ROME — Pope Francis said Wednesday that Christianity is a big tent that welcomes everyone, including pagans, but insists that they “reject idolatry and all its expressions” as a condition for following Christ.
Reflecting on a text from the Acts of the Apostles and the opening of Christianity to the pagans — those outside the Jewish faith — the pope told the crowds gathered for his general audience in Saint Peter’s Square this novelty “triggered a very lively controversy.”
The first Christians, led in this discussion by Saints Peter and James, came to the conclusion that new Christian converts from paganism would not be obliged to follow all the prescriptions of the Mosaic law but “only to reject idolatry and all its expressions.”
The pope’s emphasis on rejecting pagan “idolatry” follows hard on the heels of a hot controversy in Rome and abroad over four wooden Amazonian fertility statuettes that had been installed in a local Catholic church but were removed and dumped in the Tiber River Monday.
The wooden figures of a naked, pregnant woman had been described variously as fertility dolls, Amazonian idols, the Incan goddess “Pachamama,” and “Our Lady of the Amazon,” though Vatican representatives were quick to insist that they did not represent the Virgin Mary.
The introduction of the figures, first into a prayer ceremony on the Vatican gardens in the presence of Pope Francis, and later into a Catholic church just a stone’s throw from Saint Peter’s Basilica, caused great consternation to a significant number of the Catholic faithful, as witnessed by vigorous debates on social media.
Many wondered aloud why statuettes with — at best — no clear connection to the Catholic faith and — at worst — that represent pagan idols of life and fertility were allowed to occupy the sacred space of churches consecrated to Christian worship — which prohibits idolatry.
After two men removed the figures from the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina early Monday morning and proceeded to toss them into the nearby Tiber River, Vatican spokesman Paolo Ruffini dismissed the act as a “stunt.”
According to Canon Lawyer Edward Peters, however, the act cannot be properly described as a mere “stunt.”
“A ‘stunt’ is a gesture that calls attention to a problem but does not itself solve the problem,” Peters noted on his blog.
“Removing these figures from a church and tossing them into the Tiber does not simply call attention to the problem of setting up such objects in a church,” he said. “It also removes the statues from the church and thus solves the problem of having them set up in a sacred place. Such an act, good act or bad, is more than a ‘stunt,’ it is form of direct action against a problem.”
Peters goes on to observe that from the perspective of Church law, the act could be perfectly justifiable, regardless of “whether the figures are demonic or merely faddish.”
Canon 1210, for instance, states that only those things “which serve the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion are permitted in a sacred place; anything not consonant with the holiness of the place is forbidden.”
And Canon 1220 adds that those who are responsible of churches must take care that “whatever is inappropriate to the holiness of the place is excluded.”
The faithful “have the right to trust that what they see in Catholic sacred places is actually there in service to the sacred and is not simply a gesture toward some form of political correctness or the latest cause du jour, to say nothing of it possibly being simply evil,” Peters writes.
As a rule, he concludes, “I hold that removing objects from private property is not an act of good order. But then, neither is setting up idols (whether to demons or to secular causes) in Catholic churches an act of good order.”