philosophical and academic argument, but as an integral part of presenting the full mystery of God’s purpose in Christ

— just as it was for St. Paul. It is very welcome to see that Querida Amazonia emphasises this same Christ-centred vision of creation as vital to evangelisation and inculturation:

“… a relationship with Jesus Christ, true God and true man, liberator and redeemer, is not inimical to the markedly cosmic worldview that characterizes the indigenous peoples, since he is also the Risen Lord who permeates all things. In Christian experience, all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation. He is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind, as the Lord who reigns in creation without ever losing his transfigured wounds, while in the Eucharist he takes up the elements of this world and confers on all things the meaning of the paschal gift” (QA 74).

We gladly recognise that there is one coherent purpose of God that is manifested in the dynamic development of the material cosmos which leads to the creation of man, and the revelation of the Word which culminates in the incarnation of the Word and economy of salvation and redemption that flows from him. But we do not accept the widely espoused philosophy and theology of Teilhard de Chardin which subverts this beautiful and much needed vision and so easily chimes with prevalent New Age and modernist errors.

Theological Dangers of Teilhard And Rahner

For Teilhard — and in the presumption of many who have not necessarily read him — matter and spirit are one essential energy, so that the spiritual is immanent within and emergent from the material. The consequent confusion of the transcendent and the immanent means that the whole evolving cosmos is tending to become ‘Christ’ or rather a ‘Christosphere’, of which the person of Jesus is just the fullest expression and manifestation: the ‘Omega Point’.

But Jesus Christ is the Alpha as well as the Omega. He is the eternal and transcendent Mind of God who encompasses the whole of creation. So rather than saying that Christ is “present in all things”, although that is true when understood correctly, it would be clearer to say that all things — even the river and trees — are present in Christ, because it is all made through him and for him; and even the laws of matter from the very outset of creation are framed and aligned upon his coming in the flesh.

We also affirm, along with the great fathers and doctors of the Church, that man is made for union with God in Christ and we have no other end. But we reject the even more pervasive Rahnerian view which suggests that grace is somehow existential within human being and therefore within human consciousness and culture, simply waiting to be realised through explicit proclamation and culturally appropriate celebration. We are made for God alone in Christ, and fulfilled uniquely through him, but that fulness of life and light still comes to us as a transcendent gift of divine charity and mercy, all the more so now that it must be a gift of radical redemption through his death and resurrection.

The Cultural Priority of Salvation History

Evangelisation rightly looks to make connections with existing ideas and traditions, but the Gospel also brings ‘good news’ that is truly new. It reveals a mystery that fulfils the deepest human longings in a way that is beyond the unaided grasp of the creaturely intellect or imagination, and beyond the hope or expectations of the created spirit. “Christ brought all novelty by bringing himself” (St. Iranaeus, Adversus Haereses, Bk.4 c.34). This is the true meaning of ‘the God of surprises’.

When we speak of ‘inculturation’, therefore, we must be careful not to suggestthat there is a simple equality of value between local traditions and the Apostolic Tradition. ‘Revelation and ‘incarnation’ are not generic to all times, places and cultures. Salvation history is specific to a particular timeline and to a particular locus. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was born of a Virgin in Bethlehem, suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose from the dead in Jerusalem. These facts can be portrayed through many artistic expressions, for he was born for all, but he is not an abstraction in either his divine Person or his sacred humanity. He adopts, redeems and transfigures human nature through the particular historical realities and relationships of his incarnation.

By the same token we must be careful with our understanding of the sacraments. Querida Amazonia says that they:

“… unite the divine and the cosmic, grace and creation … They ‘are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life’. They are the fulfilment of creation, in which nature is elevated to become a locus and instrument of grace, enabling us “to embrace the world on a different plane” (QA 81).

Again, this is true and welcome, but we must be careful not to imply that the sacraments can simply co-opt any aspect of creation to communicate spiritual gifts. That may be so with ‘sacramentals’ to a certain extent, but the sacraments themselves are also rooted in the specific narrative and events of revelation and salvation history. They cannot be reimagined or reinvented in their essential matter and form according to the perceptions of every human culture. Although the social and familial traditions which surround them can and indeed should take on appropriate local expressions of joyful celebration.

Authentic, Christ-centred Inculturation

Querida Amazonia points out that inculturation is a two-way process (QA 68). In the devotional life, artistic expression, and what might be called folk or familial religion, there is a legitimate diversity and there will inevitably be areas where boundaries between faith and superstition seem a little blurred. Querida Amazonia rightly calls for a certain prudent pastoral patience and discernment with these (QA 78).

But when it comes to the sacred liturgy there must be great caution and vigilance. Human culture must learn deeply from and be shaped by the Church’s sacramental liturgy before the liturgy can be appropriately enhanced with cultural expressions. That organic development which produced the glories of the ancient Catholic liturgical Rites

— Latin, Greek, Maronite, Syro-Malabar, Armenian etc. — took shape organically over centuries and with many dangers from heresy. We cannot allow new evangelisation and inculturation to be subverted by today’s heresies.

The Gospel redeems and sanctifies different cultures in much the same way as it does different personalities. Grace builds on nature, but also purifies and transforms it into the likeness of Christ. There  is an evergrowing diversity of saints, but the essential characteristics of their faith and their holiness is always  the  same  and always recognisable. Similarly, Querida Amazonia says that:

“Everything  that  the  Church   has  to  offer  must  become  incarnate  in   a distinctive way in each part of the world, so that the Bride of Christ can take on a variety of faces that better manifest the inexhaustible riches of God’s grace” (QA 6).

This is not untrue, but perhaps it would be better to say that the one face of Christ is manifest in the many faces of humanity. We do need an authentic vision of evangelisation and inculturation which connects the spiritual and the material, the transcendent and the immanent “…at a deeper level… [which can] …reveal the true beauty of the Gospel, which fully humanizes, integrally dignifies persons and peoples, and brings fulfilment to every heart and the whole of life” (QA 76). At the same time, we cannot allow that urgent need to be subverted by flawed theologies which undermine the essential and unchanging proclamation of Jesus Christ as the unique Way, Truth and Life for all mankind.

Fr Ruscillo is a priest of the Diocese of Lancaster






Faith Magazine

May - June 2021