Newman Among the Pachamamas

What would Newman say about the Pachamamas?

That’s not actually a question which anyone who studied Newman carefully would ask. It reflects a lack of understanding of the workings of practical intelligence, which Newman took great pains to delineate—as if one could take a proof text out of Newman, and that would give you the answer. Newman would not even allow proof texts for the Bible, of course.

It would make some sense to ask someone deeply shaped by Newman to offer his opinion on them—but, then, go ahead: just ask him. Ask Cardinal Müller, Fr. Aidan Nichols, or someone like that. Not that that would save you the work of thinking for yourself in the end.

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But the poverty of the proof-text approach was evident in Andrea Tornielli’s commentary in Vatican News last week. “The new iconoclasts,” he wrote, “who have gone from expressing their hatred through social media to acting in this way, might find it useful to re-read what was said by one of the new saints canonized a few days ago, Cardinal John Henry Newman.”

That sentence alone shocked me. An iconoclast is someone who rejects all images in connection with religious worship. Tornielli surely knows that the people he refers to very much favor images of (say) the Virgin Mary. So, that’s a falsehood and a distortion.

If they are “iconoclasts” in some other sense, then so have been hundreds of saints who have destroyed pagan images, in which case to be an “iconoclast” is a term of praise—as is being “intolerant,” which is another of Tornielli’s insults.

The sentence shocked me also for how apparently untroubled Tornielli was in attributing hatred to a brother. Who is he to judge? Aren’t we supposed to look for the best motives in others? And aren’t some other motives besides “hatred” very obvious here, like zeal for God’s honor and fear of evil spirits?

While we’re at it, we should mention another distortion in Tornielli’s statement. Although he says the statues simply represented a young pregnant woman, he quickly changes his tack and says instead that they represent “the bond with our mother earth,’ as described by Saint Francis of Assisi in his Canticle of the Creatures.” But that Canticle explicitly speaks clearly of sister mother earth (sora nostra matre Terra), on the same plane as sister moon and sister water. Moreover, it begins in such a way as to dispel any possible ambiguity: “Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing. To You alone, Most High, do they belong.” But many have pointed out the problem with the Pachamamas is that they are ambiguous. They are so even in Tornielli’s statement.

But then let’s “re-read” that proof text, from Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine, chapter eight:

The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees, incense, lamps and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water, asylums; holy days and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the east, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the church.

What does it say? You may think it’s obvious what it says, but it is not. It’s very likely that you misunderstood it, just like Tornielli.

To understand what Newman means, you need to understand the environment in which Newman is writing, and his purpose in writing. Maybe it helps to have been a Protestant once, as I was.

As a Protestant, I attended church meetings in a sparse room with whitewashed walls. Perhaps the windows were colored; if they were, they did not represent anything. The minister (if there was a minister) might have worn a dark gown, but nothing more, and nothing elaborate. There would be a cross, of course, but no other images. We would sing hymns, read from the Bible, pray, and meet for “fellowship” afterward. We all thought that in doing so we were recreating historic and genuine Christianity.

In short, none of the marks of religious service which are almost universally found in different cultures among the human race were present in that worship.

Newman as a young man was that kind of Protestant, too. But when he encountered high church Anglicanism at Oxford, he began to change. You can see the character of his change by studying Charles Reding, the protagonist of Newmans’s novel Loss and Gain. There is a continuous argument going on in Reding’s heart about whether or not lamps and candles, holy water fonts, roadside chapels, and images of saints are allowable to Christians. The most common argument against these things is that they were common among pagans; therefore, those such things were not to be done by Christians. Also, those kinds of things were not done by the earliest Christians; therefore, they can be identified as superstitious accretions—a corruption or falling-away from true Christianity.

Newman writes chapter eight of Development in reply to those arguments, especially the second. He says that the “sacramental system” of the Church has an assimilative power: when the Church adopted practices similar to the pagans’, she succeeded in giving them a new meaning and a distinctive “virtue,” so that they led to Christ, not away from him.

This is the crucial point: Newman is talking about types of practices. He’s not talking about an image of a heathen god which gets used in a church: he’s talking about whether images qua images ought to be used in church. When the Church began using images, they were solely those of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. Again, he’s not talking about whether this particular vessel and its water, which have been used in a pagan ceremony, can be “repurposed” (as commentators have said) for use in a Church. He’s talking about whether the Church can, in its own way, incorporate the use of water into religious worship. Ceremonial ablutions are common in many religions; in the Church, the sprinkling of water comes to be used as a “sacramental,” which stands for baptism—and only baptism. In sum, his point is that the Church adopts the type of thing, not the particular pagan thing.

So, if you re-read that Newman passage and took it, like Tornielli, to say anything about whether particular objects used in pagan cultures might be brought into a church, you misunderstood it completely. Everything wholesome symbolized by the Pachamamas is contained in the image of the expectant Mother in Guadalupe. The rest is mere paganism.

As I said, I wouldn’t ask “what Newman would say about the Pachamamas.” Certainly, the quoted passage doesn’t come close to speaking to the case. But I can tell you what concerns underlay Newman’s discussion of pagan practices.

Newman had a horror of idolatry. Like the Fathers of the Church, Newman believed that images from pagan cults were likely to be associated with devils (Development, ch 8, § 2, n. 4). He also noted that early Christians had a dreadful fear of them, even to the point of destroying them when they could. Responsive to such concerns, someone might (for instance) be loath to bring into his own home a mask, an image, or an artifact that had been used in a pagan setting, not even if it were first exorcised.

I suspect that’s what many had wanted to hear from the Vatican. How difficult would it have been to explain clearly, two weeks ago—as I hope very much is true—why such horror and such fears were totally groundless? Instead, anyone who happened to share Newman’s own concerns against idolatry and devils was met with insults (“intolerant” “hateful”), a misguided reference to St. Francis, and supercilious proof-texting.

Photo credit: Getty Images


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