This was an intriguing artistic, moral and theological question thrown up by last autumn’s robust disagreements about the Synod on the Amazon. Areas of dispute included the role of women, married priests and the relationship between indigenous religions and Catholicism. Readers may remember that the Holy Father’s blessing of certain statues carved in the style of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon caused quite a furore.
The most acrimonious debate was about the so-called Pachamama statue, which allegedly represented a pagan fertility goddess. This statue was prominently displayed in the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, near the Vatican. Later, it was removed from the church and thrown into the River Tiber by an Austrian traditionalist.
There was another argument too, about a carving of the Visitation. The Visitation is the episode from St Luke’s Gospel when Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, travelled to see her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. This came in for quite a bit of criticism from some conservatives on Twitter. One reason offered was that it portrayed both figures in the nude, and so was alien to the Catholic artistic tradition.
I’d never really thought about it before last year. In addition, I don’t know an enormous amount about either sculpture or theology. My instincts are generally conservative on such matters, but instinct is not always a reliable guide. Some commentators had more unambiguous responses: Fr Raymond de Souza at the National Catholic Register strongly criticised the Vatican for not clarifying the meaning of the indigenous statues.
It is worth reflecting on whether the supposed rule against nude Madonnas an actual moral prohibition or whether it is a matter of European Christian artistic convention.
However, it is worth reflecting on whether the supposed rule against nude Madonnas an actual moral prohibition or whether it is a matter of European Christian artistic convention. Questions such as this one are bound to come to the fore in an increasingly non-European church.
There is an important difference between an unchanging and unchangeable moral rule, and long-standing artistic convention that has emerged in particular Christian cultures. And if – as seems likely – the third millennium of Catholicism will see European culture become relatively less dominant and less influential for the Faith as a whole, we Europeans may need to prepare ourselves for quite significant changes to the aesthetics and culture of the Church.
This may mean that churches look different and feel different, in terms of the type of architecture and art they feature. The senior leadership of the Church will be different. Pope Francis is already a transitional figure in this respect; although he is of Italian extraction, he is the first non-European Pope for many centuries, and his style and his major concerns reflect his background.
Pope Francis is already a transitional figure in this respect; although he is of Italian extraction, he is the first non-European Pope for many centuries.
Europeans have been at the controls of the Church for most of the first 2000 years. Great things have been achieved in that time, and the European Church will of course continue to be important. But equally, the future belongs to those who show up, in religion as much as in anything else. So in an era when Europeans are increasingly reluctant to go to Mass, we cannot continue to monopolise the leadership of a global church.
Speaking for myself, I broadly welcome this development. The grass is always greener on the other side, I suppose, but my impression is that the church in the Global South (i.e. countries outside Europe and the English-speaking world) has a vigour and commitment and energy that is too often lacking in the “Old World”. European missionaries once brought the light of faith to great swathes of Africa, Asia and the Americas; hopefully one day soon those missionaries’ spiritual children will return the favour.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.