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Get Ready for “Catholic Animism” as Well

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Animism is a backward and brutal form of paganism. It is a religion that enslaves man and submits him to many inhuman forces inside and outside of him. It is not a “natural” religion but a naturalistic one. It is not a spiritual religion, but a spiritualistic one. It does not talk about mystery but about magic. It is not reasonable but superstitious. It has no priests but shamans. It is not in harmony with the forces of nature because it divinizes them. Animism produces ancestral subjection, allows the perpetuation of evil beliefs, blocks the development of peoples, and prevents them from believing in man. Spiritism is unnatural for man because it is irrational.

Evangelization frees cultures from their inhuman aspects, and faith in Jesus Christ takes men away from the dependence of the gods that enslave them. Papal encyclicals on missions and on the social doctrine of the Church are firm on this point: The Gospel is the greatest factor of development because it frees oppressed and poor peoples from their anguishing animist fantasies and from the oppressive social bonds that they determine and statically set.

But in the current Catholic infatuation with the environmental issue and the danger of global warming, as well as the rampant vision of a universal interreligious dialogue, “primitive” religions are recovered and re-evaluated as examples of a fruitful and peaceful encounter with nature. A recent example is the article published in the latest issue of the magazine Vita e Pensiero with the title “Rivalutare l’animismo? Una sfida per il cristianesimo” (Re-evaluate Animism? A challenge for Christianity). The title in the form of a question is rhetorical, as the article re-evaluates animism without asking many questions.

Religion and Faith in Africa - Book

Two pieces of information are very important here. The first is that this is the official journal of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, founded by Father Gemelli one hundred years ago this year. What an amazing evolution the magazine has had over these hundred years to the point of proposing ‘Catholic animism’! The second is that the author of the article is Prof. Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, a Nigerian Jesuit priest who holds high-level positions as Director of the Jesuit University in Kenya, professor at Georgetown University in Washington (also Jesuit) and President of the Jesuit Conference of Africa. His book, Religion and Faith in Africa: Confessions of an Animist, was published in May 2018.

In his article, Father Orobator claims that animism is in line with Pope Francis’ teaching on the environment and with some guidelines of Veritatis splendor, of John Paul II. In the words of the latter, the author finds concepts of nature as a whole, on the links existing between relations with things and relations among us, a sense of reverence for both environmental and human ecology. But on these points, the convergence between animism and Catholicism, if there is one, is only nominal. To animism, the environment is a set of irrational and spiritualistic underground contacts, while to Catholicism it is an ontological project resulting from the Logos (Word) of God. Animism, to use a terminology dear to Pope Ratzinger, is a religion of myth, while Catholicism is a religion of the Logos.

Animist culture contains no trace of nature’s reliance on man, as man too depends on the network of underground interconnections that binds all beings without distinction.

However, Father Orobator’s article is not the only indication of a change of perspective towards animism taking place in the Church. I have already pointed out[1] that the Preparatory Document of the next Synod on the Amazon contains many passages that uncritically value the animist religion of the inhabitants of those lands.

Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

The animist cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are celebrated because they have a “relationship of interdependence with water sources” in the awareness that “life steers the river” and “the river steers life.” In addition, “the peoples of the jungle – gatherers and hunters par excellence – survive on what the land and the forest have to offer. They watch over the rivers and the land, just as the land cares for them. They are the custodians of the rainforest and its resources. “Each of these peoples,” the document continues, “represents a particular cultural identity and a specific historical richness, each with its own particular way of seeing the world and its surroundings and of relating to it out of their specific worldview and territoriality.” All this represents a wealth that must be preserved and protected.

The document makes no mention of the violent, magical, superstitious aspects or psychological oppression exercised by the numerous taboos of those cultures and religions. Such cultures are supposedly in need of protection in the anthropological field, just as biodiversity in the botanical field.

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