On Oct. 21, two men broke into the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina in Rome. But they were not thieves. They were a very specific type of vandal—traditionalist Catholics who believed that they were doing God’s work against paganism in the church. They were there for three statues, which they threw in the Tiber River.
The statues had come a long way before they arrived in Rome for the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, an event to highlight paths for evangelism of indigenous people and the Amazon’s environmental role, held by the Vatican from Oct. 6 to 27. If you asked advocates for the synod, the statues were of the Virgin Mary or St. Francis’s “Mother Earth.” If you asked its opponents, they depicted the Andean goddess Pachamama and were a sign of the apostasy of Pope Francis’s papacy.
The Vatican’s outreach to indigenous groups matters, especially within the context of a Latin American Catholicism that has often equated natives with the devil. As right-wing Bolivians celebrate the ouster of an indigenous president and the supposed return of the Bible to politics, these issues are not just ones of theological or doctrinal debate but are politically critical.
Traditionalist Catholics have been primed against the Francis papacy for a number of reasons. The statues—among many brought from the Amazon—were an example of demonic influence working in the church, infiltrating it through formal adoption of pagan practices. The prostration of participants in the ceremony before the images strengthened this conviction. The situation was not helped when, in discussing the recovery of the statues from the river, the pope referred to them as “statues of the Pachamama,” causing the debate to flare up even more intensely.
But traditionalist opposition toward Francis goes back long before this synod. Francis’s approach to the public has drawn accolades from liberals and left-of-center media, but his opponents sometimes seem on the verge of pronouncing him an anti-pope. These traditionalist Catholics believe that the Francis papacy has been coming closer and closer to committing heresy as time goes on.
From the release of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia—which allowed divorced individuals who remarried to partake in Holy Communion and prompted several dubia (formal questions) by four cardinals within the church—to the 2017 “filial correction” by 40 Catholic clergy and lay scholars, the traditionalist perception of the Francis papacy is that it is either barreling toward heresy or is already there. This has led to articles from traditionalist Catholic websites like OnePeterFive and Church Militant questioning various aspects of the current papacy and occasionally even questioning the election of Francis as pope.
A vast majority of the backlash to the Francis papacy has come from members of the church within the United States. Since the start of the papacy, many conservative American Catholics have felt as if they were being pushed to the side in comparison to the power they felt they had under Pope Benedict XVI. In comparison to Benedict, who was broadly seen as a conservative, the Francis papacy is much more reformist—and, in the eyes of conservatives, is opening the papacy up to potential liberalization on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.
Because of this, traditionalist Catholics in the United States have basically been the driving force of the resistance against the Francis papacy. The papacy itself has recognized that these American conservatives pose the greatest pushback; the pope himself has said, “For me, it’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” and has recommended an article that critiques conservative elements within the American Catholic Church on the basis of their propagation of an “ecumenism of hate.”
In South and Central America, these events are even more charged. The events at the synod are a reminder of the tense history between indigenous people and the Roman Catholic Church. While the church, especially the Jesuits, sometimes sought to protect indigenous people from secular rulers, forced conversion and the conviction of the conquistadors that they were there to spread God’s word have left a bitter legacy. For many right-wing Catholics there today, indigenous religion is literally devil-worship. The equation of indigenous deities with Catholic saints or as manifestations of a greater divine is seen as particularly dangerous, syncretism infiltrating the heart of the church itself.
That heritage is particularly complex in Bolivia. Up until 2009, Bolivia had Roman Catholicism enshrined as its state religion; the revision of the Bolivian Constitution made the country into a secular state and secured the rights of practitioners of indigenous religions. That was a powerful change. The indigenous people of Bolivia were not allowed to vote until 1952, and they only received the right to enter the main streets and plazas of the cities in the last half of the 20th century—prejudices stamped and sanctioned by the Catholic Church of the time.
This revision of the Bolivian Constitution happened under Evo Morales, the now former president of Bolivia. While Morales is a Roman Catholic, he did not consider himself to be devout and claimed he was Catholic only to attend weddings; he also framed his environmental policy in terms of defending Pachamama—in much the same way that a Californian might talk of Gaia.
When Morales resigned, Luis Fernando Camacho, one of the right-wing opposition activists calling for Morales’s removal, stormed into the presidential palace. While standing next to Camacho, a pastor announced: “The Bible is returning to the government palace. Pachamama will never return! Today Christ is returning to the government palace. Bolivia is for Christ.” This attitude is shared by the interim Bolivian president, Jeanine Áñez, who proclaimed that “The Bible has returned to the palace!”
The backlash has not been limited to Bolivia. In Brazil, a retired bishop said the events that occurred at the Amazonian synod were both scandalous and demonic sacrilege. The bishop railed against what he felt was an increasing push for syncretism in the church. Likewise, in Mexico City, a priest burned an effigy of Pachamama, doing so as an “act of reparation and profanation” for the events that transpired during the synod. In both cases, the clergy members involved felt the need to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is on the brink of schism. This is not an isolated sentiment; this sentiment can be found even among former high-ranking members of the Vatican. In a recent letter published on an Italian website, retired Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò warned against the creation of a “syncretic neo-religion rising with anti-Christian dogma.”
The relationship between Roman Catholicism and indigenous faith practitioners will remain tense for the foreseeable future. The Vatican is walking a risky line; even as it attempts to cure a poisoned relationship with people it wishes to evangelize and protect, it risks strengthening the most ardent opponents of Francis’s papacy. North American Catholics who condemn Francis, meanwhile, implicitly align themselves with some of the most dangerous and bigoted elements of Catholic politics to the south. The Catholic Church in Bolivia may have to decide where its soul lies: with the people the pope has charged it to reach out to or with the right-wingers who have tied themselves to the cross.