Catholicism has been in South America for 500 years. Having apparently failed to convert and serve the “indigenous peoples” of the Amazon, who reside in nine of the continent’s thirteen countries, the Catholic Church has now proclaimed in the Final Report of the Amazon Synod that it will undertake its own “conversion” to the cultures, religions, lands, and traditions of those peoples.
The conversion of the worldwide Church through the Amazon
After a self-congratulatory introduction that the Synod was marked by “applause, singing, and deep contemplative silences,” the Final Report announces the “comprehensive conversion” of the Church to a “new paradigm of integral ecology.” The goal, based on “Amazonian indigenous peoples,” is “living in harmony with oneself, with nature, with human beings and with the supreme being” (lower case) and the “relationships” of “water, territory and nature, community life and culture” to “God and the various spiritual forces.” This is an “integral conversion,” the four “dimensions” of which are developed in the rest of the Report: pastoral, cultural, ecological, and synodal.
In a preliminary statement, however, the Report vociferously lists its grievances, criticisms, and accusations against those who have turned the Amazon into a “wounded and deformed beauty, a place of pain and violence” and the “victims” they have created. The “attacks” and “threats” against the life of the Amazon are many and include “the influence of Western Civilization” as well as “the new colonizing powers” who are now following on “the greed and ambition” of the old colonizers, the privatization of natural resources, and construction of “non-sustainable” development projects. And “behind” these are “economic and political interests of the dominant sectors.” This accusing and judging of others continues throughout the Report.
Aside from two references to poverty in the Scriptures, and the citing, of course, of St. Francis of Assisi, the source and basis of the stated goals and intentions of the Report are Pope Francis’ ecological encyclical, Laudatio Si (2015), in addition to “the voice of the Amazon.” And the authority of Laudatio Si, as well as Evangelii Gaudium (2013) predominates throughout the Report from beginning to end. And that is in keeping with the several public statements of Francis insisting that the Synod is about Laudatio Si. The phrases “integral ecology” and “ecological conversion” come from Laudatio Si (137, 143). But the Synod’s Final Report is a comprehensive and detailed application of those concepts to the Amazon – and inevitably to the world-wide Church.
The four “dimensions” of the conversion of the Church
First, the Church must undergo “a pastoral conversion” of “listening and announcement” to “the multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-religious reality of the Amazon” for the goal of “the defense of life, the integrity of creation, peace, the common good.” The overwhelming emphasis is on “listening.” The Church will then “announce” what it has learned from listening to the Amazon. As for any other kind of “announcing,” perhaps something like, be “steadfast in the teachings of the apostles,” (Acts 2:42), no announcing of that kind appears anywhere in the Final Report. The Report neither preaches nor teaches.
What is required is an “open dialogue” with “the multiplicity of interlocutors,” Christian (including Pentecostals), and non-Christian, “popular social movements and the State.” This pastoral section of the Report heavily stresses appeal to youth who are demanding that they be “respected” and who are undergoing a “crisis of values” affecting their “self-esteem.” The Report thus analyzes Amazonian youth in the regular language of Western personal and educational self-referential humanism, which brings up the question of what is really “indigenous” or unique about the Amazon.
Second, the Church must undergo a “new cultural conversion.” Learning from “the other,” the Church must live and practice “inculturation,” that is, “the introduction of these cultures in the life of the Church.” Such cultures are based in “popular piety,” which includes not only Marian devotions, but also “nonclerical brotherhoods,” “Indian theology,” and “Amazonian-faced theology.” Rejected is “an evangelization of colonialist style.” Any evangelization must not be “confused with proselytism.” In order to “systematize the traditions of the Amazonian ethnic groups” and promote “the Latin American cultural scene,” new Amazonian educational and communication institutions are proposed.
The next two “conversions” of the Church, ecological conversion and synodal conversion, are the main thrust and heart of the Final Report. “Ecological conversion” is not only needed; it is mandatory. In this “structural” conversion, the Church is called on to “unlearn, learn, and relearn, and especially disassociate itself from the past “colonizing models.” This ecological conversion is not limited to the Amazonian Church, for the Amazon is the key to the worldwide ecology and its “tremendous consequences for our planet.” Indeed, the Amazon lands themselves are the physical and geographic key to the “balance of the planet’s climate.” As the Report insists, quoting Laudatio Si, “integral ecology” means that “everything is intimately related” (LS 16), and, therefore, “ecology and social justice are intrinsically linked” (LS 137).
In Laudatio Si, Francis had asserted that sin “is manifest” in “attacks on nature,” (66), that “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion” which includes the recognition of our “sins, faults, and failures” (218), and that, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God” (8).
Now, the Amazon Synod goes farther and “proposes” to define “ecological sin” as “an action or omission against God, against others, the community and the environment. It is a sin against future generations and manifests itself in acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment, transgressions against the principles of interdependence and the breaking of solidarity networks among creatures and against the virtue of justice.”
This is obviously more than failing to recycle. And with its inclusion of “justice,” this new, comprehensive mega-sin almost seems to incorporate all “old” sins, except perhaps the sexual sins.
Fourth and finally, the high-visibility issues of married priests and of some kind of orders for women are part of the “synodal conversion” of the Church. “Synodality” is “a style of living communion and participation in local churches” and focuses on how to “structure local churches in each region and country.” Calling it “an ancient word,” the Report attempts to place the origin of “synod” in the Scriptures. But no routine translations of the five citations given by the Report use the English word “synod” or its concept (Jn. 14:6; Acts 9:2, 15, 18:25; and Cor. 12:12). In fact, the International Theological Commission’s March 2018 study titled “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church” acknowledged, “Although synodality is not explicitly found as a term or as a concept in the teaching of Vatican II, it is fair to say that synodality is at the heart of the work of renewal the Council was encouraging” (par 6).
In fact, the office of the Synod of Bishops did not exist before it was created by Pope Pius VI after Vatican II as a body advisory to the Pope. In 2018, Francis expanded its power and significance by decreeing in his Episcopalis Communio that the conclusions of a particular Synod “participate in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter once they have been ratified and promulgated by him.” (Art. 18, 19). The Final Report holds that “synodality” must be “de-centralized,” although “without weakening the bond” to the “universal Church.” (92). From the beginning and in his first major document, Evangelium Gaudiam (2013), Francis has promoted synodality: “I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’” (16).
Married priests, women, and an Amazonian rite
Nothing is said in the Report about why there is a priest shortage – 500 years after the introduction of Catholicism into South America – in the Amazon or whether the Church in or the bishops of the Amazon are in any way responsible.
Indeed, such “no-fault” avoidance of blameworthiness and lack of self-examination has been characteristic of all the documents of all the synods of the Francis papacy, In the Final Report, no comparisons are made to the numerous places in the world – Alaska, for instance, with its similar geographic distances and problems of access – where there are priest shortages. Regardless, the advocacy for married priests is solved and established by the short and simple declaration in the Report that there is “a right to have the Eucharistic celebration.” There is no elaboration on this break with the entire history of the Latin Church. And it is impossible to find anyone of whatever opinion engaged in public discussion or writing, who purports to hold that the issue of married priests is or will be limited to the Amazon, and the Report itself endorses the obviousness of that. The Report closes out its discussion of the issue by coyly saying that “some” participants at the Synod “spoke for a universal approach to the issue” (111).
There are married priests in the Eastern rites of the Church and there are a handful of former Anglican priests who are married, but some level of clerical orders for women is of course unprecedented. The Report devotes much more attention with more forceful language to that question than it does to married priests. It is the “hour” of the woman, and “Mother Earth has a female face.” Women must be admitted into the “leadership” of and allowed to participate in the “decision-making” of the Church. The issue of married priests is found in only one spot in the Report, but women are a pervasive theme and are mentioned throughout the passages dealing with all four of the necessary conversions of the Church. The “ministries” of the Church must be distributed in “an equitable way,” among men and women. Specifically, “among others to be developed,” women should “receive the ministries of Readers and Acolytes.” A new ministry of “woman directress of the community” at the local level should be instituted. In “many” of the consultations in preparation for the Amazon synod, “the Permanent Diaconate was requested for women.”
And this was “already” an issue for the Church, the Report says, citing Francis’s 2016 creation of a commission to study women deacons. And in keeping with the “victimization” and the accusing-of-others theme of the Report, an additional rationale for the admission of women into orders is the “reality suffered by women victims of physical, moral and religious violence.” Thus, the Reports speak of the role of women in the Church by using the standard terms of Western feminism: equity, power, victimization.
The “Amazonian communities” are “petition[ing]” the Church “to adapt the liturgy,” as purportedly allowed by the “liturgical pluralism” of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium. The new “Amazonian rite” would “express” an “Amazonian liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony” and be based on a “sense of decentralization and collegiality.” The Report references the 23 rites of the Church, all of which celebrate the Eucharist according to the Latin/Western rite or the various but similar Eastern Rites. But none of those 23 “autonomous churches” within the Church have a “new” rite. All are of ancient origin; no rite has have ever been invented. Over the centuries, their acceptances by the Church have been based on their ancient origins. In the words of Lumen Gentium (23), the Catholic Church has come to recognize “various churches established in diverse places by the apostles and their successors.”
The new, converted Church
The Amazon Synod’s Working Document of June 2019 called for the “possibility” of married priests, and the Synod’s Preparatory Document of March 2019 had pointed in the same direction. With the Final Report of the Synod explicitly advocating married priests, how is Francis supposed to respond? Make the same point for the fourth time or do something about it?
Likewise, it is “the hour” of women. Just as for married priests, the groundwork has been laid. The time for action appears to be now. It seems impossible that Francis would not inaugurate some level of clerical orders for women, perhaps up to the diaconate.
The Final Report calls for the creating of several new institutions the organization and maintenance of which would obviously require a great deal of money. Among several to be built: a global fund to directly subsidize Amazonian communities as a means of paying the world’s debt to them for their central role in the world’s ecology, an Amazon Catholic University, a multi-disciplinary educational website, a permanent episcopal organization that promotes synodality in the Amazon, and a “network” attending to the “political and ethical.” With the Amazon and Laudatio Si as the paradigm of the Catholic Church, it is to be presumed that a new worldwide collection for these efforts will be established.
The 2018 youth synod together with Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution, Episcopalis communio, made the Church “synodal.” Now a limited number of bishops from a limited locale of the Church has promulgated the agenda for the “synodal conversion” of the worldwide Church.
(The Vatican has released the Final Report only in Spanish but has not posted even that version on its website. The author has used two different English translations, including Zenit’s, as has been made available through various websites.)
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