For their part, Vatican officials seemed not to understand just how seriously the entire affair was being taken by many Catholics, or not to take seriously the Catholics themselves who were concerned about it.
For many Catholics, concern about the statue was borne of genuine concern to understand how unfamiliar figures and rituals fit into the proclamation of the faith, and what they might mean about the Church's vision of evangelization. Such concerns can hardly be called irrational.
Still, one synod participant told CNA that behind closed doors, some Vatican officials dismissed concerns as either propaganda from “anti-Francis Americans” or overt racism.
That concern about statues and rituals might be borne of genuine religious conviction has not been acknowledged by Vatican and synod spokesmen.
With no intervention, and no official explanation of the symbols and rituals in question, the debate roiled, and then boiled over completely on Oct. 21, when the statues were taken from the Church and thrown into the river.
Whether it was right or wrong to take the statues is beyond the scope of this analysis. But the factors that led to the act are worth considering, as is what the entire incident might portend for the next years in the future of the Church.
It seems there are three things that led to the point at which “Pachamama” swam the Tiber.
The first is the failure of Vatican officials to take seriously the concerns of Catholics and journalists about the religious rituals and symbols surrounding the synod. Even veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister was dismissed curtly Oct. 25 when he presented basic facts - facts available for review on video - in the Vatican press office.
Failure to understand, or take seriously, why Catholics were asking questions seems to have prevented spokesman from providing reasonable answers when first the issue surfaced. As the situation heated up, the questions compounded, but answers were not forthcoming.
Of course, it is possible that officials didn’t answer questions because they didn’t know the answers. Had spokespersons said that Oct. 4, and actually followed through on finding out the answers, at least some of the scandal likely would have been quelled. Instead, journalists who asked questions were sent from one spokesperson to another, with each person pointing the finger in a different direction.
The second factor is the silence of Pope Francis on the matter. Whatever the pope thought of the events transpiring around the synod, they were transpiring in his front yard, and it was evident they were becoming a source of controversy. But the pope did not speak until Oct. 25, when the statues had been recovered from the river, and then he gave a very short statement.
At that time, Pope Francis referred to the statues as "Pachamama," which, predictably, has intensified debate about their provenance. He apologized to those offended that they had been tossed into the river, and noted that they had been placed in the Church without “idolatrous intentions.”
Even that statement was apparently not intended to be public. It was given before the bishops participating in the synod, and only became publicly known when some journalists heard the pope’s remarks as they were being ushered from the room. The Vatican only provided a transcript of the pope’s remarks after they had been widely reported.
The synod's working document proclaims that “Jesus was a person of dialogue and encounter.” Indeed, the document mentions dialogue 68 times, pointing to dialogue as “the method that must always be applied to achieve the good life.”
But on this issue, which became important to a notable number of Catholics, dialogue was forthcoming from neither the pope nor his communications staff.
The third factor, which ought not be ignored, is the hyper-escalating tendency of a culture in which social media battles and YouTube commentaries have a considerable effect on the faith lives of a sizable number of practicing Catholics.
A media figure raised in the era of cable news said recently to CNA that “Twitter isn’t real life.” In fact, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, et al are influential aspects of real life for an entire generation. President Donald Trump understood that well enough to get elected through the social media personality he built for himself. Other political figures have followed suit.
But social media is the Wild West, for better or worse. There are real benefits to the wide-open space of social media, especially for the Church. But the culture is one in which there are no rules about decorum, in which incendiary figures can build a following quickly, in which personal conflict escalates easily into partisan flamethrowing, and in which the most sensational account is usually the most likely to gain traction.
The Amazon synod, with all its conflicts and deficiencies, is taking place in the era of the “hot take.” During the Amazon synod, figures from both the left and the right intensified and escalated the debate by their online comportment. An example, again, is how quickly some figures diluted attempts at reasonable conversation with identity politics and unrelenting accusations of racism.
Questions and concerns about the statues are valid and fair. But the speed and vitriol with which debate about them became entrenched has had a polarizing effect, and made a less dramatic conclusion to the affair far less likely.
The effects of the debate should demonstrate that even if only a small number of actually practicing Catholics occupy space in the world of “Catholic Twitter,” that number has an outsize influence on how some events in the Church will unfold.
Until a more humane online culture emerges, if that is even possible, and especially until Church leaders begin to understand how quickly online narratives can bleed into “IRL” action, division in the Church will be amplified and hastened by the culture of social media. Whether Vatican officials will consider that a lesson worth learning is yet to be determined.
The Amazon synod has been billed as a sign of the Church’s closeness to real people. There may be ways in which it is that. But it is also evidence of the widening gap in understanding between Church leaders and a large cadre of practicing Catholics, on a broad range of issues.
“The opposite of dialogue is the lack of listening and the imposition that prevent us from meeting, communicating and, therefore, living together,” the synod’s Instrumentum laboris says.
The “Pachamama” splash heard ‘round the world is evidence that among some Vatican leaders, a commitment to 'dialogue' is still needed, far beyond the pan-Amazonian region.