Back in October, at the time of the Synod on the Amazon, there was much attention paid to the images of the pregnant woman, larger and smaller, present in the scene set up to mark the Synod. Later these were transferred to a nearby church. But from there, they were stolen and thrown into the Tiber, since they were judged by a few to be images of the Goddess Pachamama, rather than “mother earth” or more simply women at the sacred moment of bearing and giving life. The issues involved were complicated, and even months later it would be hard to beat the excellent Commonweal essay, “A Hermeneutic of Suspicion,” written by Rita Ferrone on this controversy, and I refer readers to it.

The vandalism has gained support, perhaps most notoriously in a statement – Contra Recentia Sacrilegia (translated as “Protest against Pope Francis’s Sacrilegious Acts”) — that condemns wholesale the Pope’s dabbling in idolatry:

On October 4, Pope Francis attended an act of idolatrous worship of the pagan goddess Pachamama. He allowed this worship to take place in the Vatican Gardens, thus desecrating the vicinity of the graves of the martyrs and of the church of the Apostle Peter. He participated in this act of idolatrous worship by blessing a wooden image of Pachamama. On October 7, the idol of Pachamama was placed in front of the main altar at St. Peter’s and then carried in procession to the Synod Hall. Pope Francis said prayers in a ceremony involving this image and then joined in this procession. When wooden images of this pagan deity were removed from the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, where they had been sacrilegiously placed, and thrown into the Tiber by Catholics outraged by this profanation of the church, Pope Francis, on October 25, apologized for their removal and another wooden image of Pachamama was returned to the church. Thus, a new profanation was initiated. On October 27, in the closing Mass for the synod, he accepted a bowl used in the idolatrous worship of Pachamama and placed it on the altar.

Bracing condemnations indeed. But the list of those signing the document includes very few theologians, and it is hard to see whether anyone on the list had expertise on religion in the Amazon region, or even had ventured to learn about the matter. The document refers also to an interview of Cardinal Raymond Burke in which the matter is raised again, but there too we find no detail on what the Pachamama image meant, or even who Pachamama was said to be. After a few weeks of tumult, the issue seemed to have become old news.

My reason for returning to the matter now is that Pope Francis himself recently returned to the matter. In the February 2 document Querida Amazonia (The Beloved Amazon Region), his response to the Synod’s final statement, Francis faced up to the challenge of how Catholics are to make sense of indigenous imagery and practices that come alive in very localized Catholic practices and images. The whole document is quite beautiful and worth reading, but here I focus on just one small part of what the Pope did say, related to understanding local Catholic pieties and practices.

But first, it is important to note that both the October 2019 preparatory document for the Synod and the final report too deal with how to understand the native religiosity. The pre-Synod document notes that “many peoples of the Amazon are inherently people of dialogue and communication. There is a broad and essential arena of dialogue between the Amazon’s spiritualities, creeds and religions that requires an approach of the heart to the different cultures.” This heart-felt encounter “does not mean relativizing one’s own convictions, but recognizing other avenues and pathways that seek to decipher the inexhaustible mystery of God. Insincere openness to the other, just like a corporatist attitude, that reserve salvation exclusively for one’s own creed, are destructive of that very creed… Love lived in any religion pleases God. ‘Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.’” (Joy of the Gospel n. 246)… (n. 39)

The bishops returned to this matter in their final document of October 26, 2019:

The multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious reality of the Amazon demands an open attitude of dialogue, fully recognizing the multiplicity of interlocutors: the indigenous peoples, the river dwellers, peasants and afro-descendants, the other Christian Churches and religious denominations, organizations of civil society, popular social movements, the State, finally all people of good will who try to defend life, the integrity of creation, peace and the common good… (n. 23)


In the Amazon, inter-religious dialogue takes place especially with indigenous religions and Afro-descendant cults. These traditions deserve to be known, understood in their own expressions and in their relationship with the forest and mother earth. Together with them, Christians, secure in their faith in the Word of God, can enter into dialogue, sharing their lives, their concerns, their struggles, their experiences of God, to deepen each other’s faith and to act together in defense of our common home… In this exchange of gifts, the Spirit leads more and more towards truth and the good (cf. Joy of the Gospel). (n. 25)

In Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis does not respond directly to the October controversy over the significance of the controversial image as a possible evocation of Pachamama as goddess, or Mother Earth or, simply, a pregnant woman. Rather, he goes out of his way to offer a particular set of rules for dealing with the local religious elements:

A process of inculturation involving not only individuals but also peoples demands a respectful and understanding love for those peoples. This process has already begun in much of the Amazon region… [The local people] possess “certain features of popular Catholicism that, perhaps originally introduced by pastoral workers, are now something that the people have made their own, even changing their meaning and handing them down from generation to generation.” (Peruvian Bishops’ Amazon Statement 1976) (n. 78)

He recommends caution, and resistance to quick judgments: “[Therefore] let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of the people.” (n. 78)

In the next paragraph he makes clear that as in most of Catholic life today, discernment is required, a step by step prayerful consideration of the symbols, myths, and actions, so as to peer into their inner meaning, so as to find how they may be seen in light of the Gospel:

  • “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.”
  • “Some religious festivals have a sacred meaning and are occasions for gathering and fraternity, albeit in need of a gradual process of purification or maturation.”
  • “A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality.” (n. 79)

Though obliquely and in a document largely about other matters, this is a wise and timely papal instruction on how Catholics may begin to engage the innumerable small and local traditions of today’s world, figuring out what symbols and myths and practices intend, taken at their best when they are found among God’s holy people, and not at their worst. When people have embraced the faith and seek to live it out in their time and place, our disposition should not be suspicion of heresy and abominations everywhere, but a disposition to believe that the people are living their Christian lives in accord with the grace of Christ and guided by the Spirit. None of us is beyond correction, but neither should correction be aimed primarily at marginalized people who are perceived to be less educated or, indeed, “less civilized” than those who judge them.

In the 21st century we are exploring still deeper and in greater particularity the religious experiences of the human race. Much attention has been given for centuries to the Roman Catholic engagement with Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, and the religions of China and Japan. For centuries, we have struggled to adapt to local cultures, drawing into our way of being Catholic “ways of conduct and of life… precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones [the Church] holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all humans.” (Nostra Aetate n. 4) As the Church grows vigorously in Africa and Latin America, the encounter with smaller, local religions and religious cultures, though not without precedent, has become more urgent. The Pope is setting forth here a sensible, moderate way forward. Indeed, what is most striking is that this discernment on the local level is now proposed by the Pope as an ordinary part of life and learning in the Church

Nor is this simply about exotic places, far from Rome, Western Europe, and North America. Our culture in the United States, for instance, is very full indeed of ambiguous signs, symbols, material images, myths, practices, such as are often embraced by people who are of Catholic backgrounds. Rather than merely lamenting a new paganism and a new idolatry, Francis is telling us that at home too we need to pay attention, acting with “a respectful and understanding love for those peoples” — our people, indeed ourselves — and remember that things received even from Catholic tradition may now have new meanings that are neither 100% familiar Catholicism, nor 100% contrary to Catholic tradition. By “an approach of the heart,” as the Bishops put it, we need to find our way deeper into the truth of life and spirit in the 21st century which God has given us.

This essay originally appeared on “On the Inner Edge Blog” and was written to reflect upon a workshop Father Clooney gave for A Faith That Does Justice in February 2020.