The Problem with Trying to Make Catholicism Relatable in the Amazon

Roman Catholic pilgrims during an annual river procession and pilgrimage along the Caraparu River in Santa Izabel do Para, in the Amazon jungle, December 8, 2012. (Paulo Santos/Reuters)
Truths of the Catholic faith should not be compromised in an attempt to accommodate indigenous peoples in South America.

If “let us not be led into temptation” wasn’t bad enough for you, try this one on for size: “Our ‘Father-Mother Creator god,’ who art on Earth, hallowed be thy names . . .”

Thankfully, nobody has gone this far in rewriting Scripture, yet. But it is not an unfair representation of the ideas expressed in the instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the upcoming synod on the Amazon. The synod is intended to address the many urgent issues — social, religious, environmental, and otherwise — facing the Amazon region in South America, and the working document provides the tentative responses to be considered during the meeting this fall. Though no official version is currently available in English, I will make use of excerpts that I have translated from the original Spanish.

Much of the document is thoroughly conservative. For instance: “In short, the defense of life implies the defense of the territory, its resources or natural assets, but also of the life and culture of the peoples, the strengthening of their organizations, the full enforceability of their rights, and the possibility to be heard.” There is some wisdom in the document’s recognition of the value of organic culture and tradition, and of the intimate relation of a people to their land.

Problems arise, however, when the document goes into detail about just what those cultures and traditions are and how they should be approached. The very next sentence is a quote from indigenous peoples consulted in preparation for the synod: “We, the indigenous people of Guaviare [Colombia], are part of nature because we are water, air, earth, and life of the environment created by God. Therefore, we ask that the mistreatment and extermination of Mother Earth cease. The earth has blood and is bleeding, the multinationals have cut the veins of our Mother Earth.”

There can be little doubt that this personification of “Mother Earth” is understood as a theological statement by the indigenous peoples themselves, and the term’s frequent reuse by the bishops throughout the document, even if meant purely symbolically, is troubling at the very least. Later, the document, quoting from a spokesman for indigenous people, goes so far as to define a good, healthy life as “a harmony ‘with what Mother Earth offers us.’” (A fuller definition offered elsewhere in the document — “harmony with oneself, with nature, with human beings and with the supreme being, since there is an inter-communication between the whole cosmos, where there are none excluding or excluded” — is hardly much closer to traditional Christian understandings of good living.) Of course, the Catholic Church has for 2,000 years offered an understanding of “the good life” that could not possibly be reduced to simple harmony with a personified Nature — but, hey, let’s not let the Gospel get in the way of evangelization.

It follows that such a radical redefinition of our relationship with God — described by Peter Kwasniewski as “decidedly naturalistic and horizontalist, at loggerheads with the supernatural and vertical character of the revealed religion of Christ” — would require, at the very least, a bit of fudging on the definition of God himself. Hence the unqualified and undefended reference to “the Father-Mother Creator God” in the working document. It is a settled question in the Catholic tradition that God is God the Father, and not God the Mother or God the Father-Mother. The identification of God as Father-Mother — and, worse, of Mother Nature as anything other than a ridiculous fiction — is clearly an attempt to make Catholic teaching more readily relatable to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

This is a justifiable pursuit, but it must be carried out within clearly defined limits. The working document calls for “a catechesis . . . that assumes the language and meaning of the narratives of indigenous and Afro-descendant cultures in harmony with the Biblical stories.” This proposal, which embodies the general spirit of the whole document, bursts through those necessary limits. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with assuming the language of indigenous cultures. But to assume the meaning of their myths is inevitably to muddle the truth of the Catholic tradition.

Nowhere is this compromise of tradition more apparent than in the working document’s attitudes toward ritual and liturgy. The bishops actually explicitly encourage the celebration of pagan rituals, even among indigenous Amazonian people who are Catholic: “Indigenous rituals and ceremonies are essential for integral health since they integrate the different cycles of human life and nature. They create harmony and balance between human beings and the cosmos. They protect life against the evils that can be caused by both human beings and other living beings. They help to cure diseases that harm the environment, human life and other living beings.” Is there any other way to read this excerpt than as an endorsement by the Catholic bishops of these rituals’ efficacy? Assuming that reading, is there any reasonable defense for it?

This endorsement of indigenous rituals necessarily stems from and affirms an endorsement of the underlying indigenous theology. The document encourages “the transmission of the ancestral experience, cosmologies, spiritualities, and theologies of the indigenous peoples” and calls on the Church to “deepen an existing Amazonian Indian theology.” These are plainly matters of substance, not presentation.

This openness to conflicting substance — which is, at heart, a willingness to corrupt the doctrine and dogma of the Church — is apparent in the presence of a whole bunch of words that have no place in a document released by the Vatican: ecotheology, Mother Earth, Father-Mother Creator God, and the whopper “this cosmovisión is summarized in Francis’s mantra,” just to pick a few.

Respect for tradition and culture is great, and the approach of the Church today often shows far too little of it. But in substantial conflicts between indigenous tradition and truth as the Catholic Church understands it, the Church should always defend the latter. A presentation of the authentic faith that makes sense to indigenous peoples is a necessary part of evangelization, but the heart of the faith cannot be changed to try to achieve that end. In the instrumentum laboris, the Amazonian bishops seem dangerously close to doing just that.


The Latest