A Catholic moral panic, two years on

By Mike Lewis, 23 October 2021
A wooden statue of a pregnant woman is pictured in the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina as part of exhibits on the Amazon region during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome, Oct. 18, 2019. Image: Paul Haring/CNS


21 October marks exactly two years since a young Austrian convert to the Catholic faith, Alexander Tschugguel, stole five wooden figures of pregnant indigenous women from the Amazon from Santa Maria in Traspontina church in Rome in the early morning hours.

Kathryn Joyce, in an article for Type Investigations and Vanity Fair, described what happened next: “No one stops him as he carries them outside and down the Bridge of Angels, where, in the shadow of the hulking Castel Sant’Angelo—the setting of both a purported medieval miracle and an action sequence in a Dan Brown novel—the two men abruptly pitch one statue over the side. Sensing a need for greater ceremony, Tschugguel aligns the remaining four on the bridge’s ledge, then shoves them, one by one, into the Tiber. On their YouTube video, you can see the last one land with a splash, stirring a chorus of seagulls as the current carries it away.”

This moment was the climax of nearly three weeks of moral panic in the Catholic world, when a well-organized media effort successfully pounded a false narrative into the minds of many ordinary Catholics, many of whom still strongly believe today that a pagan ritual was carried out in the Vatican Gardens in the presence, and with the approval, of Pope Francis.

The tree-planting

The story begins at midday on October 4, 2019, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Just days before the opening of the Vatican’s Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, Pope Francis and other leaders of the Church gathered in the Vatican Gardens with delegates from the indigenous populations of the Amazon region for a tree-planting ceremony and to consecrate the upcoming synod to the intercession of Saint Francis. The event was organized by the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, the Order of Franciscan Friars Minor, and the Global Catholic Climate Movement.

The service, which lasted a little over an hour, included prayers, readings, singing, dancing, and preaching. Representatives from all over the world took part in the tree planting, with individual participants carrying and pouring bowls of soil from areas where the people are enduring particular trials and hardships. Prayers were invoked as each participant took their part in planting the tree—a holm oak from Assisi. Journalist Barbara J. Fraser, who was covering the event for Catholic News Service, reported, “The pope appeared tired at the event, during which he sat under a blazing noonday sun. … Instead of the brief prepared remarks he was scheduled to deliver after the tree was planted, however, he simply prayed the Our Father and left in a car.”

Fraser noted that the ceremony was rich in symbolism, and that about 20 representatives from the region sang and danced around a number of symbols placed on a mandala (a circular blanket) “that included a banner with a photograph of Notre Dame de Namur Sister Dorothy Stang, a missionary from Dayton, Ohio, who was murdered in Brazil in 2005 because of her defense of the land rights of small-scale farmers.”

Christopher Lamb, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, was also present at the ceremony. He recalls the event as “a prayerful liturgy of hope for a region which had been devastated by fires.” His report from the day of the ceremony described the service as “a moving, and emotional event, as though the Amazon river was flowing into the Tiber, giving the Church fresh waters from a mission land.”

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh arrived in Rome just as the service was getting underway. Asked recently about his impressions of the event, he said, “I watched some of it live, and thought only what a beautiful service it was, how special that the people had brought symbols of their culture to offer to the Pope, and what a great connection that made between the See of Peter and the faithful of the Amazon.”

The right-wing Catholic media, however, interpreted it differently. As Kathryn Joyce put it, “Francis’s critics saw something else: a circle of Indians in face-paint and feathers, prostrate before a pagan idol of the Andean fertility goddess Pachamama, while the pope looked on. Conservative Catholic media seized on the supposed scandal.”

The headline on EWTN-affiliated Catholic News Agency’s report, by Courtney Grogan, referred to the event as an “Ecological Ritual.” The article described the event as “an indigenous performance at a tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens Friday during which people held hands and bowed before carved images of pregnant women.” It said that the group “knelt and bowed in a circle around images of two semi-naked pregnant women in the presence of the Pope and members of the Curia.”

Grogan’s article then compared the program to “the pago a la tierra, a traditional offering to Mother Earth common among indigenous peoples in some parts of South America.” The coverage by Canada-based LifeSiteNews, which has been critical of Pope Francis since the early days of his papacy, went even further. Their report began with the headline, “Pope hosts tree-planting ritual where indigenous bow to topless pregnant statue,” and noted that, “To some, this resembled a pagan fertility ritual taking place within the walls of the Vatican.”

An organized resistance

Prior to Francis’ pontificate, synodal assemblies of bishops at the Vatican rarely attracted significant coverage from the mainstream press. Typically, when the pope has convened a synod that focuses on a specific part of the world—as this one did—few Catholics even take notice. Under Pope Francis, however, that was no longer the case. The Synod on the Amazon was the fourth synod of Francis’s papacy, following the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family and the 2018 Synod on Youth and Young People. Each of these large gatherings had become occasion for ideologically-focused interest groups to set up shop and wage the Church’s culture wars on a global stage, with the Eternal City as a backdrop.

The Amazon Synod was all this and more, because in addition to the usual papal critics from the Italian and English-speaking media, they were bolstered by a large and wealthy contingent from Brazil, including Bernardo Küster, a social media influencer with ties to nationalist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Küster, who currently has over 900,000 followers on YouTube, emerged as one of the most influential leaders among the synod’s media critics.

Küster was responsible for many of the attack lines used against the synod by the English-speaking conservative Catholic media. Daniele Palmer, who was in Rome covering the synod for The Tablet and Where Peter Is, reported that Küster published a video about alleged financial contributions from the Ford Foundation to the Vatican, painting the donations as a “pro-abortion” influence on the work of the synod.

The Ford Foundation, according to Palmer, soon became a central point of focus for the EWTN-affiliated National Catholic Register. He wrote, “The outlet’s Rome reporter Edward Pentin has repeatedly asked Vatican officials questions about alleged Ford Foundation support for the synod, continuing to press the issue even as the officials deny the allegations.” Palmer later noted that on October 29, two days after the end of the synod, Pentin “was seen having dinner with Küster in a restaurant in Rome.” Palmer wrote, “This highlights the professional and social ties between the Brazilian social media influencer and portions of the Catholic media world, pointing to the involvement of nationalist populist movements in the opposition to Francis.”

The opposition to Francis at the Amazon Synod was indeed organized. One cannot overlook the fact that Küster (a former atheist) came to his Catholic faith through the Brazilian organization Tradition, Family and Property (TFP). According to Palmer, “Küster himself claims that his own form of Catholicism derives from TFP and believes the teachings of the group’s founder, the traditionalist and dictatorial sympathizer Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, to be a potential font of renewal within the Church.”

Palmer explained the strong ties between TFP and media opposition to Pope Francis. He noted how “figures like John-Henry Westen of LifeSiteNews and organizations like Voice of the Family, are closely interwoven with the global branches of TFP. These anti-Francis traditionalists often prop up conferences and parallel summits in an effort to openly criticize what they perceive as the politicization of the Church under Francis. And what has recently surfaced is how TFP, and its many global branches and intellectual figures, are either instrumental to the organization of these events or even the very ones that set them in motion.”

One such event took place in Rome in the days leading up to the opening of the synod. Voice of the Family organized a conference featuring speakers from TFP-affiliated groups, as well as a “roundtable” discussion with a number of prominent critics of the pope, including Westen, Italian traditionalist Roberto de Mattei, podcaster Taylor Marshall, Remnant editor Michael Matt, and Church Militant founder Michael Voris.

In his book The Outsider: Pope Francis and his battle to reform the Church, Christopher Lamb wrote that this tight-knit network of organizations opposed to Pope Francis “is opposed to listening to or learning from the cultures of the Amazon, and adapting the Church’s mission to these forgotten people, and instead believes the answer is a mix of free-market economics and a Eurocentric-model of Catholicism for the region. All of it smacks of neo-colonialism, or what the pope describes as ‘ideological colonization.’ The opposition from the elites is supported by Rome-based cardinals such as Cardinal Müller, who has repeatedly spoken up against the synod’s discussions, and who is offered an uncritical pulpit through EWTN media.”

In the months before the synod, these organizations and their allies in the media planted the seeds to sabotage the coverage of the three-week assembly in October 2019. In addition to Küster’s efforts on YouTube and the TFP-sponsored conference in Rome, outlets published stories criticizing the synod’s working document for allegedly promoting pantheism and liberation theology. Austen Ivereigh recounted, “Cardinal Burke and Kazakhstan Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider had called for a 40-day period of fasting to counter what they called ‘pagan superstitions’ in the working document, which was of course nonsense.”

Rumors also circulated that the synod was nothing more than a front for German bishops to try and push forward women’s ordination and married priests. There were even claims that the synod would consider whether to allow bread made from yuca (cassava root) to replace wheat bread in the Eucharist.

In other words, in the months leading up to the synod, they were already trying to turn their audiences against it. This was nothing new, according to Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. “The script had already been written and followed the pattern established earlier in the pontificate,” he told me. “When it became known Pope Francis was working on an encyclical on the environment, conservative Catholics like Princeton Professor Robert George launched a series of prebuttals, casting doubt on a document they had never seen. In advance of the Amazon synod, the same thing transpired, the water was poisoned, the counter-narrative established.”

For Where Peter Is, Pedro Gabriel described the ramp-up of controversy that started months before the synod, explaining that much of the narrative surrounding it had been built in advance. Its opponents were saying that it was “an instrument for promoting paganism and heresy. There have been crusades of prayer and fasting and even exorcisms to prevent the alleged errors of the working document of the synod (which is not magisterial and is meant only to direct the discussion) from being approved.”

There is no question that they were setting the stage to pounce on something. And during that tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, they found their MacGuffin. Austen Ivereigh recalls an interaction soon after the event. “Not long afterwards I was on the Borgo Pio having coffee when an EWTN reporter whom I knew shoved his phone under my nose. ‘What do you think that is?’ he asked. It was a picture of two of the carvings of two pregnant native women, with peaceful, joyful expressions, facing each other. I told him they reminded me of the Visitation in Luke’s Gospel. He huffed and puffed about them being ‘pagan.’ I said the Vatican wouldn’t allow pagan idols into a prayer service, and that he should chill—these were just carvings, quite common in the region, and were no more ‘pagan’ than the oars and canoes they carried.”

Ivereigh didn’t yet realize that a new media narrative was beginning to take shape. The point of focus for the opposition to the synod was a wooden figure, not even two feet tall. This network of anti-papal resistance had managed to fire the first shots in its media war, and even before the synod began. Ivereigh soon realize the fix was in: “I thought no more of it, until a few days into the synod, when I realized that EWTN was running a series of stories on the basis that these were ‘pagan statues.’ They had, of course, ignored my comments and I noticed that they never actually asked an indigenous leader what the statuette symbolized. They weren’t interested in the culture of the people, nor what they believed, not anything about their religious understanding. The only story that mattered was that ‘pagan idols had been introduced into the Vatican.’ The rest is history.”

It soon became clear to Ivereigh that “EWTN had seized on the innocent carvings as a graphic way of illustrating these fears to their audiences, to persuade them that the Amazon synod was part of some wider conspiracy by Francis to dilute and pollute the purity of the Catholic faith. It was nakedly racist, and of course illustrated the desperate need for the synod, which was precisely to overcome those deeply anti-Christian prejudices, which Francis called out on the eve of the synod.”

Competing explanations

It was soon noted, however, that during the October 4 ceremony, when a woman brought the wooden figure to Pope Francis and asked him to bless it, she told the pope that it was “Our Lady of the Amazon.” Reactionary media outlets pushed back against the notion that the image was an icon of Mary, and insisted it was an idol of the “pagan goddess” Pachamama. Suddenly the statue became a Rorschach test for those on either side of the polarized Church. Supporters of Pope Francis pointed to the woman’s words and argued the statue was Marian while his critics insisted the entire thing was unquestionably pagan, and he allowed a blasphemous ritual to take place in the Vatican while he did nothing.

Even more confusion was added when the official explanations began coming in from the Vatican and from synod organizers. During a post-meeting briefing on October 7, Austen Ivereigh asked synod secretary Bishop David Martínez de Aguirre Guinea of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, about the statues. The bishop replied that he thought the symbols probably reflected fertility, women, life; the life presence among these Amazonian people. The bishop added, “I don’t think we need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element.”

Now we had option 3: neither Mary nor Pachamama.

This only gave the promoters of the idolatry charges more ammunition. Day after day during the synod, the pagan ritual narrative continued to grow, and its promoters grew even more insistent and outspoken. Catholic writers, bloggers, and media personalities continued to loudly decry the “pagan ritual” in the Vatican gardens.

Within days it seemed that all of conservative Catholicism had become experts on Amazonian iconography and symbols, as well as the difference between authentically Christian Amazonian spirituality and idolatry.

EWTN, of course, was out in front. “Papal Posse” member Fr. Gerald Murray insisted on the October 10 episode of The World Over, “The ceremony can be accurately described as a pagan religious ceremony and that false goddess, Pachamama—who is like a creation god—this is horrendous, I have to say, no matter what the intention of those who invited those people there. It’s quite clear that that was a pagan religious ceremony with religious meaning to them. This should not be—ever occur in a Catholic institution, certainly not in the Holy See.”

LifeSiteNews dug up an indigenous (non-Catholic) lawyer from the Amazon, Jonas Marcolino Macuxí, who asserted through an interpreter that the ritual was “100 percent pagan.”

Robert Royal, Murray’s fellow “Posse” member, wrote in The Catholic Thing, “Yes, she’s probably Pachamama, goddess of the earth or world/universe in some areas of the Amazon, fertility goddess in Peru, etc. To anyone who takes the First Commandment seriously, this is not kids playing with dolls, but the kind of idolatry or worship of “strange gods” that, from first to last, the Bible and our whole tradition warn against.”

At one point during the synod, Christopher Lamb spoke out in a personal capacity during a press briefing and apologized to the indigenous people of the Amazon “for the demeaning, xenophobic, and at times racist remarks against them” from others in the Catholic media. I asked him recently if he received a response from anyone about his apology and he told me he was berated by a LifeSiteNews journalist following his comments.

Michael Sean Winters also recognized the element of racism among the rabble-rousers. The fact that these indigenous people from the Amazon were their fellow Catholics “did not matter to the critics for whom the perception of idolatry and/or syncretism was ideological cocaine. They couldn’t snort enough of it. The people who a little more than a year later would be convinced the election was stolen and that ivermectin could cure Covid were only too happy to believe that Pope Francis had invited paganism into the inner sanctum of the Vatican.”

A media imbalance

Sadly, the cries of “paganism” only grew louder. For weeks it was the main story in a certain segment of the Catholic press. In the wider Church, priests and pewsitters alike were fretting about these charges of paganism. Priests were decrying it from the pulpit, rosary crusades for “reparations” were launched, and exorcists were talking about demons and evil spirits in the Vatican. A parish priest in Mexico posted a video of himself burning paper effigies of the statue. The strange dichotomy was that while a large segment of Catholics was undergoing a serious moral panic, while Vatican officials, Pope Francis, and non-reactionary media outlets saw it as a distraction caused by a few fringe extremists.

In fact, one could say that recognizing this imbalance is what put Where Peter Is on the map. After the controversy began, with no budget and a staff of volunteers, we published some 32 articles addressing this topic, and our web traffic skyrocketed. In an ideal world, the news story should have been the Amazonian people, their culture, and their faith. But we saw what normal Catholics were seeing and realized that people were actually believing these outrageous, logically incoherent, and racist accusations against this group of indigenous people who were in Rome as invited guests of the Church.

The bulk of our investigation was done by Pedro Gabriel, who works as an oncologist in a Portuguese hospital by day and a Catholic writer by night. His language skills and scientific mind came in very handy in sorting through details and assessing information. But it wasn’t easy. Finding a straight answer (or even getting a response to an email) from a Vatican or synod official was extremely difficult, and it was impossible to keep up with the constant barrage put forward by the reactionary media.

As Austen Ivereigh put it, “EWTN decided to try to make a profit from their vast army of reporters on the ground in Rome by keeping them on the story, which never quite died down. I honestly don’t think the Holy See Press Office had any idea what they were dealing with. No one seemed to be able to give an authoritative declaration as to the meaning of the statues because, of course, there was no fixed meaning. For some, they symbolized fertility and life — in other words, God the Creator — while others referred to her as Our Lady of the Amazon, combining Marian devotion with local depictions of women as people have done for centuries. In the absence of a clear narrative from the Vatican, EWTN could just carry on, until an appalling act of violence and disrespect of the Amazonian people was carried out by an Austrian integrist.”

Why did the Vatican fail to address this head-on? Well, for one thing, it seems that inside the synod hall they were barely aware of the controversy. In Let Us Dream, Francis described the events from his perspective, “What was beautiful in that synod—the deep respect for indigenous culture and the presence of the native people in the prayer services—was twisted by hysterical accusations of paganism and syncretism. Although we were barely aware of it inside the synod hall, there was no shortage of disturbances outside” (emphasis added).

This lack of awareness unfortunately led to a gaffe on his part, when he announced the retrieval of the statues from the Tiber. He announced, “I want to say a word about the statues of the pachamama that were taken from the church of the Traspontina—which were there without idolatrous intentions—and were thrown into the Tiber.” This was seen as another victory for the “it was idolatry” crowd, because (despite the clarification offered two hours later by the Vatican press office) Pope Francis himself “admitted” it was a statue of Pachamama.

What is the statue?

In reality, almost everyone has taken to calling it Pachamama because it doesn’t really have a name.

Pachamama, or Mother Earth, is indeed a concept understood by Amazonian Catholics, but it has nothing to do with those statues.

Dominican Sister Mila Diaz Solano, who was born in Peru and has spent years ministering to the indigenous people in remote, rural parts of South America, wrote an article in August 2020 on what Pachamama means to Catholics in the Pan-Amazon region. She explained, “Pachamama is not a goddess, it is not an idol, it expresses a relationship.” Outside of indigenous religions, Pachamama, “is a Quechua expression rooted in two words.” Those words are pacha (earth), and mama (mother).

She explains how the indigenous people of this region “hold a deep connection with the land. As in the case of my extended family, their livelihood, the means for their children’s education and medical treatments, and the existence of livestock depend on the products of the earth. Rain is sometimes a blessing and at other times a cause of dreadful landslides. I witnessed the faith of the people who prayed for God’s providential care every morning.”

Sister Solano says that it is true that among members of ancestral non-Catholic indigenous religions in the Amazon, Pachamama (the land itself), “is their goddess…what we can call ‘mother nature,’ as well as is the water, and other elements of creation. Pachamama has no representation, but many pictures represent the relationship between the people and the land.” But this is distinct from how Pachamama is understood by the Catholics in the communities in whose life she has participated.

As for the figures that were used in the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens on October 4, 2019? Sister Solano explained that representatives from the different lands and cultures of the region brought items representing their people and life in the Amazon. These included the statues of the woman with a baby in her womb, a canoe, birds, and fishing nets.

She explained, “The statue of a woman with indigenous features with the baby in her womb is how they represented the fertility of the Amazon and the vulnerability of all the Amazonian nations. This statue is not an idol, it does not exist in the Amazon as a goddess. It was a representation, a symbol.”

Ines San Martin, the Rome Bureau chief for Crux, spoke to one of the ceremony’s organizers, the Jesuit priest Fr. Fernando Lopez, in October 2019 about the figures. Fr. Lopez is part of the “Itinerant Group,” lay and religious men and women, who preach the Gospel in the most remote regions of the Amazon. He told her that the statue “represents life.” San Martin reported that “the wood carving is an image the Itinerant Group has been using for years, and it was bought at an artisan’s market in Manaus, a city in Brazil’s Amazon.”

Asked if the ceremony at in the Vatican Gardens was idolatrous, he responded with “a flat no.” He lamented, “There’s something wrong with us if we’re scared by a pregnant woman.”

Sister Solano also strongly asserted that these Amazonian Catholics were not engaging in idolatry. She wrote, “Catholics coming from the Amazon did not, and do not, worship them. In the results of the synod you will not find anything that refers to a worship of what was called ‘idols.’”

Neither Sr. Solano nor Fr. Lopez ever referred to these statues as “Pachamama.” So what are they?

For more background, on both Pachamama and the meaning of these wooden figures, I spoke with Barbara Fraser, who is based in Peru and has covered the Catholic Church in Latin America for decades, including extensive, in-depth reporting on the Church in the Amazon for Catholic News Service surrounding the 2019 synod.

She affirmed Sr. Solano’s definition, “The Pachamama is not a deity. The Pachamama is literally ‘Mother Earth’ in Quechua. The relationship of Andean people with the earth is much more nuanced than the worship of a deity.”

And these figures at the synod, were these representations of the Pachamama? “No Andean or Amazonian indigenous person would tell you ‘that’s a statue of the Pachamama.’ Because it’s not,” she replied.

What, then, would an indigenous person from the Amazon call these wooden figures of pregnant women? She said, “It would be considered a carving of a pregnant woman.”

Fraser added, “It’s especially frustrating that the US Church has basically ignored the Amazon Synod and Querida Amazonia, including the lessons that could be learned from dialogue between Christianity and indigenous cosmovisions.”

What about Our Lady of the Amazon?

That’s one aspect of the story that seems to cause the most confusion. But the explanation is simple.

In an EWTN News video, Rafael Tavares, Director and Editor-in-Chief of ACI Digital told anchor Matthew Bunson that synod organizers told him, “The image is art. Pure art. It does not have a pagan significance, neither a Christian significance … The story behind this statue is that an artist in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas … this artist, he crafted this image and a member of the spirituality team organizing the events at Transpontina, they have found the image and started to take it from tribe to tribe, from places to places, and the Indians themselves have started to call that image – which you see – Our Lady of the Amazon.”

To Pedro Gabriel, this means, “At least some of the natives look to this figure and attribute a Marian connotation to it. And we know that at least one of those natives was the woman who presided over the St. Francis Feast Day activity in the Vatican Gardens. She called it ‘Our Lady of the Amazon’ and used very Catholic terminology (she mentioned ‘the Church’) that seems to rule out a pagan mindset. Since this activity is what prompted the entire kerfuffle, I believe we should take her word for it and charitably assume she did not perform anything contrary to the faith.”

In other words, indigenous people took a nonreligious (and non-pagan) image and attributed a Marian significance to it, something that Christians have been doing for two millennia with the blessing of the Church. These are devout Catholics, with a unique culture. As guests of the Vatican, it was their time to be listened to and learned from, not mocked and belittled.

Michael Sean Winters agrees. “What most struck me at the time was that the people from the Amazon who had come to the synod were self-evidently people of great faith, and that faith was the Catholic faith. Speaking to synod fathers, this was the first thing they said: These people from the Amazon are deeply Catholic!”

The moral panic continues

One of the most frustrating aspects of this controversy is that for some Catholics, it’s just as fresh as the day the figures were thrown into the Tiber. The word “Pachamama” frequently pops up in Archbishop Viganò’s conspiratorial missives. Taylor Marshall—who, it turns out, helped organize and finance the theft—invokes this narrative frequently. On October 4 of this year, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf recalled the event on his blog, writing, “Today is the 2nd Anniversary of a Day That Will Live In Infamy, the horrific demon idol ceremony in the Vatican Gardens”

Mel Gibson even suggested that Pope Francis “answers to” Pachamama in a recent video.

The question, then, is why. Why won’t this story go away, and why do people still believe it?

Pedro Gabriel is frustrated by the intransigence. “what struck me most was how refractory people were to alternate explanations. As irrational as it may seem, many people are apparently more willing to entertain the idea that the pope hosted a pagan ceremony and streamed it on the internet for all to see than to believe the pope, the synod’s official spokespeople, or the people involved in the ceremony, all of whom stated clearly that there were no pagan intentions. Most of the people I have spoken to who succumbed to the Pachamama narrative have been unwilling to even listen to other explanations. In fact, they often become angry at the suggestion that the Pope actually may not have promoted idolatry in the Vatican. This is concerning, especially since as Catholics, we are invited to search for the truth.”

According to Christopher Lamb, it is a window into a much larger battle for the soul of the Church. He said, “The misinformation ‘Pachamama’ narrative became part of a proxy war against Pope Francis and his vision for a more synodal Church that gives pride of place to voices of communities on the margins. What the opponents of Francis forget is that the future of the Church is being forged in the Global south and among indigenous communities like that of the Amazon. Their witness is a model to everyone else, and those who threw the statues in the Tiber are on the wrong side of history.”

“Heaven forfend a little thing like reality intercede,” Michael Sean Winters told me. “This resistance to facticity also explains why the false explanations of what did and did not transpire at the Amazon Synod is still so vibrant in certain conspiratorial quarters. An obnoxious and forgettable character like Alexander Tschugguel can only be understood as a hero in some alternate universe in which everything is upside down. Watching an interview with Tschugguel is akin to imagining a Verdi opera in which all the music is in a major key, or in which Aida becomes a Hollywood starlet. It is insane. But also dangerous.”

Austen Ivereigh points to the false assumptions, the hatred, and prejudice that motivates those who continue to insist upon this distortion of the truth. He recalls, “When, early on in the synod, I tweeted out a short video of a beautiful Amazonian woman during Mass processing the Gospel in dance, it went viral: thousands of people — mostly Americans — were convinced it was some kind of desecration, forgetting that the center of the Church is now the south, where people combine prayer and dance.”

Pope Francis spoke out against this mentality in his exhortation Querida Amazonia. He wrote, “Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. Rather, we ought to know how to distinguish the wheat growing alongside the tares, for ‘popular piety can enable us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on.’”

Pedro Gabriel reflected on the lack of inquisitiveness or open-mindedness of many people who embrace the accusations of idolatry leveled against the Amazonian Catholics. He lamented, “We shouldn’t be relying on outward appearances or falling back on comfortable talking points that are far from reality. This is even more serious when those comfortable talking points serve a narrative, and that narrative is to undermine the Vicar of Christ. For a Catholic, this should be a red flag. Yet so many tragically, have, embraced this lie and are unwilling to snap out of it. It is truly a sad state of affairs.”

For Austen Ivereigh, there was little question about the force behind the longevity of this post-truth understanding of the event: “There was only one desecration at the Amazon Synod, and that was the cultural violence perpetuated on a beautiful people by ignorant rich people, who managed at the same time to despoil the heart of the Gospel. The main vehicle of that hate was of course EWTN. In case we were in doubt, the Pope has told us who they work for.”


This month, the entire Church is embarking on a two-year synodal journey. We are being given a prime opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to work miracles in our hearts and in the hearts of our fellow Catholics. Many people have told me that the work we did on this site to bring the truth about the Amazon Synod to light opened their eyes and snapped them out of their former mindset.

Sadly, destructive ideas and lies have become common currency in the Church and have swayed many ordinary Catholics. This is tragic because  narrative, which has tragically taken hold of the consciousness of so many Catholics. But I am encouraged by the words of Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti, “The heroes of the future will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest. God willing, such heroes are quietly emerging, even now, in the midst of our society.” Sometimes the division in the Church can seem hopeless, but the Spirit is alive. God calls us to continue to tell the truth and to pray and to have hope.

When we go through this synodal process, we would do well to remember these words from Pope Francis in Querida Amazonia:

Starting from our roots, let us sit around the common table, a place of conversation and of shared hopes. In this way our differences, which could seem like a banner or a wall, can become a bridge. Identity and dialogue are not enemies. Our own cultural identity is strengthened and enriched as a result of dialogue with those unlike ourselves. Nor is our authentic identity preserved by an impoverished isolation. Far be it from me to propose a completely enclosed, a-historic, static “indigenism” that would reject any kind of blending (mestizaje). A culture can grow barren when it “becomes inward-looking, and tries to perpetuate obsolete ways of living by rejecting any exchange or debate with regard to the truth about man” (37).

Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Mike Lewis, where this article originally appeared.


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