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Comms fiasco on final Friday of Amazon Synod

On Friday afternoon, Pope Francis had another opportunity to clear the air, but he kicked up more dust.

Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 23, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A while back, I wrote a piece for The Catholic Herald that said, in essence, “Everybody stay calm: things aren’t as bad as they seem; they’re worse.” That piece had as its analytical focus the ongoing talk of schism in the Church. It attempted an assessment of the real danger in those regards (against the perceived danger) and of the quarters from which threats to the unity of the Church really come.

I stand by the analysis and the summary prescription, and would say it might be useful applied to the circumstances of the Church more broadly.

As it happens, that piece was my regular analysis column for the weekly magazine. The editors titled it, “Pope Francis has the tools to reduce tensions: will he use them?” It published on October 3rd, the day before the strange and startling ceremony in the Vatican Gardens that has chewed up so many column inches and caused so much ink to be spilled.

To be perfectly frank, I always liked the image that has been at the center of the controversy. I wanted it to be an indigenous representation of Our Lady. Perhaps it will be someday. If Pope Francis creates the Blessed Mother “Our Lady of the Amazon” and makes the image her token, I will be happy to devote myself to her under that title and venerate the image in any church.

I also want — in the older sense of the word — an explanation for what I saw happening on video around the statue on October 4th. Indigenous participants in a tree-planting ceremony gathered around a mat — a mandala — representing the Amazon region and its “water, earth, seeds, and martyrs”, knelt, were led by a woman in native ceremonial dress in something that looked for all the world like prayer of some sort, and bowed low to the ground, facing the figures of two pregnant women in a boat at the center of the mat, on which the apparent leader of the ceremony and other participants had placed things that looked very much like a symbolic offering.

The leader took the bowl she had been carrying, and approached Pope Francis. She took a ring from the bowl and put it on his finger, then she made the Sign of the Cross and received Pope Francis’s blessing under the same Sign. Another participant offered Pope Francis the larger of the two images of pregnant women, as a voice can be heard declaring “Our Lady of the Amazon!” or “She is Our Lady of Amazonia!” Another fellow gave Pope Francis a necklace, and received his blessing, also under the Sign of the Cross.

A single sentence would have sufficed: one to say that the figures of the women represented Our Lady and her cousin, St Elizabeth, at the Visitation; and that the posture adopted, while admittedly unusual — very much so, and possibly shocking to Western sensibilities — is quite normal and very much a default attitude of veneration among the peoples of the Amazon. That sentence would have dealt with the perplexity and turned a tinderbox into a teachable moment. With a little advance notice and preparation, this whole business would have gone away before it started.

Apparently, it was impossible to put such a construction on either the figures or the ceremony.

If the figures were not sacred symbols of any kind, and the ceremony no sort of religious rite, then what were they? At risk of belaboring the obvious, denying that something is what it appears for all the world to be, is not the same as saying what the thing really is. Something in the way of an explanation ought to have been ready and fairly straightforward.

Instead, we were treated to weeks of evasion, equivocation, and recrimination, punctuated by a common room prank involving alienation and attempted destruction of property that was simultaneously hailed as the work of the 21st century’s St Boniface and decried as the work of latter-day crypto-Fascist neocolonialist dissident heretic iconoclasts — world gone mad — and culminating in a denial of the evidence of our senses.

During the press briefing on Friday — I was not there (sick child and transit strike) but watched on the feed provided by Vatican Media — L’Espresso’s veteran Vaticanologist, Sandro Magister posed a question to the Lutheran pastor on the Friday panel: he said he’d received reports from Brazil and the Philippines, claiming that video of the October 4th ceremony in the Vatican Gardens had “gone viral” and was being used “as a weapon” by Protestant sects, especially of the Pentecostal and evangelical persuasion, to claim that Catholics are idolaters. Magister asked the pastor for “his ‘considered opinion’ (in Italian, giudizio, which is literally “judgment”) on these ‘rites’ which were effectively performed (It. compiuti, literally “accomplished”), complete with prostrations before unidentified objects.”

Before the pastor could respond, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communications, Dr. Paolo Ruffini, cut in to say, “I allow myself for just a moment to add to the question from Magister [regarding] ‘Effectively were performed’: It has been said in this place, and repeated, that there were performed neither prostrations nor rites.” Ruffini went on to say, “I believe we must all be rigorous regarding things that, in any case, happened in front of video cameras.” That’s right: there were; and, I saw what I saw. There are lots of explanations for what I saw, but, let me say again: I saw what I saw.

Some journalists applauded, and the deputy director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Christiane Murray, who was running the briefing, joined in the applause. The clapping subsided and the pastor, Rev. Nicolau Nascimento de Paiva, remarked the great respect of his ecclesial community for the beliefs of all persons of faith, the greatness of Mary’s witness as attested in Scripture and the need to focus on what unites us in pursuit of the common good and the upbuilding of society.

On Friday afternoon, Pope Francis had another opportunity to clear the air, but he kicked up more dust.

He called the figures “Pachamama” — the name of an Inca deity akin to Demeter/Ceres in the Greek/Roman pantheon, with which the ill-informed and ill-disposed have been abusing the figures since they appeared (and I have privately remonstrated with purveyors of the sobriquet, noting that the Inca Empire was located in the Andes Mountains, not the Amazon basin; but, so much for that) — when he told the Synod Fathers gathered in General Congregation that the Carabinieri — Italy’s national paramilitary police force — had recovered several of the figures from the Tiber, into which they’d been tossed at dawn on Monday after their furtive subtraction from the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina near St. Peter’s. He said the figures had been placed in the church “without idolatrous intent.” Press Office Director Matteo Bruni explained that Francis was using the deity’s name merely as a form of shorthand reference to the statues as they had come to be known in Italian media.

Right after announcing the statues’ retrieval from the river and explaining that their placement in the church had not been deliberately idolatrous, Pope Francis said, “First of all, this happened in Rome, and, as Bishop of the Diocese, I ask pardon of the persons who were offended by this act.”

Then, Pope Francis announced that the statues could make an appearance at the Synod Assembly’s closing Mass on Sunday. “The Commander of the Carabinieri,” Pope Francis told the Synod Fathers on Friday afternoon, “has expressed his desire to follow up on any indications that you would like to give concerning the manner of publication of the news, and any other initiative you may want to take in this regard.”

“[F]or example,” Pope Francis quoted the Commander as saying, “the exhibition of the statues during the Holy Mass for the closing of the Synod.” Pope Francis added: “We’ll see.” Then, he told the Synod Fathers he has delegated his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to handle the matter.

Now, there are often forensic examinations to perform on physical evidence (like stolen statuary recovered from a river), and let’s not forget the paperwork involved in processing evidence. On Friday afternoon, there was at least an even-money bet the things would have been tangled in red tape for some time. *On Saturday, however, Cindy Wooden of CNS tweeted pictures of two statues on display in the Synod Hall. In any case, Pope Francis has given this story legs for at least another day-and-a-half.
(*This has been edited to reflect recent developments.)

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About Christopher R. Altieri 190 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. On what basis do you so unequivocally reject the notion that the statues were representations of Pachamama? You cite the geographical distinction between the Andes and the Amazon basin, but nothing else. The fact that pachamama originated in the Andes does not mean it is not recognized in the Amazon. Meanwhile, I have read accounts that some participants in the tree planting ceremony, as well as synod attendees in the church from which the statues were removed, have affirmed that the statues were pachamama. And now the pope himself used “pachamama” to describe them (his unconvincing addenda notwithstanding). Frankly, even if these statues were the Virgin Mary, I’d be concerned with the prostration (which the Vatican denied occurred despite video evidence), but it would have gone a long ways toward clarification had the pope or someone else offered a careful and direct explanation saying as much. To date that has not occurred. It is not unreasonable to conclude that these statues indeed represented pachamama under the circumstances.

  2. I would not appreciate any statue that depicts a woman’s naked breasts being declared “Our lady of the Amazon” and subsequently venerated. I would hope that the Catholic Church would not sexualize her depictions of the Blessed Mother and would not allow veneration of figures/statues/idols that sexualize women. Picasso did not celebrate mother’s and nursing with his paintings. A depiction of a female that is intended to honor her life-giving capacity does not need to have the figure naked. Frankly, the attempt to sexualize a woman and depict her as an “earthy figure” or “higher-ordered animal in creation” during this synod is offensive. This synod has managed to sexualize women in the Amazon, rather than highlight women in the Amazon.

    • This agrees with my take. Our Lady of Guadalupe is appropriately and modestly adorned. Also, I am pretty sure you can’t just declare a female image as “our Lady of” wherever. All the places where the Blessed Virgin is referred to in that manner are places of apparitions.

      • This Vatican, long ago, stopped caring about such things as facts, accuracy and truth.
        This Vatican has its agenda. But bringing souls to Christ? Don’t make me laugh.
        They want us to shut up and get out of the way. So sorry dear bishops, no, wrong. It ain’t happening. Not while there is a breath left in me.
        The Dubia answers? The McCarrick report? Chinese Catholics sold out? The police raid at the Vatican $ecretariat of $tate? Dear God in Heaven what a cesspool!

      • Clothes or no clothes. Really!!!!!
        Michelangelo painted the sistine chapel with naked figures. It was only later on that loin cloths were painted over. His wonderful david sculpture is carved naked. You folk remind me of the era when “churching” needed to be performed on new mothers to somehow cleanse them from the sin of having sex for procreation and as if giving birth was somehow something that was dirty. A naked statue of a pregnant woman has to be the ultimate sign of gods wonderful creativity. The sexualisation is only introduced by the puritan brigade by their objections. It’s similar to the hatred and disgust of those who critise new mothers for breast feeding in public.

        • I am not a puritan and I am really tired of those that try to claim that if you are uncomfortable with public nudity, you are the one sexualizing a person. Believe it or not, Bob Guccione of Penthouse claimed his magazine was art. I happen to have breastfed all 7 of my children publicly with no covering. I have images of Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus. This statue is not honoring the beautiful relationship of a mother nursing her baby with nourishment that is like manna that God allows only a mother to produce. I don’t buy the claim that every naked statue of a woman is just honoring her life-giving capacity. Do topless beaches honor breastfeeding? Parading around a naked statue of a woman in a canoe in a church does nothing to honor femininity and motherhood.

      • There is a vast difference between a nursing mother (or even Our Lady nourishing Saint Bernard) and nudity. ANd spare me the “it’s only sexual if you have an impure mind” tripe, because that same playground-level reasoning has been used to coarsen and sexualize the culture, and I’m sick to death of it and the ninnies who use it.

  3. There already is an established venerated image as Our Lady of the Amazon that is entirely consistent with traditional Catholic images, beautiful, clothed, and holding baby Jesus. Like the sham Synod itself, Pachamama is not only a Pagan idol, but a relatively obscure figure not very characteristic of contemporary Amazonian culture but a revived idol of limited familiarity, a gimmick rammed down everyone’s throats, Amazonian and Western, to create a spectacle of more loving and tolerant-than-thou pseudo-Catholicism by particular Catholics with no love and tolerance for Catholics concerned about not allowing the faith to be undermined. Idols drowned in the Tiber, but not one word amongst all this “concern” from all sides about Amazonian children buried alive. What have we become?

  4. “I always liked the image that has been at the center of the controversy. I wanted it to be an indigenous representation of Our Lady. Perhaps it will be someday. If Pope Francis creates the Blessed Mother “Our Lady of the Amazon” and makes the image her token, I will be happy to devote myself to her under that title and venerate the image in any church.” Seriously? The naked Pachamama with menstrual blood on her belly – yes, that it what it represents – taken as an image of the Blessed Virgin? This is as confused as the Pope’s ramblings.

  5. Jesus said many things about human beings and their worship of God, one that many worship what they do not know, but the Revelation through judeo-christianity knows the One God.
    also Jesus said to Peter do not be troubled you believe in God believe also in me.
    Often times it seems that people think God set up some kind of a joking game system we’re if you don’t come across and find the revelation of God and judeo-christianity are going to hell as a pagan. the justice and mercy of God does not play such games nor would he create such games to play.

  6. Christopher Altieri I realize you are well meaning. However you lack sufficient knowledge regarding idols used in pagan ritual in this instance the Pachamama. Attached to the symbols and idols is demonic influence oft times presence. We simply don’t assume a form of veneration, respect, especially intent of venerating the Blessed Mother thru pagan items previously used for idolatrous purpose expecting a kind of benevolent transference from the pagan to worship of the saints or the Divinity. That in doing so simply by intent the pagan idols become blessed. In Africa my experience was to the contrary. Today Bishop Athanasius Schneider published a rebuke to the Roman Pontiff on this very issue. Also Cardinal Gerhard Muller an excellent theologian condemned the placing of the Pachamama idols in Catholic churches. Again I believe you’re well intended but wrote here out of ignorance of the reality.

  7. More than anything else this Synod shows that the Catholic Church is in a state of unprecedented collapse, and that Catholic intellectual culture is practically dead, at least in all the relevant positions in the hierarchy.

  8. Pope Francis should resign for the good of the Church. It addition to the many other reasons he must go (protecting coverup artists like Zanchetta and tolerating massive financial corruption) he has become a living joke with his non stop unscripted comments, off the cuff remarks, ad hominem attacks on his critics and is now giving ammunition to Pentecostals and Fundie Trolls to attack our faith by portraying us as idolaters.

      • You might want to open up the Bible and brush up on the Temptations of Christ in the Wilderness. There He refused to bow down before Satan. In Matthew 4:8-10:
        8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written,

        ‘You shall worship the Lord your God
        and him only shall you serve.’”

  9. Oh, I get it. The snafu over the indigenous figures (aka idols), various religious ceremonies including them, their installation in a Catholic Church, and their possible use in the Synod’s closing Mass is simply just another Varican “comms fiasco” that could have easily been diffused if a savvy Vatican press officer (such as out esteemed author) had simply offered something like the following: “A single sentence would have sufficed: one to say that the figures of the women represented Our Lady and her cousin, St Elizabeth, at the Visitation; and that the posture adopted, while admittedly unusual — very much so, and possibly shocking to Western sensibilities — is quite normal and very much a default attitude of veneration among the peoples of the Amazon. That sentence would have dealt with the perplexity and turned a tinderbox into a teachable moment. With a little advance notice and preparation, this whole business would have gone away before it started.”

    No it wouldn’t. Do the statues actually represent Our Lady and her cousin, St Elizabeth, at the Visitation. Mr. Altieri admits that view is disputed. And, one must say, appears unlikely. Is that how the indigenous presenters of these objects understood them? How do we know that?

    In short, Mr. Altieri seems to think the problems dividing the church the Church are primarily ones of bad optics and ham-handed communications, not deep theological, philosophical, and anthropological understandings. There are many other aspics of how this synod was concieved, planned, and executed–and indeed Francis’s whole papacy–that illustrate this divide,not just bad optics and goofy communications.

  10. This flap will not end after the close of the Synod. Pachamamas is one more “make a mess” gesture, and will divide Catholics even more. Here is an entirely possible scenario: your local pastor decides that he will place Pachamama somewhere in the church, perhaps next to a statue of Our Lady. Or a Kachina figure (they are clothed), or some spirit cultivated by a regional Native American tribe. Additional mess. A number of parishioners will not be mollified by the pastor ‘s remarks. Families leave, either for a parish that does not do these kinds of things, quit and find an Orthodox or evangelical church or depart from the practice of the Christian Faith. Undoubtedly, there are other possible outcomes. But division will occur, it is simply a question of what it will look like.

    • I cannot conceive of any scenario in which the pastor of my Byzantine parish would ever place such idols in our church. But if it comes to that – perhaps on order from our bishop? – I will indeed seek communion with the Orthodox Church, as Catholics are permitted to do according to Canon Law 844. There are a number of Roman Rite parishes where I live that would, I believe, gladly embrace the Gaia worship of the Amazonian Synod. But there are others that would resist. It all comes down to what the bishops will say. So far, they are almost all stricken with mutism.

  11. I’m sorry but I don’t think you understand how offensive those statues are. Because of that anything else you wrote I could give no credence to.

  12. The coverage of this is often leaving out the presence of a “priapic” aroused male figure in the same opening ceremony. The male figure was later seen by some internet sources in another Vatican context so clearly it was not misinterpreted in the video. A cursory investigation finds that “pachamama” and this explicitly male figure go together. What is the role in this explicit idol imagery and the erosion of the celibate priesthood? It also seems that the “pachamama” folklore or pagan religion is somewhat diffuse, not restricted to the andes in our day.

  13. “I always liked the image that has been at the center of the controversy.”

    It is crude, coarse, ugly, and lewd, and it astonishes me that you actually like it; but in any event, even if it were beautiul it is blatantly not Christian or nobody would have any doubt what it was. There are statues of Hestia, the Greek goddess of the home an heart, decently clothed and inoffensively tending a fire or pointing upward. If someone were to bring it into a Church and say “This is Our Lady of Greece” I would be just as indignant and outraged. If it were a statue of the Shinto goddess Amaterasu, I would be just as indignant and outraged.

    “I wanted it to be an indigenous representation of Our Lady. Perhaps it will be someday. If Pope Francis creates the Blessed Mother “Our Lady of the Amazon” and makes the image her token, I will be happy to devote myself to her under that title and venerate the image in any church.”

    For the love of Mike please don’t give Pope Francis any more lousy ideas. He’s already got plenty.

  14. Let’s stop pretending that Francis didn’t know what was going on here.

    Pope Francis is a highly intelligent and well-connected man, and long time acquaintance of Evo Morales, the Marxist Bolivian dictator. This is the same Evo Morales who joined Francis in performing the political stunt of the Hammer and Sickle Crucifix (which was done at the high expense of profaning what faithful Catholics…those “with the mind of Christ” …hold dear as the divine and saving self-sacrifice of Jesus).

    Long before this event, Evi Morales and the former “Jorge Bergoglio” (now spoke Francis) know full well who Pachamama is. She is the pagan fertility goddess of the Andes, repurposed by South American Marxists as their idol and icon.

    It is all explained here, on this environmentalist website, written long before this week’s Vatican idolatry stunt:

    So let’s all stop pretending that this is just another big gaffe by our hapless “Supreme” Pontiff Francis.

    For Francis to install a pagan idol in the Vatican gardens, and approve her worship in his very presence, and then install the same idol in his Roman Churches, and insist that this idol was used with “no idolatrous intent” is a preposterous statement.

    As Francis’ spokesman Bishop Sorondo has declared, Francis believes that the Chinese Communist Party best exemplifies the idea of “Catholic” social justice.

    The idol Pachamama is no mere fiction for Evo Morales and Sorondo and Francis: Pachamama is the new “Lord of All.” Everything else, including Christ Crucified, has value to the extent that it advances the aims of the party.

    • Thank you, Chris, Leslie, and Jan Dennis. Thank you to all
      of the commentators who get it and have their eyes and ears and minds and hearts open to the truth. Excellent comments, by the way.
      I doubt that Mother Angelica would have stood for all of the pachamama nonsense and would have rightly denounced this abomination and all of the pagan idol worship by Bergoglio, aka francis, and his yes men of cardinals, bishops, commies, and pagans. She would be infuriated over the stretch to try to make a demonic, ugly, pagan, mother earth “goddess” idol into some representation of Our Holy Blessed Mother.!!!
      What happened in the Amazon Sin-odd is so evil! Sadly, we cannot unsee it. It happened and it was an abomination! No amount of perfume can cover up the detestable stench of pagan idolatry.
      I guess now is the time in which we can apply that Bible verse about the time when they will call evil good and good evil…
      Isaiah 5: 20
      Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
      It’s sad that many people still refuse to see. No man is so blind as he who refuses to see. I pray that God will lift the veils and open people’s eyes and ears to learn the truth. Then, I pray that they will do God’s will and use their minds and hearts and mouths to witness to the Truth.

  15. As we near the feast of Christ the King and Holy Advent tide we should not waste much time to the evil-doings in Rome but instead increase adoration, praise and worship to our Lord Jesus Christ the King of Kings. The Antichrist reigns in Rome and it has come to a tipping point, a fever pitch of disobedience to the truth of Christ and his Holy Church. I pray Catholics unite and I wish all a blessed Advent 2019

  16. Pope Francis is a lot like Obama, he doesn’t seem to like the entity he was elected to oversee.
    Francis has given scandal to the Catholic faithful isn’t that enough for bishops to say enough is enough and ask Francis, no demand Francis make a statement that he believes the Nicene Creed ( all of it).

  17. When a family is confronted with the reality of parental substance abuse all of us would readily agree that denial and self-deception only serve to aggravate the situation. It is simply no longer feasible to maintain that there is anyone but a rogue actor on the Chair of Saint Peter and that the episcopate is largely constituted by bold unbelievers, the theologically malformed and cowards. Bergoglio has displayed shamelessly his middle finger to every conscientious Roman Catholic on the globe.
    Once we acknowledge the problem something will be brought to bear to correct it. These skirmishes about what is or is not happening are ludicrous. The idea that anyone could credibly deceive themselves into believing the primitive gynecological idol is anything other than what it is bespeaks the depth of corruption to which our Church has been reduced. We have all been fooling ourselves for decades. The game is up. The show is over. Bergoglianism is no substitute for Roman Catholicism and two plus two does not equal five in time or space.

  18. I’d love to know why neither Our Lady of Guadalupe or Our Lady of Aparecida were mentioned at this synod? Our Lady of Aparecida is already the patroness of Brazil and her national shrine is the third largest Catholic church in the world. If clergy were serious about evangelizing the pagans in the Amazon then why not dedicated their efforts to their patroness?
    Easy answer. The clergy are NOT interested in evangelizing the pagans and offering them a chance to enter heaven. The clergy have their own agendas and it has nothing to do with saving souls for Christ.

  19. To me the entire Synod was the complete inversion of The Great Commission. Matthew 28:18-20:
    18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

  20. Driving home yesterday I heard a fallen away Catholic now Fundamentalist declare on the radio that this all suggests Pope Francis is either the Antichrist or he’s preparing the way for a future Antichrist.
    Fundamentalists have been saying things like this forever but we really shouldn’t be giving them fresh material.
    The gentleman on the radio station did bring up a valid point though which was that climate change has become a sort of religion in itself with it’s own prophets and martyrs.

    • mrscracker, read the early verses of 2 Thess.2. The real AntiChrist will be astounding …” 9 Whose coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power, and signs, and lying wonders…”. He will convert to religion those already deep in sin…and that is a ways off….
      “10 And in all seduction of iniquity to them that perish; because they receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. Therefore God shall send them the operation of error, to believe lying..”. That last sentence involves the retributive permissive will of God….as when Romans one says…” He has given them up to a reprobate sense..”
      So fundies err in seeing Francis as the Antichrist. The Antichrist will do astounding signs and wonders. The only thing astounding about Pope Francis and President Trump is that they do not have a Tik Tok account to increase their audience to the young. Both men are keen as to the media and soundbite world. But Tik Tok is Chinese owned…so there’s that.

  21. When I was little, one of my favorite books was Elisabeth Elliot’s “The Savage My Kinsman”. I loved the photographs of Mrs. Elliott’s little girl Valerie playing with the Indian children & animals in the jungle. The family continued to live with the Indians & teach them about Christ & forgiveness after Jim Elliott & 4 other missionaries had been killed by tribe members.

    Following all the recent, distressing foolishness in Rome, I think I’ll go home this evening & wash my mind out by rereading my mother’s copy of this story. At least some folks have been sincere about bringing the good news of Salvation to the indigenous people. Even if they weren’t Catholic.

  22. “If the figures were not sacred symbols of any kind, and the ceremony no sort of religious rite, then what were they? At risk of belaboring the obvious, denying that something is what it appears for all the world to be, is not the same as saying what the thing really is.” Thanks for saying that, it ought not to have to be said, but apparently it is. What a total mess they made of this entire thing.

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