The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, held in Rome from October 6-27 2019, (i.e., the Amazon synod) would have gone on its way like any other high-level event of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) were it not for a bizarre incident involving statues, religious zealotry, anti-globalism and the Tiber river – the “Pachamama Incident.” Moreover, this incident shed a light on some disturbing similarities between the global rise of extremist ideologies and the surge in Roman Catholic neo-traditionalism.
Representatives of the indigenous people of the Amazon region were invited in the Vatican to voice their concerns, and to participate in the background events of the synod. In addition, these guests brought with them several statues, depicting a pregnant woman, with a variant of an Amazonian-style face paint. The statues were quickly labeled in the media as the “Pachamama statues,” supposedly representing a south-American deity, the Pachamama – a mother Earth figure. The many background events related to the synod included a display of these statues, including a religious rite, which involved prostrations in the presence of the pope and a host of cardinals and bishops. This caused outrage (including charges of heresy and apostasy) throughout the traditionalist cybersphere. A petition was set up to “urgently request that Church authorities stop confusing the faithful and leading them into error by continuing to erect statues of a pregnant, nude indigenous woman.” Furthermore, an international protest letter signed by ”Catholic clergy and lay scholars” denouncing pope Francis’ “sacrilegious acts” was published online and is still gathering support.
The statues were stolen from the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria Traspontina in Rome and tossed into the Tiber river on October 21st, 2019. The act was “live-streamed” by the perpetrator and followed up, initially, by a written statement and a video of an admission several days later. The individual responsible for the theft is a 26-year old Austrian, Alexander Tschugguel, a self-proclaimed traditionalist, anti-globalist, EU sceptic, pro-life fighter, and an advocate for the “traditional family.” In the aftermath of this event, Tschugguel achieved celebrity status among the RC traditionalists, and was invited to give several lectures in the US – the epicenter of contemporary traditional Catholicism, in addition to being the global hotbed of the alt-right movement.
The similarities between the alt-right and RCC traditionalism (represented by Tschugguel and his ilk) go beyond their geographical overlap. The abovementioned incident revealed that the RC neo traditionalists have accepted the methods of the alt-right attackers in order to both make their presence known, and get their core messages out. The act of theft and vandalism was livestreamed, followed up by a written “manifesto”, and a subsequent admission of responsibility in a prepared video. It might be of note here, that this also resembles the modus operandi of almost all terrorist groups, including the Daesh (this is not to say that the tragedy of the loss of even one life, in the attacks done by these groups is comparable to a couple of vandalized wooden statues, yet the similarities cannot be ignored).
There are further ideological similarities between the alt-right and the RCC traditionalists, which suggest that the relationship between the two groups might be more profound. The alt-right as a movement is far from being monolithic, and is best described as a patchwork of smaller groups sharing some core beliefs “based on explicit and fundamental rejection of the principle that all men are created equal.” Tschugguel, and those like him, present themselves as opposed to multiculturalism or globalism (“No to the globalist agenda in the Church!”). Among these groups, it is often said that they have nothing against other cultures, on the contrary, they praise cultural diversity (“God wants us to be different. He wants us to have different cultures.”), and what they are doing is safeguarding their own (European) culture by insisting on a return to the use of Latin and the practice of the Tridentine Rite in liturgy. Furthermore, a divinization of culture is suggested, in his second video explaining the reasons behind the act of vandalism. Tschugguel claims that the purity of the Catholic faith is safeguarded by not only the proper understanding the faith, but also by the purity of cultures, safeguarded by the countries (i.e., nation states) where the cultures originate from. In a way his act of removal of the statues is an act done in protection of his (European-Catholic) culture, against a culture he understood as “contrary to God.” Needless to say, these views are problematic on many levels, and in addition to the racist, and neo-colonialist overtones, from an ecclesiological point of view they are nonsensical. For example, for all his talk on the appreciation of RC tradition, Tschugguel is apparently unaware, or at least pretends to be, that the RCC consists of 24 autonomous churches, of which the Latin Church (i.e., the Church in which Latin and the Tridentine Rite were in use) is only one part of. Within this ecclesial diversity, there coexist different languages, rites, clerical rules regarding celibacy and so forth. The uniformity to which these traditionalists seek to return, never existed in reality.
If one looks at the manifesto of the New Zealand attacker, we can find almost the exact same line of reasoning, with regards to the “failure of multiculturalism”:
“Was the attack anti-diversity in origin? No, the attack was not an attack on diversity, but an attack in the name of diversity. To ensure diverse peoples remain diverse, separate, unique, undiluted in unrestrained in cultural or ethnic expression and autonomy. To ensure that the peoples of the world remain true to their traditions and faiths and do not become watered down and corrupted by the influence of outsiders. The attack was to ensure a preservation of beauty, art and tradition. In my mind a rainbow is only beautiful to due its variety of colours, mix the colours together and you destroy them all and they are gone forever and the end result is far from anything beautiful.”
In the manifesto of the Norway attacker, A. B. Breivik (i.e., the first of the alt-right related attacks, to which, the majority if not all of the subsequent attacks are traced back to), multiculturalism is identified as one of the key enemies of a revived Europe (i.e., his political goal):
Multiculturalism and ignorance the two walk hand in hand together, are the greatest weaknesses of the cultures of the West. We must destroy multiculturalism; deconstruct it, delegitimise it, and acknowledge it as the Utopian self-destructive fantasy that it is. All cultures are not equivalent. Some cultures are better than others, and some are our enemies and some our friends. This is reasonable, rational thinking. The foundational concept of multiculturalism is that all cultures are of equal value and worth. This is inclusiveness, tolerance, and “niceness” taken to the extreme. This is anti-intellectualism and irrational thinking that will result in the entire loss of our civilisations. Multiculturalism must be destroyed and swept into the dustbin of absurdity where it belongs.
Finally, the issues of national sovereignty such as border control, influence of NGO’s and international organizations (the United Nations, the European Union, the International Court of Justice) all appear quite prominent on both the agendas of the alt-right and the RCC traditionalists. During his 30-minute talk to the supporters of the ultra-conservative website LifeSite Tschugguel spent more than 20 minutes discussing these exact issues as those he considered most pressing, and on which his newly-established St Boniface Institute will be focused on. Interestingly enough, the institute he established which professes a goal of “a restoration of the true faith and of its centuries-old traditions” might be representative of the type of activism that was marked a preferable way of re-energizing (i.e., radicalizing) the European spirit by the Norway terrorist and mass murdered Breivik. For example, on the type of political activities and groups his followers should seek to engage with, he highlights the following:
“We, the patriotic/cultural conservative youth however should actively choose the following spectre of themes:
– Alliance against Muslim Extremism
– Alliance against Jihad
– Alliance against Sharia etc.
– Alliance for Freedom of Speech
– Patriots against Fascism
– Alliance against Marxism
– Alliance against excessive taxation
– Alliance against the EU
– Patriots for Europe
– Alliance against the Lisbon Treaty
– Stop the deconstruction of Christianity
– Stop the European Cultural Genocide and the deconstruction of European identity
– Alliance against the genocide of the indigenous peoples of Europe
– Stop the Genocide of Christian Copts
– Stop the Genocide of Christian Assyrians
– Acknowledge the Armenian Genocide
– Turkey out of the EU
– Turkey and Albania out of NATO
– Stop the Jihad against of Christian Sudanese
– Human rights movements
– Civil rights movements”
Can we then speak of a RCC hotspot of extremist right wing ideology? Or is it the case that the extremist far right is instrumentalizing Christianity as Breivik envisioned? The truth is probably in the middle. The “populist Zeitgeist” was identified in Europe, and elsewhere in the “west” long before Breivik and the alt-right. The fact that his 1500 page manifesto was essentially a compendium of materials already openly available shows that this exclusivist mentality did not “come out of nowhere,” rather that Breivik, and those who follow his lead, are “products” of contemporary western societies which, in turn, are marked by a populist Zeitgeist. The fact that this radicalizing trend, informed by the populist Zeitgeist, managed to spill over into the major religious institutions (in this case the RCC) should come as no surprise, since, as it was recently demonstrated, one’s political views appear instrumental in forming one’s religious views.
In other words, in other to combat religious extremism, perhaps it would be most effective to combat political extremism first, that is to say, with the fall of the populist Zeitgeist, it is conceivable that the support for fundamentalist religiosity would dwindle as well.
Neven Vukic (Brcko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, born in 1985) completed his initial Master of Theology in Rijeka, Croatia (2011), and his Advanced Master in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (2013) and his Master of Advanced Studies in Theology and Religion (2014) at KU Leuven. He is currently an Interfaculty Council for Development Co-operation (IRO) doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven. He is a member of the Research Unit Systematic Theology and the Study of Religions and the Research Group Christian Self-Understanding and Interreligious Dialogue.
The focus of his research is on the theology of non-Christian religions and the practice of interreligious dialogue within the context of Orthodox Christian theology.
Neven was invited to contribute to the PERICLES blog by Maja Halilovic-Pastuovic of Trinity College Dublin. They work together on the role of religion in far-right movements.
 Thomas J. Main, The Rise of the Alt-Right (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2018), 127.
 Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39 (4) 2004, pp. 541-563.
 Michelle F. Margolis, From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).