A statue of a pregnant woman with an exaggerated swollen belly that was present at the Pan-Amazonian Synod has become a lightning rod for criticism, spurring widespread misunderstanding of how the Church evangelizes other cultures.

Depending on who you read or whom was asked at the synod, the Pachamama statue was a pagan idol, an icon of pro-life values, or a formerly pagan entity baptized into Christianity as an image of Mary. For what it’s worth, when the statue was presented to Pope Francis, the woman holding it called it “Our Lady of the Amazon,” according to the Catholic News Agency report.  

The statue appeared on the Vatican grounds in a tree-planting ceremony in which apparently indigenous residents of the Amazon region are shown bowing down to it. Pope Francis is seated outside the circle but was present at the ceremony. The Pachamama was spotted in other ceremonies and sparked so much controversy that the statue was stolen from the Church of Santa Maria del Traspontina and tossed into the Tiber. The statue was later recovered and Pope Francis issued an apology.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Pachamama is an Andean earth goddess, so it’s understandable how the whole affair could be so deeply confusing and upsetting to faithful Catholics, given Scripture’s clear prohibitions against idol worship. Pope Francis himself was reportedly uncomfortable He is shown seated back from the circle of Pachamama ‘worshippers.’ Apparently, he had prepared some remarks for the occasion. But instead he ended up offering a simple Our Father.

Father Dwight Longenecker has an excellent breakdown of eight possible interpretations of what the Pachamama statue represents and the role it played in the synod. Spirit Daily also has an honest and fair recap of the whole affair.

As Catholics how are we to respond to this? In the first place, we ought to interpret the actions of the Vatican and Pope Francis with a ‘hermeneutic of charity’ rather than one of suspicion. He is our Holy Father and our first instinct should be not to assume the worst. In the case of the Pachamama, there is simply too much conflicting information and lack of clarity for us to conclude what it was or represented.

What we can do is understand what the Vatican was trying to do. In a word, it comes down to an evangelical idea known as “inculturation.”

Inculturation was defined by the Second Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in its final report in 1985:

Since the church is a communion which is made up of unity and diversity, present in the whole world, it takes itself up in all cultures. Inculturation is separate from a mere adaptation, because it signifies an intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through an integration in Christianity and an implementation of Christianity in various human cultures.

Inculturation refers to much more than just what is left over after Christianity has arrived and driven out the idols and demons from a particular pagan culture, as one far-right conservative writer has suggested. Instead, it involves a positive engagement with the beliefs, myths, and symbolism of other cultures, showing how they both anticipate Christ and reflect a desire for God as revealed in Christianity. Contrary to what critics say, this is not relativism, indifferentism, or syncretism.

In fact, it’s always been this way. As the writer at Spirit Daily notes, pagan symbolism is everywhere in Christianity today, especially Christmas:

Indeed, the Christmas tree, mistletoe, the yule log, ornaments, wreaths, and other features of that time of year had pagan origins and thus a pagan spirit—until they were Christianized. Holly? Pagans love green leaves and red berries. The wood was used for wizard wands.

The article cites a number of other pagan vestiges, such as Easter eggs, which come from the Germanic goddess Ostara who was associated with the spring and the fact that the site chosen for the Vatican was once home to celebrations in the cult of the ancient goddess Cybele.

But inculturation goes much deeper than this. Just take a look at the New Testament, which was written in Greek. That means that the very language used to communicate the Good News of Christ was conveyed to us in a language that necessarily drew upon concepts, beliefs, and images from the Greco-Roman worldview.

Here’s an example. Open your Bible to Matthew 11:23. There Jesus says, “And as for you, Capernaum: ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld’” (NAB, Rev. Ed.). In the original Greek, the word for ‘netherworld’ is hades—that’s the name for the underworld in ancient Greek mythology and the deity who ruled over it. The word is used 11 times in the Greek text of the New Testament.

This kind of stuff is all over the New Testament once you go looking for it. 2 Peter 2:4 says that God dispatched the sinful angels to “Tartarus,” which, like Hades, is both a place and an entity from ancient myth.

In the Prologue to the Gospel of John, Jesus is identified as the Word, in Greek, the ‘logos’—which, in Stoic philosophy and mythology was the divine principle of reason governing the cosmos.

In the infancy narratives, follow the star to Bethlehem. The story is a model for thinking about the relationship between other religions and the truth to Christianity, according to Pope Benedict XVI,

The ambivalence of the concept of Magi that we find here illustrates the ambivalence of religion in general. It can become the path to true knowledge, the path to Jesus Christ. But when it fails, in his presence, to open up to him and actually opposes the one God and Saviour, it becomes demonic and destructive (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 93).

We see the great evangelizer St. Paul putting these principles into practice in his preaching at Areopagus:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols. So he debated in the synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there. Even some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion. Some asked, “What is this scavenger trying to say?” Others said, “He sounds like a promoter of foreign deities,” because he was preaching about ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection.’ They took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, “May we learn what this new teaching is that you speak of?

Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands” (Acts 17:16-19, 22-24).

Although he registers his disapproval of the idols, Paul engages with the culture of the Greeks, affirming those aspects of it that point to Christ. This is clearly evident to any reader in Paul’s reference to the altar of the ‘Unknown God.’ But it is also at work in other more subtle elements of his speech. For example, in verse 28, Paul says “In him we live and move and have our being.” In fact, that’s a quotation from pagan Stoic philosopher Aratus describing Zeus (see here for more).

Pagan cultures do contain reflections of the truth. Any culture that believes in a god who is creator of the universe certainly has a piece of the truth. The Second Vatican Council described these pieces of the truth as ‘seeds of the word’:

In order that they may be able to bear more fruitful witness to Christ, let them be joined to those men by esteem and love; let them acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of men among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions; let them gladly and reverently lay bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden among their fellows (Ad Gentes, Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, 11).

What Vatican II is saying is not new. It’s actually quite an old concept that goes back to the time of the Church Fathers. As early as the second century Justin Martyr wrote in on the idea in his First Apology, speaking of “seeds of truth among all men” who are “not accurately understanding” (First Apology, 44).

When the Church talks about ‘inculturation,’ it is simply taking its cues from the New Testament and the early Church. In a way, it is simply a recognition of the reality that other religions have elements of truth in them. These ‘seeds of the word’ should be embraced and nurtured so that those who believe in them may encounter the Word Incarnate. Whatever truth is out there is an opportunity and invitation for Christians to introduce others to the Truth.

Of course, in this instance, it seems safe to say that Vatican officials fumbled in their efforts at inculturation. They certainly failed to successfully communicate their intentions to the broader Catholic world. But their attempts at inculturation, far from being a deviation from Catholic teaching and traditions, should be understood as an effort to be faithful to them, even if the process was far less than perfect.