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Undiluted Catholicism: what the Amazon really needs

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As Pope Francis prepares his exhortation, an anthropologist says Western agendas won't help the Amazon

What can the Church do to better serve the indigenous peoples of Amazonia? And what can she learn from Amazonian spirituality? These questions have been much discussed in light of last year’s Amazon synod, but often with little understanding of the spiritual concerns of the people in question.

Enthusiasts for the synod see it as a turning point for the whole Church in matters of ecology, liturgy and ordained ministry – a great spiritual decolonisation. Its detractors see it as an existential threat to the Church’s doctrines and her preaching of the Gospel. One bishop recently expressed the desperate hope that the Pope would “destroy” the synod’s final document. But as someone who has spent many years studying Amazonian religions, I have been struck by the almost complete absence from the debate of any informed discussion of the spiritual practices and preoccupations of the people for whose benefit the synod was ostensibly convened.

Several years ago I spent seven months living in an indigenous community in Ecuador studying people’s spiritual experiences and religious beliefs. I was writing a doctoral thesis in social anthropology. Although these people lived outside Amazonia, their culture and beliefs strongly resemble those of the Amazon region and of lowland South America more broadly.

Those months in an indigenous village, and the scholarly study preceding and following on from them, were a formative period in my own spiritual journey. The spiritual lessons I learned there, so far from my own background in middle-class England, were part of what prompted me, two years later, to convert to Catholicism.

What I found in Ecuador – and what the scholarly literature confirms across lowland South America – is that the overriding concern of people’s engagement in religious activity is a quest for spiritual protection. This has often meant that the Church, especially her powers of exorcism, has received an enthusiastic reception. The characteristics of the Church’s traditional ceremonies, particularly in the Old Rite – the ritualism, the mystery, the use of spiritually powerful substances and objects, even the use of a special ritual language – are reminiscent of many features of the traditional indigenous exorcisms performed by shamans. One of the most un-Amazonian things that could happen in Amazonia, then, would be any further imposition of the secular, relativising and de-sacralising tendencies which have gained so much ground in the West.

In Ecuador, I found an indigenous community with a remarkable Catholic identity. The first missionaries arrived nearly 500 years ago, and it has never been easy. Until the 1980s much of the area was densely forested and accessible only on foot or horseback. Sometimes people would not see a priest for years. Nevertheless, although for a long time they refused to assimilate to the dominant colonial culture, they always gave the priest an enthusiastic welcome when he came to baptise their children and solemnise their marriages. When they were visited by a French scientific expedition at the beginning of the 20th century, it was reported that they identified themselves as Christians, to such an extent that the term “Cristiano” had become synonymous with their own name for themselves. Every life event was marked with religious ceremony and the expedition’s ethnographer observed that they never forgot they were Catholics.

Even today, when most of the community is largely indifferent to Catholicism, they turn to the Church’s rituals whenever they or their loved ones are troubled by illness, manifestations of spirits, or the dead. On these occasions recourse is quickly made to all the therapeutic and exorcistic techniques available, including Catholic prayers, blessed candles, holy water, and baptism, all in the quest for spiritual protection.

A little background is necessary here. If you followed discussions surrounding the Amazon synod, you may be under the impression that Amazonian people live in an almost Rousseauian state of harmony with nature – or they would, if only the West had not interfered. Alternatively, you may think that they are all animists and idol worshippers. Neither is a fair reflection of reality.

Their relationship with nature, harmonious in some respects, is fraught with existential struggle. In common with most of the indigenous societies of lowland South America, the tranquillity and harmony to which they aspire is actually a fragile achievement which must be constantly defended from the disruptive incursions of malevolent spirits, animals and the dead.

A great many animals in Amazonia, like the spirits of the forest and rivers, exist in a state of predatory competition with humans: they are seen as potential enemies. There is no Amazonian equivalent of St Francis. Their relationship with the dead before the arrival of Christianity was characterised by still more intense animosity and terror. The old stories they tell recount how the dead used to return from the grave to harass and kill the living, how animals used to take on human form and fatally disrupt society, how vampiric spirits would descend upon people’s houses forcing them to flee for their lives.

We may think such stories are tall tales with little historical truth, but to dismiss them would be to do a disservice to these people’s own experience of their place in the cosmos. This is what traditional Amazonian spirituality consists of: perilous encounters with animals and spirits, mortal combat with the unseen world, terror of the dead. These struggles, though nowadays less intense than they once were, continue to be a decisive feature of everyday life in indigenous communities across lowland South America to this day.

The spiritual elite at the centre of these existential struggles are the shamans who can cure and curse according to their whim, heal you, protect you or kill you, and who apply their skills in return for payment. The power they wield as a result is based as much on fear of their vengeance as upon anything else.

The difference the Church makes when it arrives in a shamanic society like this can be truly remarkable. I discovered in Ecuador that, despite all the religious indifference of the previous 50 years, the arrival of the Church was seared into the collective memory as a transformative turning point in the community’s history. It was the moment at which the spirits retreated, the distance between humans and animals increased, and the dead began to lie peacefully in the grave.

These dramatic changes in the balance of power in the cosmos were attributed to the effects of baptism. People told me that baptism conferred upon them the protection of the Spirit of God, that it drove back the spirits and warded off the animals. Those who were baptised died in peace and maintained a benign relationship with their living relatives.

All this amounted to a revolution in their relations with the cosmos and its inhabitants, opening up for them a far greater and more secure space of tranquillity than that which, according to their own oral history, they had ever previously known. For these people, the spiritual protection of baptism, which for hundreds of years they had received accompanied by the exorcisms contained in the old Latin rite, was considered to be a matter of life and death. It was a bulwark against the darkness which had hitherto pressed in upon them and against which so much of their energy had been directed.

This is the way it appears in their own collective memory. If we are to listen and give credence to such a memory we must conclude that, far from being a colonial imposition, the sacraments of the Church effected a liberation. Catholicism did not destroy their identity; rather, it made possible a flourishing previously curtailed by so many spiritual assaults.

But why couldn’t they turn to their own shamans for protection? Well, they did, and they still do. There are certain similarities between shamans and Catholic priests. However, there are also crucial differences. Of vital importance in the Church’s mission in Amazonia is the fact that, unlike that of the shaman, the priest’s power is not dependent upon a potentially malevolent spiritual helper. Furthermore, it does not (or at least should not) come at a cost. Another difference is that the protection offered by a shaman is temporary, provisional and unreliable; it is always vulnerable to the shaman’s caprice, to challenge from another shaman or from a more powerful spirit. By contrast, that which is offered by the priest is far more durable, definitive and unambiguously benevolent.

At the same time, the similarities between the ceremonies performed by the priest and those of the shaman meant that indigenous people easily recognised the spiritual power offered by the Church. It is, in many ways, the same kind of power, using some of the same kinds of objects, substances, gestures and language. The shaman, being called upon to cleanse people and places from malign spiritual influence, uses a variety of spiritually powerful instruments and techniques: objects imbued with auxiliary spirits, libations of tobacco juice and ayahuasca, tobacco smoke and rum. Many shamanic ceremonies also involve a special ritual language, unintelligible to the audience.

The priest, also cleansing and protecting people and places from spirits, has at his disposal an array of exorcistic and protective objects and techniques: the relics of the saints, the smoke of incense, the holy water of asperges, holy oil and the rites of the Mass itself. In all this exorcistic, protective and therapeutic work Latin served him and his Amazonian flock as a uniquely Christian ritual language, simultaneously distinct from that of their own shamans and from the language of their dealings with the Spanish or Portuguese.

Interestingly, there is one other point of similarity between a shaman and a Catholic priest, and this involves sexual abstinence. The power of both priest and shaman is dependent upon a unique relationship with the normally unseen world of spirits, which sets them apart from ordinary life. The shaman relies on alliances with auxiliary spirits, with whom he typically enters into quasi-marital relations. These spiritual relationships at times impose upon him periods of sexual abstinence, especially during his apprenticeship. For the priest, another kind of quasi-marital relationship binds him not to any local spirit, but to God himself, and his sexual abstinence is permanent. Here there is a clear connection for both shaman and priest between sexual abstinence and spiritual power. Perhaps this might be an indigenous Amazonian argument for a celibate priesthood.

Today, there are some people wanting to give the Church a more “Amazonian face”. People have suggested that mandatory priestly celibacy, an all-male priesthood, and traditional Catholic rituals are a bar to evangelisation. However, the discussion on both sides has been conducted with barely a reference to any of the characteristic features of Amazonian spirituality. The communities whose spiritual welfare is being so hotly fought over are often far more traditional in their approach to gender roles, religion and ritual action (be it Catholic or shamanic) than those who are attempting to advocate on their behalf.

The truth is that the indigenous societies of lowland South America remain attuned by their own cultures and traditions to the realities of spiritual warfare to a far greater extent than is currently the case in the West. These are not people who struggle to engage with the more formal and obscure elements of traditional rituals. Neither do they find it difficult to appreciate the significance of gendered divisions of labour in either ordinary or ritual tasks. These are all features of ritual action which their own traditions take for granted.

If the changes advocated by some participants in the Amazon synod were to be implemented, they would amount, ironically, to one more kind of spiritual colonisation, in this instance by a Western ideological agenda whose end, as we are seeing in the West, is ultimately secular, materialistic and spiritually destructive. It is also entirely alien to the spiritual traditions of the peoples of Amazonia.

If His Holiness and his brother bishops are able to hear the voices of the people of this region, above the noise being made by everyone else, they might just hear them crying out, as we should all be doing, for support in the spiritual battle. Both they and we are in urgent need of every weapon with which the Church has been armed by Christ against the powers of darkness. We need, all of us in equal measure, the clear, dazzling, undiluted truth of the Catholic faith.

Daniel J Dolley has a DPhil in social anthropology from the University of Oxford