Why Pachamamas have no place in the Church
The podcast Merely Catholic gives me the opportunity to meet people of real calibre and interest, as well as discovering things I was unaware of. For this week’s edition of the Catholic Herald podcast I had a fascinating discussion with Alexander Tscheuggel. Alexander has become very well known in some circles, but in case you The post Why Pachamamas have no place in the Church appeared first on Catholic Herald.
The podcast Merely Catholic gives me the opportunity to meet people of real calibre and interest, as well as discovering things I was unaware of. For this week’s edition of the Catholic Herald podcast I had a fascinating discussion with Alexander Tscheuggel.
Alexander has become very well known in some circles, but in case you have yet to meet him, you may have come across him unwittingly if, like me, you watched a rather dramatic defenestration of the Pachamama fertility symbols from a Church during the Amazonian Synod.
This was when I first came across him as I watched the video of the five Pachamama fertility symbols unilaterally removed from a place of honour in a church in Rome and unceremoniously pitched into the Tiber in the early hours of the morning.
This was a dramatically charged event which was not easy to get to the heart of at first sight.
It was made more complex by a campaign to persuade Catholics that an Inca fertility symbol from a far-flung distant corner of South America (a long way away from the Amazon) was actually an Amazonian representation of the Virgin Mary. In discovering the real origins of the artefact, Alexander played the role not dissimilar to the boy in the story of the Emperor’s new Clothes.
Since that early morning escapade during the Amazonian Synod he has come to worldwide prominence. He is now known as a Catholic activist protesting against a variety of anti-Catholic ideologies, using his formidable intellect to explain why these competing progressive movements have the Catholic Church and its traditions in their sights.
But in talking to him, I discovered a welcome clarity that explained the Pachamama crisis in more historical as well as more theological detail.
The problem with the non-Amazonian South American fertility symbol being passed off as an indigenous representation of the Virgin Mary wasn’t just a matter of duping an anthropologically gullible public. It also represented an attempt to create a kind of syncretism with an ecologically muscular feminine Gaya project that revisited the ancient anthropological conflict between sky father and earth mother.
In the same way that Liberation Theology turned out to be an act of philosophical subversion by people who believed in Marxism effectively masquerading as Catholics, the Pachamama incident may have been instigated by syncretistic ecologists using the Mother of Christ as cover.
Under the tension between the ecological movement’s promotion of mother Earth and the whole green project of replacing God the Creator father with the protection and the worship of the earth as mother lies an ancient struggle; that of worshipping creation in place of the Creator.
A number of sleights of hand took place during the Amazonian Synod. The first was that the image used of the pregnant woman did not originate from the Amazonian region but from an entirely different are of South America. It originated as a cultural or religious artefact from a different indigenous culture.
It is not enough, particularly in anthropological circles, to claim that all indigenous cultures are interchangeable. It’s a version of telling all Chinese people that they all look the same to Western eyes. The language of racial respect no longer accepts such cultural laziness. Those who deal with cultural artefacts have to meet the same standards as the rest of us now. So to present it as a symbol of the Amazonian tribes the Synod was engaged with was either laziness, a deliberate ploy, or an incompetent mistake.
But the pregnant woman represented by the image was certainly Pachamama herself. And this produced a much more serious problem. This went much further than a form of colonial carelessness with fertility symbols authentically belonging to one indigenous culture or another. For unlike our Lady, Pachamama is not a kind figure. Or rather she an ambiguous one. On the one hand she is generous and fertile. But on the other, she is also credited with malevolence when she feels she is not given her due. Don’t cross Pachamama!
She may look a little like what indigenous tribes people might think the Virgin Mary looks like, but she is not the Virgin. She is not the woman of the Magnificat, but a divinity in her own right, and one with a bit of a malicious edge.
Pachamama has also become inextricably linked with a movement that is both highly charged politically and ecologically.
In the Andes, her cult has become one of the main references for indigenous movements to defend their land, languages and cultures. And just to give a sense of how complex the syncretistic elements associated with her iconography have become, she has become an icon for the historical opposition to industrial interests, often American. Thus she carries an agency in reference to a new political ecology.
Ordinary faithful Catholics are entitled to feel aggrieved that their theological gatekeepers were either too ignorant or careless, or theologically compromised, not to have taken more care not to mix up our Lady with a fertility goddess. After all, our Lady of Guadeloupe is obviously our Lady. Would it not be a sign of respect to ensure that however the iconographic styles of a region are expressed, there might be a clear difference between ‘Theotokos’ and a local fertility deity carrying a more complex moral character?
Pachamama has developed a more versatile role of late. Interest in her waned a little after the Spanish conquest and after our Lady was presented as a more generous, reliable and perhaps powerful go-between for a culture and the Creator God.
But as a struggle has begun to develop between the feminine principle expressed with most clarity in Gaia and the associated ecological movement which has as many theological as political and economic elements, Pachamama has been given a new lease of life.
In the West, the Pachamama has at the same time been popularised by the development of shamanism in personal development movements, and by a whole new-age literature that combines the cults of different pantheons — Amerindians or Greeks (Gaia).
In the world of feminine self-development she is to be found in works such as the best-selling personal development book of the 1990s, The Four Toltec Agreements. And in the world of ecological awareness, tinged with the mixture of both freedom and incoherence that post-modernism bestows, she has become an agency for “reinventing traditions” and a more intimate relationship with the local land and wider earth.
Those who brought Pachamama into the Vatican gardens in Rome to be reverenced under the cover of the affection that Catholics have for the Virgin Mary were either carelessly or deliberately trying to infuse Catholicism with a shamanistic and ecologically politicised alternative religious movement with a very different religious and spiritual character. One that is in fact entirely at odds with Catholic belief and practice.
Faithful Catholics have a number of reasons to be grateful to Alexander Tscheuggel for not only removing the fertility goddess from a place of Catholic reverence, but also for clarifying the confusion used to slip her into the heart of the Church.
It has been reported that when Cardinal Pell met Alexander Tscheuggel after he had removed the offending artifacts the Cardinal looked at him sternly and appeared to be rebuking him for having made a serious mistake. After a comic pause of a couple of seconds the Cardinal changed his expression to a smile and said: “you should have burnt the things before you dumped them”.
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