The South American rainforest may still be on fire, but the rest of us were saved from burning in hell thanks to the wiley ways of some alt-right Catholic cognoscenti in Rome for the recent Amazon synod.
The great rush to save us from ourselves? It wasn’t to support the final synod document calling for greater awareness of—and response to—ecological sins. Nor was it to cheer a move to ordain married men in an under-supported part of the world where people are hungry to receive sacraments. It wasn’t even to applaud the pope’s move to continue the discussion on women and the diaconate.
Instead, with a chorus of tsks that swelled to clucks and culminated in a resounding splash, some concerned Catholics took steps to ensure we weren’t lead astray by what appeared to be some fairly humble artwork. The act of tossing two Amazonian statues into the Tiber smacked of paternalism, a rigidity dictating thought and valuing lockstep practice without any theological underpinnings, or thought. The amount of bloggers’ ink spilled on this tempest in an alt-right teapot merely highlights the silliness of so much of the criticism that continues to swirl around the Francis papacy. There’s a nasty smug superiority rather than anything that suggests real concern for the church and her people.
Two simple, culturally appropriate, wooden statues placed in Santa Maria in Transpontina at the beginning of the synod were deemed so offensive by some that they were carried off and tossed in the river to ensure the church would not be undermined—nay, threatened!—by their presence. The charge against the folk art? The statues were deemed “pagan” and thus not deserving of their hallowed placement. It was an action that offends for many reasons: for starters, it’s theft, not to mention vandalism, and it smacks of an insular ignorance that defies the reality of the church as global family. And last time I checked, God loves the pagans, too.
I’m sure I’m not the only Catholic woman who saw the carvings of the two pregnant women and read into them the Visitation, given my cultural and catechetical lens. The power of art rests in the eye of the beholder, and images can be interpreted by different people at different times in radically different ways. For many of us, the fecundity expressed in these simple works was profoundly pro-life, and thus pro-God, regardless of the statues’ origins or creators. That this became the focal point of the synod for some floors me. The power the right assigned these simple images certainly lends credence to all the non-Catholics who’ve ever believed that we “worship” statues. Given the ongoing fuss over these tiny women, you’d be forgiven for thinking our critics were right.
Naturally, like the good father he is, Pope Francis stepped in to mediate, ensuring the statues were replaced before the end of the synod. Sides were sent to their corners, and the important work of the synod will move forward.
If I sound a tad annoyed, it may be because of my years in Catholic media. Editing a national Catholic publication placed me on the receiving end of near-weekly snail mail and email litanies cataloguing my errancies of orthodoxy, even though most writers were motivated by assumption, rather than fact–but a surety that they were the guardians of orthodoxy, of truth.
One reader, for example, wrote to tell me my collects were “boring” and were not in the true spirit of the mass. He was pointed in the direction of the office of divine worship and discipline of the sacraments in Rome, the men who actually do write these prayers.
Another wrote to advise me I needed to learn how to edit, as she had counted the number of times I’d left the word “and” in the Easter Vigil’s creation story from Genesis and that there were far too many for her liking. To this woman, I sent an explanation that Scripture translations, licensed by the bishops, were not to be tinkered with by the likes of me.
One man threatened to vandalize copies of my periodical throughout his town. While I’m no fan of the latest translation of the Roman Missal because it stripped away much of the lyricism, I was not responsible for changing the words of the Apostles’ Creed so that Jesus descended to hell rather than to the dead. My efforts to explain the concept of sheol were not received in the spirit with which they were offered.
Still another, a priest, wrote to chastise me for running the wrong Mass readings, perhaps my biggest editing fear. Turns out that Father had simply not switched weekday lectionaries when the new liturgical year began. But who would be right—the man in the collar or the wife and mother (who happens to have a theological degree of her own).
And let’s not even get started on the messages I’d receive after running ads for a women’s religious community’s yoga retreats.
In all cases, I found myself annoyed by attacks based on a presumption that I was wrong without having done any research. Sometimes, I was amused, though, that so many so appalled at the notion of women rising above their station actually assumed I had the power to write the prayers of the Mass or to edit scripture. Sadly, there was a constant holier-than-thou tone that ran through this type of missive. The writers’ voices were more about a triumphal need to point out others’ flaws than a desire to have a conversation, to understand why someone else had done something, or even to help. I could easily imagine the statues tossers having come from my readership.
(To be fair, sometimes the attacks came from the left, including more than a few women who chided me for not arbitrarily adding inclusive language to the readings and prayers of the Mass. While I was sympathetic, that was not a battle I was willing to take on on behalf of my employer.)
I was reminded of the orthodoxy police with the recent headlines out of Tennessee about the priest who fought to ban Harry Potter from school shelves because, in consultation with exorcists, said priest had learned that the spells in the children’s series were “real” and could conjure up spirits.
The news amused. As the only non-fantasy reader in a Potter-mad family, I finally had a talking point for the next time the family binge-watched the franchise movies because the boy wizard and I now had something in common.
One of the oddest letters I ever received was from someone who sent me what was purported to be a list of local exorcists. Scribbled at the bottom was a note reading simply, “I think you need this.”
I filed the story away as an anecdote to share selectively with those who would see the humor. There’s nothing to laugh at with a book ban, though. Not only does it smack of an Index-like censorship, it’s also a sad comment on Catholics being threatened by a fictional character spouting words we shouldn’t really believe have any power.
My mail memories do not stand in isolation. There’s a direct link to throwing statues in the Tiber to telling others what to think and how to worship. There’s also a healthy heaping of superstition and fear, even though, as people of faith, we have little to fear.
After all, sometimes a statue is just a statue…
Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.