There’s a funny scene in Oklahoma in which Curly sings a slyly mocking song about Jud Fry, the menacing hired hand. Curly assures Jud that though people dislike him now, they’ll miss him when he’s gone. To make the point, he imagines Jud’s funeral and how people will lament his passing. And so the audience is treated to the hilarious “Poor Jud is Dead.”
In the spoken part of the song, Curly conjures up the preacher’s recollection of Jud’s bigheartedness:
He loved the birds of the forest
And the beasts of the fields
He loved the mice and the vermin in the barn
And he treated the rats like equals
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I was put in mind of the scene by something I had just read in—of all places—the working document for the Amazon Synod. Here’s the relevant passage:
[They respect] the sisters birds, the brothers fish,
and even the smallest sisters like ants,
larvae, fungi, or insects. (20)
Call me insensitive, but I couldn’t help but make the connection to poor Jud’s love of vermin. This passage lacks the punch of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics, but the sentiments are the same.
The only difference is that Curly is making fun of Jud’s slovenly habits and brutish behavior, whereas the document’s authors are completely serious. In a sense, treating “the rats like equals” and the ants like sisters is what the Amazon Synod is all about. Excuse me, make that the “Pan-Amazon Synod.” That’s “pan” as in pantheistic. Some critics say the document authors are trying to sneak in pantheistic and neo-pagan ideas under the guise of concern for the environment. But there’s nothing terribly sneaky about it. There are so many clues that even Inspector Clouseau couldn’t miss them.
Now it’s true that pantheism has a certain appeal to the romantic spirit within us. Who has not felt a sense of communion with nature while walking through the leafy wood beside the babbling brook? As one grows older, however, a more practical view of nature sets in. Most people past middle age would prefer to spend their vacations in a four-star resort rather than camping out in the deep woods together with the ants and the larvae.
Apparently this is not the case with the aging theologians who wrote the hymn to nature otherwise known as “The Working Document.” For them, the term “nature worshippers” can be applied in almost a literal sense. That’s because when they look at the birds and the bugs it’s not clear whether they see the hand of God, or God himself—er, itself.
The trouble with treating the rats like equals is that it lowers the dignity and specialness of man while doing nothing to improve the rats. Fortunately, there are still some grown-up theologians in Rome who have taken the time to point this out. Here’s Cardinal Gerhard Müller on the subject:
Pantheism is not only a theory about God; it is also a form of contempt for man… It is absurd to pretend that God is not anthropocentric. Man is the center of Creation, and Jesus became man, he did not become a plant. This is a heresy against human dignity. On the contrary, the Church must emphasize anthropocentrism, because God created man in His image and likeness. The life of man is infinitely more worthy than the life of any animal.
The Amazonian attempt to merge Christianity with pantheism creates all sorts of theological problems. If the fish and the ants are our “brothers” and “sisters,” does that mean the trout and the centipede are “sons” and “daughters” of God? Did Christ die for the larvae?
Do we really want to go there? It’s one thing to take a walk in the woods and appreciate the beauties of nature. It’s quite another to get caught up in the tangled eco-theology of German prelates who counsel us to “listen to the earth”—or, as she is often referred to in the document, “Mother Earth.”
So now we are talking about Mother Earth? The last time I checked, our cutting-edge theologians wanted to make the Church relevant to the modern world. Now they want to make it relevant to the Ancient World—particularly the ancient, ancestor-rich, spirit-filled world of the Amazon. Thus the importance of “the transmission of ancestral experience, cosmologies, spiritualities, and theologies of the indigenous peoples…” (50)
And what does the “ancestral wisdom” teach us? Well, how about this:
Life in the Amazon is integrated and united with the territory; there is no separation or division between the parts… Everything is shared; private spaces, so typical of modernity, are minimal. Life proceeds on a communal path where tasks and responsibilities are shared for the sake of the common good. There is no place for the idea of an individual detached from the community or its territory. (24)
If you tend to look on the bright side of things, you might interpret that as a description of the early Christian communities. If you’re inclined toward a darker view, it looks more like life in a Chinese communist commune. The second interpretation is buttressed by some observations made by Julio Loredo, an expert on liberation theology. He says that the “scheme” behind the Synod is “the introduction of so-called indigenist liberation theology… Now would be their time to propose it to the entire Church.” “The Synod,” he continues, “is being prepared and staffed by a well-organized network of indigenist associations and movements… All its members come from the folds of the Liberation Theology movement…”
If Loredo is right, we would be justified in worrying about statements such as: “There is no place for the idea of an individual detached from the community or its territory.” Now, let’s imagine a community meeting deep in the Amazon:
So, brother Juarez, your neighbors here tell me that you have been reading materials by the running dog dissidents, Sarah and Burke. Surely you must know that their thoughts are not in conformity with our community standards. Consequently, I have invited Comrade, er, brother Ping to visit us. He comes from our sister church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He will accompany you from now on and help you to adjust your thoughts.
In the Christian vision, each individual is of infinite worth because he is made in the image of God. In fact, the whole idea of the value of the individual flows out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the communist vision, however, the worth of the individual is derived from his commune, and he has no value apart from it. The same is true of pantheism or, as the document authors call it, the “Amazonian cosmovision.” If God is in everything and everything is equally God, there is no room for distinction or hierarchy or individuality. Ideally, one’s personal identity becomes absorbed or dissolved into the cosmic whole. Moreover, once people believe that cows and bees are their equal, the herd mentality which is proper to animals begins to govern social life. Those who don’t believe in a Creator who is above and distinct from his creation tend to create Soviet-style, hive-like societies.
Yet the syncretist Amazonian religion—a blend of Catholicism, socialism, and neo-paganism—is being proposed as the model for the whole Church.
Is the world ready for this? Well, there are certainly signs that it’s ready for the socialist part.
A significant percent of the world’s population already live in hive-like societies such as China and North Korea. And Church leaders seem to have no problem with such societies. Pope Francis seems quite willing to entrust the Catholic Church in China to the communist government. Moreover, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, who was appointed by Francis as Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has asserted that the Chinese are “the best implementers of the Church’s social doctrine.” In 2016, Sorondo invited socialist candidate Bernie Sanders to speak before the Academy because his views “are very analogous to that of the pope.” To top it all off, the chief prelate in the German Catholic Church is a fellow named Marx. Admittedly, that’s just a coincidence, but his ideas on economics do seem suspiciously like those of his namesake—and I don’t mean Groucho.
Socialism has come into style not only in the Church, but in American society as well. One hundred percent of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates embrace a laundry list of socialist programs, and at least half of all college students believe that socialism is the answer to their student debt, their credit card debt, and their inability to find a girlfriend. Even the capitalists are jumping on the socialist bandwagon. Most of the major social media companies now act as Soviet-style enforcers of “community” speech codes and groupthink. When Catholic author Danusha Goska recently posted a link on her Facebook page to an article about the persecution of Tommy Robinson in England, Facebook removed her post. Why? “Because it doesn’t follow the Facebook Community Standards. We created our standards to help make Facebook a safe place for people to connect to the world around them.”
It looks like half the world is already primed to accept the socialism part of the Amazon agenda. How about pantheism? Wouldn’t that be a hard sell? Well, maybe not. Pantheism, after all, was the default religion of mankind before it was replaced by Christianity. And now that Christianity has gone out of style in many places, the way is open for pantheism to return. Pantheism is, in a sense, a natural religion. Like socialism, it provides an opportunity to mingle yourself with something larger than your self—the earth, for instance.
Pagan, pantheistic religions are also more sexually permissive than the Judeo-Christian sort. Part of their appeal to the modern mind is that they make fewer demands on one’s conscience. Like a human mother, Mother Earth seems to be more indulgent than the rule-bound patriarchs. Part of the perennial interest in the primitive is that the primitive represents a more “earthy” existence. The French have a phrase for it: nostalgie de la boue—“longing for the mud.” One example of this longing occurred in the late 1960s with the emergence of the Woodstock generation—a generation which took its name from a festival in upstate New York that took place in a muddy field.
Undoubtedly, when our neo-Woodstockian theologians speak of the richness of the Amazonian earth, they have a cleaner, better sort of mud in mind. Still, the more earthy religion they hope to create will probably succumb to the inherent problems in all nature-worshipping religions. As Chesterton observed of the Greeks, “they became unnatural by worshipping nature.”
Although the prospect of a more relaxed, less sin-conscious form of Catholicism is appealing to many, it’s actually a bad deal. It’s like exchanging the tattered $10 bill in your pocket for a shiny new quarter. Consciousness of personal sin is not at the heart of Christianity, but it’s close to it. Sin damages our relationship with God who takes a personal interest in each individual. However, the authors of the Amazon document seem more interested in societal sins—colonialism, sins against the environment, etc.—than in personal sins. Most likely, the average Catholic in the confessional has never done anything to exploit the Amazon; even if he is conscious of some indirect contribution to environmental damage, he instinctively knows that “Father, I have neglected my children and been unfaithful to my spouse” is a far more serious matter than “Father, I just bought 20 shares of Amalgamated Chainsaw and Bulldozing Corporation.”
In shifting the locus of sin away from the individual and onto governments, corporations, and landowners, reformist theologians effectively remove the whole rationale for Christianity.
Christianity, in short, is about our personal relationship with God—how it was broken and how it was restored. Christianity asserts that God loves us as individuals. He is a father who loves all his children, but, as with a human parent, he loves them individually. Thus we are encouraged to pray to him as a father and present him with our individual concerns and requests. And we are assured that he listens to us.
By contrast, pantheism is an impersonal religion. It requires that we merge our individual selves into nature or into some sort of cosmic consciousness. Instead of the purification and perfection of self that Christianity offers, it looks forward to a dissolution of the self.
As I said, it’s a bad bargain—an exchange of a personal religion for an impersonal one. You may pray all you like to Mother Earth, but you’ll never get an answer. This puts me in mind of another song from another musical. In the film version of Paint Your Wagon, a young Clint Eastwood wanders through the woods singing:
I talk to the trees
But they don’t listen to me
I talk to the stars
But they never hear me
The breeze hasn’t time
To stop and hear what I say
I talk to them all in vain
In his laconic way, Clint says it all.
Editor’s note: Pope Francis poses with native Mexican people during his General Weekly Audience in St. Peter’s Square on August 29, 2018, in Vatican City. (Photo credit: Giulio Origlia/Getty Images)