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Analysis: The Amazon synod and the English language

The issue of clerical celibacy in the Amazon, writes JD Flynn, could be mostly a stalking horse for the debate about decentralization that has intensified during the Francis pontificate.

Spanish Augustinian Father Miguel Angel Cadenas baptizes an infant in an Urarina indigenous community on Peru's Urituyacu River June 6, 2014. (CNS photo/Barbara J. Fraser)

Vatican City, Jul 4, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Three months from now, the bishops of the Amazonian region will meet for a regional synod that has already garnered international attention. The synod has become controversial because it seems to have become to some theologians and Churchmen a kind of “proving ground” for theological or canonical agendas that are not directly connected to the Amazon.

The recent history of Church synods suggests that the results of the meeting will likely not match the intensity of the rhetoric preceding it. But the rhetoric- and what it can teach us about the state of the Church – matters.

The needs of Catholics in the Amazonian region are abundant. The region is poor: indigenous persons face discrimination and cultural disintegration, deforestation and strip mining threaten ancient ways of life. Between far-flung villages and sometimes negligible infrastructure, priests face the challenge of ministry across very broad territories. Catholics in some places have very little catechesis and few opportunities for Mass and confession, and they face temptations to abandon the faith. A meeting to discuss these realities, and to develop pastoral plans, could do real good.

But the meeting has garnered interest from some German theologians and ecclesiastics who seem to see it as an opportunity to reinvigorate support for an ecclesiology that takes a sort-of “federal” approach to Church doctrine and discipline, with tolerance for a considerable degree of regional variability on moral and disciplinary issues.

Such an approach, some have said, is the approach of “synodality.”

Pope Francis has said frequently there are limits to synodality, and even while debate smolders about his controversial footnotes in the 2015 exhortation Amoris laetitia, the pope has said on several recent occasions that neither doctrine nor significant disciplinary matters can or should be subject to regional preferences.

Last week, the pope reemphasized to the bishops of Germany that he will not abide an approach that prioritizes the judgment of a “national” Church over the teachings or norms of the universal Church.

But throughout his papacy, a cadre of mostly European clerics and intellectuals, taking up the sort of “federated” ecclesiological approach advanced by Cardinal Kasper, have attempted to curry favor or support for their position from Pope Francis. It seems clear to most observers that the Amazon synod will be another front in that campaign.

In fact, a synod issue that has generated a great deal of controversy- the possible ordination of married men to the priesthood – is likely best seen through the lens of that controversy.

There may be genuine interest among some Amazonian bishops in ordaining older, married men to the priesthood to accommodate pastoral realities. But much support for the “viri probati” proposal comes from those who perceive that decentralizing universal rules about clerical celibacy will be a precedent for the decentralization of other governance and doctrinal matters, especially those concerning how the Church engages with a secular sexual ethos.

In short, the issue of clerical celibacy in the Amazon could be mostly a stalking horse for the debate about decentralization that has intensified during the Francis pontificate.

But will the pan-Amazonian synod produce the kind of results its interested observers hope for? Will the synod lead to a new way of thinking about the Church itself? That seems unlikely.

On June 30, Vatican Media published a commentary on the upcoming synod by Mauricio Lopez Oropeza, a layman who oversees a Church-sponsored advocacy network for Catholics in the Amazon. He was recently president of the World Christian Life Community, a lay movement of Ignatian spirituality associated with the Jesuits.

Oropeza wrote that the upcoming meeting “is increasingly becoming a Synod which goes far beyond the territory upon which it is based,” adding that the synod “can, and should, contribute enlightenment in a universal overview.”

But the rest of Oropeza’s commentary gives indication of what kind of contribution the pan-Amazonian synod is likely to make to any such “enlightenment.”

Noting contentious issues defining the synod, Oropeza discussed a tension “between the Kairos of the ‘new paths for the Church’ and the cronos of the urgency to respond to the socio-environmental crisis through an ‘integral ecology.’”

“Will a Synod be able to interpret this ‘Kairos’ moment to embrace the revelation of God who demands a progressive but inevitable pastoral conversion and at the same time, able to make a prophetic and effective call for a conversion at a material level and in relationships, in the face of the enormous planetary socio-environmental crisis in a ‘cronos?’ One without the other will be insufficient, and incomplete,” Oropeza wrote.

Even those who have read a great deal of theology could be forgiven for not understanding what any of that means. Indeed, much of the commentary, published by the Vatican’s official media outlet, is stilted, jargon-laden, and difficult to understand. The official synod preparatory documents, by most estimates, are much the same.

In 1946, George Orwell wrote that modern English prose, especially when produced by politicians or bureaucracies, “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness,” Orwell wrote, adding that “modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

Modern ecclesial prose, especially when it is written by committee, shares some of those characteristics.

Some observers have lamented the tendency of contemporary Vatican documents to read more like text produced in Brussels committee rooms or Washington, DC think tanks than like the clear, prophetic, and direct language that might be expected from religious leaders. There are notable exceptions, but finding the point in Vatican prose can sometimes seem a Herculean labor.

Synodal documents are especially susceptible to the modern tendency toward vagueness and imprecision, because they are designed to accommodate, or at least give nod to, the particular agendas of all those who have spoken into their creation.

As a result, Vatican synods are often very long meetings, sometimes quite controversial during their proceedings, lead to final documents that are often soon shelved. It is rare that a document produced by a synod becomes a major point of reference for the Church.

When that does happen, it is because of the decisions of the pope, not the deliberations of they synod. Francis, like Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II before him, has on some occasions used the opportunity of a post-synodal apostolic exhortation to say something with significant impact on the life of the Church. But a post-synodal apostolic exhortation that generates as much conversation as did Amoris laetitia, or, less controversially, Christifidelis laici, is the exception, rather than the rule.

Synods are meant to be conversations. They have no power to effect policy, or proclaim doctrine. The outcome of the conversation does not bind the pope. Their documents, even if taken up as official texts of the Church, bind neither will nor intellect. The synod is not an ecumenical council.

And when the language of a synod – even before it has begun – is laden with slogans, maxims, and ambiguity, it is all the more likely that the outcome of the meeting will be similar. For those wishing to usher in major changes to the Church, a synod is likely the wrong place to expend energy. The effort required is significant, and the return on that effort is not.

The Amazonian synod will be a matter of controversy. During the meeting, journalists, myself included, will raise issues and concerns, especially if procedural law seems to be shaded in order to produce a predetermined outcome. Given the terms of the debate, the final synod document may well contain serious theological issues. But, after the synod, if history is a reliable guide, very little is likely to happen that is not already – right now – likely to happen.

The synod’s best value, perhaps, is as a kind of barometer. During the meeting, there is a great deal to be learned about the state of the Church. The debate around the synod is worth watching. The politics may well become fierce. But the practical stakes of a synod – which has neither power nor authority – remain, by design, exceedingly low.

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  1. Flynn quotes ORWELL to make his own point: “Modern ecclesial prose, especially when it is written by committee, shares some of those characteristics” [of “humbug”]. As relates to a possibly married priesthood—only a “stalking horse?”

    The familiar and fitting translation: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” Or, “if you dare not define your terms, then hyphenate them and no one will think to ask”. . .

    …more or less as in the conflated “integral ecology” (natural ecology + human ecology + ecclesiology). The Jesuit (of course) Teilhard de Chardin pioneered such hermeneutics of such undifferentiated vocabularic puffery (Noosphere!)—and his mimics now follow.

    A Podium Penumbra of Hyper-Ambiguity: the half-way house between the shepherd’s staff and—reader pick one—the Wiccan stang, the hammer-and-sickle crucifix, the kissing of soles, a seminary-exempt ordained elder/shaman with his totem, or all of the above. Or who are we to judge?

    Might the unparalleled and lusted-after Vatican stamp collection soon exactly symbolize a stamp-collection (flatline synodal) church (small c)? Regarding synods, not Orwell at all! Instead, and channeling MARSHALL MACLUHAN: “the medium IS the message!”

    After half century of erosion/fossilization (both), everyone can agree (consensus!) that these are tough times for authentic leadership, imagination, steadfast fidelity or even fatherhood. But, for now, screened invitation lists and spirited mono/dialogical synods lacking grounding, compass, and closure. Or, maybe the deluded comfort of an Amazonian Mother God.

    Leadership from behind? But now this—-Pope Francis’ recent instruction/rebuke delivered to the German bishop’s conference gives renewed hope to some that the indwelling HOLY SPIRIT is not yet completely upstaged. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see [not only whether we are premature, but] whether they are from God…” (1 John 4:1).

  2. I predict the Amazon Synod will change no doctrines, but will contain enough ambiguities in it’s released documents for the heterodox to claim they have Vatican “Approval” for their agenda.

  3. Pray for the souls lost in the Jesuit cult, and the “German Bishops Conference,” and so many cults like them, that they might escape their self-made prison, and that by the grace of The Lord Jesus, they will seek and find.

  4. Orwell’s linguistic analogy of advancing agenda by humbug fits well for this pontificate. Likely alluded to by JD Flynn [difficult to tell if alluded to by Flynn or a CNA writer]. In defense of the Pontiff [magnanimity is a virtue] perception changes with perspective visually by location intellectually by power. Looking from below e.g., we’re apt to criticize Chief Justice Roberts for deciding in favor of Abortion rights, the Obama mandate. From above our perspective widens immeasurably as it does intellectually. Roberts might sense the Nation is too volatile in its polarity and is not ready for moral change. Pope Francis seems to relish Top Banana status likewise has engineered a clever loosening of the hawsers of authority. Perhaps he perceives need in advance to avoid schism. Typical of his MO Pope Francis makes strong orthodox statements on doctrinal, structural integrity as cited though elsewhere encourages a form of subsidiarity on doctrinal interpretation and authority. As said prev if we loose the hawsers of doctrinal integrity the drift will be away. As already evident throughout the Church. That overall effect is the primary criterion for assessing what Amazonia really means. Decentralization once installed will be difficult to reverse in a world more focused on regional interests than universal. Pope Francis may be, as surprising at it may seem for some prepared to surrender Top Banana status to reach that goal.

  5. So many smoke and mirrors, so may yeses that are no’s and vice versa, then yes becomes yes and no becomes no again, and then repetition of all – all the tactics of the adversary not of Christ or godliness…. ‘by their fruit you will know them’, the Beloved says to each generation that He may be called Holy and we may follow Him as the Way and Truth of Holiness into His Holiness which is Eternal Life…come JMJ!

  6. The pope will not rest until his goalsgleaned from liberation (mar ist) theology is imbedded like a deadly virus into the mystic al body i.e. the Church.

  7. As a father, I know how difficult it is to provide for my children, to earn enough to pay for bills and still be available day to day to my wife and children.(now grandchildren also,Thank God.)
    Fathers like me look to another father, I had many other lesser fathers in my own time@,In my career, college etc. They helped me as an elder should help a young learner.
    But when you have a family of your own, you own it, as it were, you are a king of sorts, but you know little of kingship.
    This can happen at a young age, sometimes it works out very badly.
    In my own case I discovered late, that to my children, I was a sort of monarch, they saw me like a king. (“The State is the family writ large”, as I am fond of saying to them recently)
    Family life can work, but with many difficulties)
    When you get to know this (I’m thinking of myself and my son aged 10)
    When Father and Mother are Regents in their home,(behaving well, not always) you need advice, from outside.
    A Pope who who can talk sense to a struggling father like me ,who doesnt know what to say to his son on the cusp of puberty, and is already surrounded by pornography, needs to appoint a good pastor for our parish and diocese,or more importantly,speak out himself.

    I need eternal truths, spoken with great style, that can convince my son to live chastely, in a poisonous culture.
    Not political deals with China.

    At present,in a Church where most of the Western people have left, in the wake of Vatican II, I would be looking for a father, a trustworthy, family oriented teacher of truth.
    I have no help, no Spiritual moderator, no father to advise adults in spiritual matters, no port against the storm that assails family life.
    I may be wrong but he sells the Church to China, for uncertain reasons, and it seems a disaster.
    No interest in parishioners, no example to families, of which, I used to believe he was a sort of chanpion. (throwing the plates, a slightly unhappy image of family life, maýbe Italian extravagance)
    I am unsupported as a father in the Latin rite, to which I belong.Most of all I feel most acutely, that I have no Father any more, no anchor as a parent.
    I am disorentated,
    John Monaghan

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