But the identifiably Christian aspects of the rituals have often taken place alongside unidentified images and sculptures, and with the incorporation of rituals of unclear origin. That has led to confusion.
Journalists asking "What does this mean?" have heard, in response, another question: "What does this mean to you?"
On Oct. 16, a journalist asked for clarity at a Vatican press conference about the carved image, first seen at the tree-planting ceremony, and featured at other events connected to the synod. The image had been described by at least one western Catholic journalist as the Virgin Mary and by Getty International as a pagan goddess.
Fr. Giacomo Costa, a synod spokesman, said the image is not the Virgin Mary, but a female figure representing life. Paolo Ruffini, a Vatican communications officially, said that in his personal view, the image seems like that of a tree, which is, he said, a kind of "sacred symbol."
Ruffini committed to learning more, but offered a qualifier that has become a familiar line at the Amazon synod: "We know that some things in history have many interpretations."
A journalist asking bishops about the image Oct. 7 got a more nebulous answer.
"We all have our own interpretations: the Virgin Mary, the Mother Earth...probably those who used this symbol wished to refer to fertility, to women, to life, the life present among these Amazonian people and Amazonia is meant to be full of life. I don't think we need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element," Bishop David Martínez De Aguirre Guinea of Peru said at a Vatican press conference.
Among the journalists, observers, and other interested parties watching the synod, there are clearly two perspectives on the carved image, and the controversy surrounding it.
One camp seems to say that this kind of ambiguity represents the ordinary process of inculturation. They see in the ambiguity the complicated reality of proclaiming the Gospel in an unfamiliar context, and they are eager to affirm points of similarity between Amazonian spirituality and Christianity. If a carved image highlights those points, they say, it should be celebrated, even if every question doesn't have a clear answer. Being unduly dogmatic, they suggest, is a kind of hostility to the good will of the synod and its participants.
The other camp, those who would usually be classified as conservatives, are more skeptical. They have begun to ask whether the synod's participants have thought through the limits of inculturation, or the consequences of ambiguity on issues that seem close to religious syncretism or even tacit consent to functional idolatry.
That camp is concerned that legitimate inculturation has been reduced to an ambiguous and undirected blending of Christian and local customs, with very little rational explanation of the theology behind emerging praxes. Some ask whether the result of such a process can really be Christianity at all.
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
The more skeptical observers say that the Catholic Church teaches that subjective reflection must be complemented by rational analysis and coherent proclamation, especially in the context of religious practice, where meaning, fundamentally, is derived from revelation. They say that while inculturation is important, the haphazard blending of customary and Christian symbols leads to religious rituals that can only be interpreted subjectively.
While the lines among the various camp followers are clear, it's not clear what most of the synod participants think, in large part because the flow of information at the Amazon Synod is tightly controlled, and the messaging from the press office has for the most part seemed curated.
Even the synod participants who have talked about inculturation, and the controversy surrounding the image and the Amazon spirituality events, have not done so with particular theological depth.
At an Oct. 12 press conference, Bishop Rafael Cob García of Ecuador told CNA that inculturation is a process, not something that happens overnight.
Inculturation requires "trying to get into their frame of mind, and then, after a very long time, you can see what is connected with the Gospel," Brazilian Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino added.
This is done always, he said, "with reference to Christ."