It isn’t yet light when Alexander Tschugguel and his cameraman sneak into Rome’s Santa Maria in Traspontina Church to steal the statues. A lone elderly parishioner sits in the pews as Tschugguel—a young Austrian convert to Catholicism, so neatly dressed he might work there—quickly genuflects, then steps behind the rail of a side altar and picks the statues up: five slim wooden carvings, less than two feet tall, of a naked, kneeling woman with long dark hair, Indigenous features, and a heavily pregnant belly.
No one stops him as he carries them outside and down the Bridge of Angels, where, in the shadow of the hulking Castel Sant’Angelo—the setting of both a purported medieval miracle and an action sequence in a Dan Brown novel—the two men abruptly pitch one statue over the side. Sensing a need for greater ceremony, Tschugguel aligns the remaining four on the bridge’s ledge, then shoves them, one by one, into the Tiber. On their YouTube video, you can see the last one land with a splash, stirring a chorus of seagulls as the current carries it away.
For Catholic “radical traditionalists” at odds with a pope they consider too progressive, it was “the splash heard around the world,” as one right-wing news site put it; a purge “which may well go down in history as the moment the counter-revolution started.” For their more moderate brethren, it was the culmination of an absurd and distressing season of reaction. And though they might not know it, for the rest of America it was a watershed moment too, establishing the tone and subtext of some of the most vicious debates this year. Donald Trump has pinned his 2020 hopes, in part, on dissident Catholics who view the church as compromised, the pope as an unorthodox interloper, and their theology as not just compatible with, but spiritual backbone for conspiracy theories like QAnon. What happens after Tuesday, in the Church and in this country, in some ways will mirror this battle.
The theft happened last October, six years into a cold civil war that started with the election of Pope Francis, when the Vatican hosted a gathering of Catholic leaders from South America’s Amazon basin. Among Catholics who lauded the pope’s efforts to foster a more diverse, poverty-focused church, the Amazon Synod was a welcome continuation: three weeks of debate about the church’s role in addressing climate change and the continuing effects of colonization, as well as a crucial focus on the principle of inculturation—how the church might better respect and integrate local cultures. Or, as Francis put it, how to build a church with an “Amazonian face.”