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Home Church Idolatry and the Amazon Synod — wooden carvings and religious forms

Idolatry and the Amazon Synod — wooden carvings and religious forms

Mike Pothier comments that the media storm around the controversial display of an indigenous Andean goddess at the Amazon Synod distracted the Catholic world from the weightier issues discussed at the Synod. The real idolatry, he says, is not a wooden carving, but the extreme importance given to celibacy and a male priesthood, especially if these outward forms get in the way of ministering to the People of God.

Far too much has been written over the past few weeks about the supposed idolatry that took place during the Amazon Synod – the “worship” of the “idol”, Pachamama. Let me present a slightly different perspective.

As soon as pictures were circulated showing people at a gathering in the Vatican gardens bowing to the wooden likeness of a pregnant woman, the usual suspects popped up with their predictable views. Google “Pachamama” and you will find denunciations by Cardinals Burke and Müller, and a host of other prelates (most of whom, one suspects, are quite happy to be bowed to themselves as they have their episcopal rings reverently kissed by the faithful).

Soon enough, a young Austrian took it upon himself to remove some of the Pachamama statues from a church and throw them into the Tiber River. They were fished out by the Italian authorities and replaced. The non-Catholic world looked on, mystified.

Interpretations of the Pachamama

As predictable as the pained expressions and thunderous condemnations of the hyper-orthodox, so was the initial reaction from the Vatican. Various spokespeople and officials rushed to issue contradictory explanations. It was actually a depiction of the Virgin Mary. No it wasn’t; it was an “earth mother”. Or a “symbol of fertility and life”.

Pope Francis deepened the angst and confusion and made some of his staff look a little silly by referring to the statue as “Pachamama” when he apologised for the actions of the young Austrian. He went on to say that the statues had not been placed in the Church “with idolatrous intentions”. A debate now rages about whether Francis meant “Pachamama” as in the Wikipedia definition – “a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes” – or “Pachamama” as in “that wooden statue that everyone is fixated a at the moment”.

[Pope Francis] went on to say that the statues had not been placed in the Church “with idolatrous intentions.”

This will be grist to the mills of EWTN, LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive and all those other self-appointed guardians of God for whom this papacy is providing such a boom in ratings and hit counts. Anyway, at least the Pope then moved on to other, more important things. He knows that God won’t mind a few little wooden statues; not as much, that is, as He minds great effusions of self-importance and righteous indignation.

Idolisation of celibacy and maleness

But whatever your feelings about Pachamama, there was some real and much more serious idolatry on display at the Amazon Synod: the idolisation of celibacy in the priesthood, and of Jesus’ sex.

We don’t need to restate the virtues and benefits of priestly celibacy. They are well-known, and the discipline has served the Church well for more than a thousand years. The trouble is that we have absolutised the celibacy requirement to the point where, in many parts of the world, rather than helping the Church to meet the needs of the People of God, it starves them spiritually, pastorally and sacramentally.

We have absolutised the celibacy requirement to the point where […] rather than helping the Church to meet the needs of the People of God, it starves them spiritually, pastorally and sacramentally.

To tolerate a situation in which thousands of the faithful can celebrate Eucharist only once or twice a year due to a shortage of celibate ministers, is to place too high a value on celibacy. It is, in fact, to make an idol of it.

The thing about idols is that they distract us; they get in the way; they come between us and God. Those who argue for a strict continuation of the celibacy requirement are making this mere discipline – however worthy it may be – an obstacle on people’s path to God.

Only men becoming priests deprives many

The same is true of the teaching that only men can become priests. Whether it proceeds from the observation that Christ chose only men as his apostles, and that they in turn chose only men as collaborators; or from the in persona Christi principle (or both, since they are interconnected), the teaching arbitrarily elevates a single characteristic of Jesus – that he was a man – and makes it a sine qua non for the conferral of priesthood. No other characteristic matters: not his ethnicity, not his age, not his Jewishness, not his sinlessness; only his male physiology.

No other characteristic matters: not his ethnicity, not his age, not his Jewishness, not his sinlessness; only his male physiology.

This crudely reductionist standpoint deprives the faithful of the ministry of the thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of women who would otherwise present themselves for consideration as priests; and it also contributes significantly to the second-class status accorded women almost everywhere in the world. Both these outcomes constitute obstacles to people’s journey to fullness of life with each other and with God, in this world and in the next.

It would be silly to say that if Pachamama was really an idol it was a harmless one. But it seems fairly clear that a residual sense of reverence for an “earth goddess” or a “fertility symbol” is a far less significant problem than is the Church’s willingness to idolise celibacy and maleness, thereby barring countless people from accessing the source and summit of their faith.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Papal infallibility doesn’t mean that the pope can’t make any mistakes. He’s not infallible in scientific, historical, political, philosophical, geographic, or any other matters — just faith and morals.

  2. Mike Pothier writes “The real idolatry, he says, is not a wooden carving, but the extreme importance given to celibacy and a male priesthood, especially if […]” I agree with this statement. Catholic women are called to leadership. After deliverance many African women in London from the Christian church, as well as people of other religions are raised to be Pastors and Bishops in the Pentecostal church. A friend of mine from Sierra Leone and whose son was healed from Downs Syndrome is such an example. She not only served in an African Ministry in London but on Maurice Cerullo’s healing and deliverance team internationally. She received the last rites of the Catholic church where she kept a low profile and at 75 had a mighty farewell at her requiem Mass last year. Who is the loser?

  3. Whilst I agree that some of us can be distracted by extreme importance given to celibacy and a male priesthood I know that this is absolute. To detract from this will mean excommunication. I do not wish to challenge this teaching. I know a priest in East Africa went through this trial. Fortunately, he has been reinstated on his silver anniversary to the priesthood. Let us pray for the holiness and deliverance of all priests so that they can be sanctified. Amen.

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Mike Pothierhttp://www.cplo.org.za
Mike Pothier is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, and Programme Manager of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in Cape Town.

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