The Amazonian Synod has left Catholics with quite a bit to chew over, not the least of which is an episode involving a certain statue known as the Pachamama—a wooden carving of what looks like a pregnant indigenous woman. In late October, a video surfaced of several of the statues being removed from the Church of Santa Maria in Transpontina and thrown into the River Tiber. [The event drew the attention of Pope Francis as well as the secular media, including Reuters and the BBC.]
On October 4, 2019, a young Austrian man claimed responsibility for the action and announced the founding of the Bonifatius Institute, a pan-European endeavor with the stated aim of denying “paganism” and “the globalist agenda” while promoting “a restoration of the true faith and its centuries-old traditions.”
Who Is the Man Behind the Action?
This man is Alexander Tschugguel (pronounced “CHOO-goo-el.”), a recently married 26-year-old resident of Vienna and a convert to Catholicism. Since outing himself as “the guy who threw the Pachamama idols into the River Tiber,” Tschugguel has given interviews with multiple Catholic English-language news outlets (and at least one German one), published additional videos explaining his motives, and undertaken a weeklong trip to the United States.
To understand Tschugguel and his ambitions, one must, however, understand his European context. Though many in the English-speaking world now know him as the “idol dunker,” Tschugguel has already made a name for himself in the pro-family and pro-life movements in Germany and, especially, in his home country of Austria. In 2014, he joined forces with the family rights advocate Hedwig von Beverfoerde to organize a bus tour through Germany to support traditional marriage, as the independent Catholic newspaper Tagespost reports. In Vienna, he has rallied demonstrators for the Austrian equivalent of the March for Life for several years running.
These actions have been met not only with disdain by ideologically-charged European onlookers but with outright violence as well. Tschugguel has spoken of having rocks thrown at him and facing other intimidation tactics in his public demonstrations. His father even lost his job due to his son's political activity. During his appearances in America, Tschugguel emphasized the limitations on activism in Europe and praised free speech in America, which he hopes to galvanize for his fledging institute.
What Does He Want?
What do Tschugguel and his colleagues want? The mission statement of the Bonifatius Institute says simply enough: “From the heart of Europe, we want to fight for the restoration of our wonderful Catholic culture and traditions, for a church that follows our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!”
But is this just a strong-headed, reactionary turn ad fontes? Tschugguel's own remarks have offered more substance than that. At least four major pillars of his movement deserve note.
First, Tschugguel sees his movement as one of public activism, primarily in the arena of family and right-to-life issues but also in evangelization, captured by the rallying call “Don't be silent about your faith.” In so doing, he is taking a firm stand against the secular silence of European civic life, which, more than anti-religious secularist fringe groups, hamstrings the efforts of evangelists.
Second, Tschugguel's activism is based in the European tradition of the Church – hence the choice of St. Bonifatius as the institute's patron. He sees adherence to Church Teaching and the preservation of the traditional liturgy and places of worship as paramount, saying on multiple occasions that, backed by Tradition, “We don't need new solutions.”
Third, and relatedly, Tschugguel has spoken of a “revolution of sanctity not of rebellion,” as he said in an interview with Dr. Taylor Marshall. He understands action as emerging first and foremost from prayer, seen in his own narrative of praying the rosary before undertaking the controversial action with the Pachamama figures. He calls for a return to the Sacraments and devotion to the blessed Mother.
Fourthly, he understands salvation of souls as the ultimate end of the institute, and hence values the hereafter over the passing world. “I don't want the Church to be part of the modern world,” he says, “We want the Church to be part of the divine world.”
While the stated mission of the Bonifatius Institute accords well with official Catholic Church Teaching, one might be left wondering whether this controversial attempt to revive Catholic culture from within Europe might be a flash in the pan, or worst yet, a further dive toward political polarization. One might be reminded of Steve Bannon's plan of establishing a far-right “gladiator” academy in a defunct Italian monastery to promote Judeo-Christian values.
So far, Tschugguel has paired with some tendentious elements in the American Church, including the American Society for Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), the Fraternal Society of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Church Militant. He also has scoped out his enemies in the form of Modernists, Leftists, and neo-Pagans. It's world of “good people” and “bad people,” cleanly divided along the line of orthodoxy.
To start, though, the young Catholic activist is asking for our prayers. God knows he and all of us will need them.