The working document for the upcoming special assembly of the synod of bishops for the Amazon region has caused quite a stir. Such documents can be concise agendae — little more than bullet points. The ecclesial subspecies of the genre tends to be a “kitchen sink” catch-all into which everything is crammed: so that no idea, suggestion, notion, or back-of-the-napkin scribble goes to waste, no matter how silly, half-baked, or otherwise egregious.
As far as these sorts of documents go, the one we got for the Amazon synod certainly is of the kitchen sink variety. It has all the bullet points: everything anyone could want, and more.
Working documents are wonky by design: usually meant to set an agenda and frame a conversation, rather than to inspire or even inform the broad public. This one does not make for pretty reading. Then, it is not meant to make for pretty reading. It is not a theological treatise. In this case, however, it is not a framework for discussion, either. Nor is it even a unified statement of intent.
Its purpose is twofold: to let everyone with a stake in the meeting be seen to have got his word in, edgewise; to provide cover for the one thing the organizers want. Still, there’s plenty of meat for the picking in the thing.
The document is long. Translated from the Portuguese original, the Spanish version of The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and Integral Ecology comes in at twenty-two thousand words, give or take, footnotes included. It is articulated in three parts: of four, nine, and eight chapters, respectively, over one hundred forty-nine numbered paragraphs. The major divisions are: “The voice of Amazonia”; “Integral Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and of the Poor”; “A Prophetic Church in Amazonia: Challenges and Hopes”.
Part I offers a thorough rehearsal of the Amazon region’s current conditions and circumstances, while the headings for Parts II and III pretty much say what’s in the box. Part II focuses on issues of pressing concern to the people and the physical territory. Part III deals with practical pastoral challenges facing the Church in the region, which is politically, socially, economically, and in terms of global ecology more significant than many — one might dare to say most — people living outside the region recognize.
The Amazon rain forest, through which the Amazon River cuts, produces oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from the whole planet’s air. That, alone, makes it an ecological — hence a strategic — key to security. “The Amazon River basin and the tropical forests that surround it nourish the soil and regulate, through the recycling of moisture, the cycles of water, energy and carbon at the planetary level,” the document’s Paragraph 9 rehearses. “The Amazon River alone casts 15% of the planet’s total fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean each year.” Those facts alone make the Amazon essential for global precipitation and weather patterns. Nevertheless, “[T]he Amazon is the second most vulnerable area of the planet, after the Arctic, in relation to climate change of anthropogenic origin.”
The Amazon basin also serves and sustains human communities of the most diverse and varied sizes, histories, and cultural and ethnographic composition, all of which face — in one way or another — serious and pressing dangers to their ways of life that result from irresponsible exploitation of the region’s natural resources.
Even before one delves into the nitty-gritty questions of indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancient lands and the threats to their ways of life, which the exploitation poses, the raw facts of the situation on the ground in the Amazon constitute a serious political problem for the area, which stretches over eight countries covering roughly a third of South America. “[L]ife in the Amazon,” reads Paragraph 14, “is threatened by environmental destruction and exploitation, by the systematic violation of the basic human rights of the Amazonian population.” Of particular concern is the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, including their rights to territory, to self-determination, and basic political participation.
“According to the communities participating in this synodal listening,” the document goes on to say, “the threat to life comes from economic and political interests of the dominant sectors of society today, especially extractive companies, often in collusion, or with the permissiveness of local, national governments and traditional authorities (of the indigenous themselves).” In short: A good bit of what happens in Amazonia doesn’t even start in Amazonia, and what happens in Amazonia certainly does not stay in Amazonia.
Nor are the problems of recent vintage. For five centuries, greedy and unscrupulous foreign interlopers have stolen wealth, labor, and children from the peoples of Amazonia. They have raped the land and the people. They have murdered. They still do. There is no getting around this. The peoples of Amazonia have had more than enough, and are not having any more. The Church has not only a right to speak in their behalf, but a duty to stand with Amazonia’s woefully abused sons and daughters, many of whom are her own by adoption.
The leaders of the Church in the Amazon region are trying to hear — to make heard — the people who live there, to offer some sort of systematic response to the challenges that face them, and by extension, everyone. These are global issues in a very large local nutshell, about which the people most directly and immediately interested have often been the least heard and most deliberately ignored.
It’s not that many of the folks, who have complained of the document’s theological idiosyncrasies — not to mention doctrinal departures and apparent derelictions of dogma — are wrong. Cardinal Brandmüller told LifeSite and Kath.net the working document is a piece of heresy. “It is to be stated now with insistence,” Brandmüller wrote, “that the Instrumentum laboris contradicts the binding teaching of the Church in decisive points and thus has to be qualified as heretical.” Then again, these things usually are pretty awful. Brandmüller could well be overstating his case — even the most egregious statements in the document may be susceptible of an orthodox construction — but this one really is special, nonetheless.
The point is that the document is — to switch metaphors — a harvest, hence of wheat with the chaff. If some synod fathers are hoping for a vigorous general threshing, at least a few synod managers appear primarily interested in finding a particular stalk: the one that grew from the seed of optional celibacy, which they sowed early in the growing season.
The stalk made it to the threshing floor. Paragraph 129 calls for the promotion of “autochthonous vocations,” i.e. vocations among indigenous populations, in response to a genuine need for the sacraments in a part of the world where people might see a priest only a few times a year, and then if they’re lucky. Then, the document asks that the fathers — really, that the Holy Father — consider “the possibility of priestly ordination be studied for elderly people, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by their community,” even if they are married with children. The reason given: “[T]o ensure the availability of the Sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.”
A group of senior churchmen met in the second half of June to discuss the upcoming synod assembly, which is scheduled to take place in October of this year. Most of the people invited to attend that informal preparatory meeting were of German extraction, roughly of the so-called “progressive” wing in the Church, and more-or-less vocal in their willingness to entertain proposals for a change in Church discipline with respect to priestly celibacy. Some of the more sensational reporting couched the gathering as a sort of secret assembly or nocturnal council. In fact, there was nothing terribly secret about it. In any case the issue of relaxing the discipline is on the October agenda.
Wherever one stands on the question of mandatory celibacy for secular priests in the Latin Rite of the Church — this is not the place for a rehearsal of the arguments — it is still difficult not to sympathize with those, who discovered something unseemly in a coterie of mostly northern European churchmen appearing to use the legitimate and urgently pressing issues of a sorely tried and long-suffering local Church in the developing world to advance their pet project in ecclesial sociology.
Pope Francis, meanwhile, seems keen to grant any request the fathers might make in that direction. It isn’t that he didn’t mean what he said on the plane that was carrying him from Panama to Rome, i.e. that he is personally opposed to optional celibacy. He also said he would entertain requests for a change in the discipline. He might well grant such a request — limited and local, under special circumstances, in response to the gravest pastoral necessity, it goes without saying — and for him to acquiesce in despite of his own feelings would show he means what he says about synodal leadership cum petro et sub petro.
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