The highly anticipated and now much discussed post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia struck me as mostly workmanlike. That’s not to dismiss the importance of the text, or to overlook significant passages. Nor is it to suggest that I disagree strongly with anything much that is actually in the text, which I see as a sort of strategic (if sincere) pause in a now wearying series of Synods and ecclesial skirmishes.
I confess I found it curious that a document so focused on what is sacred in creation and so cosmic about the Catholic Faith not only failed to draw upon a stunning Christological passage such as Colossians 1:15-20, but hardly quotes or alludes to Scripture at all (I count three short quotes in the 16,000 word document). And yet there are copious amounts of poetry, and a quote: “Only poetry, with its humble voice, will be able to save this world.” I love great poetry as much or more than most, but even I question such poetic overreach.
In many ways, I’ve been more intrigued by responses to Querida Amazonia than I have been by the document itself.
Of course, it is not the absence of Scripture that caught the attention of most readers, but the absence of open support for relaxation on the Latin rite disciplines regarding married men being ordained priests. Writing in The Guardian, Catherine Pepinster, former editor of The Tablet, expressed her clear frustration, saying that “Francis dealt the liberals a blow,” having “turned down the opportunity to recommend married priests as the solution to a shortage of priests in the Amazon region – despite the wishes of Amazon bishops. Those bishops had also called for the church to let women serve within the clergy, but Francis offered no such change.” In doing so, she concludes, “The man from the ends of the Earth has proved to be a disruptive figure in ways that no one expected.”
Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., insisted that he was disappointed but not surprised by the exhortation, correctly noting (in my estimation), “Francis did not say yes to married priests, but neither did he really say no.” But he later lets out some disgruntled progressivism when he writes, “His arguments against women deacons were disappointing and patriarchal. … He calls for more recognition of women’s roles in the church — and I agree — but why not go all the way and ordain women?” The answer to that questions, says Reese, is found in the “synodal process”, and he finds solace in thinking Francis has eschewed the methods of “previous popes” who said, “My way or the highway.”
But columnist Jamie L. Manson, also writing in the National Catholic Reporter, is having none of it, flatly stating: “Perhaps no one was less surprised last week than I was when Pope Francis’ Querida Amazonia showed no openness to a female diaconate, and instead was laden with the language of gender complementarity in its discussion of women.” She goes on to suggest that while the Holy Spirit had spoken clearly at the Amazonian synod, the men involved were not listening closely enough. She quotes Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami as remarking, “The synod is about the action of the Holy Spirit and discernment of the Holy Spirit. And if there is no Holy Spirit, there is no discernment.” Manson then says, with obvious irritation:
But I was at the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, and it seemed to me and many others who were listening that the Holy Spirit was speaking loudly and clearly, particularly on the issue of empowering women.
Massimo Faggioli, who often flirts with a hermeneutic of discontinuity, is equally agitated, brusquely condemning the document for committing that most (ahem) egregious sin: upholding “more a pre-conciliar than conciliar or post-conciliar theology of the ordained ministry” and putting, as did John Paul II, “great emphasis on what the laity can do works to preserve the clerical system just as it is.” It is apparent that Faggioli views the exhortation as a sort of betrayal, concluding, “The moment is a crossroads for the Francis pontificate.”
Perhaps the most interesting, even surprising, commentary from the the opposite end of the spectrum came from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, let go by Francis as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the summer of 2017, who described the pope’s exhortation as “a Document of Reconciliation” and says, “The Pope does not want to fuel existing political, ethnic and inner-Church conflicts and conflicts of interest, but rather to overcome them.” He then insists that this reconciling approach be the “hermeneutic” that should guide all readers of good will, and that this hermeneutic “is not characterized by dialecticism, but on the basis of analogy.”
That remark is notable because Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., widely recognized as one of Pope Francis’ closest and most trusted collaborators, says the exact opposite in a lengthy commentary at La Civiltà Cattolica, arguing that Francis’ approach to conflicting views and solutions is to engage a dialectical approach that seeks a “superior synthesis”:
This dialectical approach to reality is a criterion of action for Francis, a fundamental element for pastoral discernment: not to annul one dialectical pole in favor of the other, but to find a superior solution that does not lose the energy and strength of the elements that are in opposition. … Francis’ criterion is truly fundamental and makes explicit his way of proceeding, which is not to annul the conflict, but to assume it and overcome it in a superior synthesis.
He further writes, “The key word of the ecclesial dream is inculturation. Francis repeats it about twenty times.” Spadaro’s reading is a strong one, as Evangelii Gaudium, Francis’ 2013 exhortation on evangelization, strongly insists on forms of “synthesis”. There, Francis states, “The challenge of an inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values. Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart. The difference between enlightening people with a synthesis and doing so with detached ideas is like the difference between boredom and heartfelt fervour” (par 143).
This is echoed in Querida Amazonia, which states, “Indeed, the kerygma and fraternal charity constitute the great synthesis of the whole content of the Gospel, to be proclaimed unceasingly in the Amazon region” (par 65) and:
For the Church to achieve a renewed inculturation of the Gospel in the Amazon region, she needs to listen to its ancestral wisdom, listen once more to the voice of its elders, recognize the values present in the way of life of the original communities, and recover the rich stories of its peoples. (par 70)
This emphasis on inculturation brings us to a final commentator. Writing for The Tablet, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh takes a tack that parallels Spadaro, arguing that “in a context of polarisation in the Church the mistake is to try to resolve it by allowing one side to defeat the other. Rather, by patiently and attentively holding together the polarity – positions that pull in a different direction – the leader allows for the possibility of a ‘third way’ that the Holy Spirit offers.” Put simply, Ivereigh sees Querida Amazonia as an example of Francis’ genius at synthesizing conflicting visions and approaches.
He indicates that Francis was frustrated with the focus on the so-called “viri probati—a frustration that Francis shared directly with some American bishops. Of course, the push for a relaxation on priestly celibacy did not come out of the blue, nor did it arrive lately; it had been a focus right from the start of the Amazonian synod, which seemed to many, including myself, to have all of the organic spontaneity of a root canal.
Regardless, it is Ivereigh, in presenting his apologia for Francis’ approach and text, who makes what is to me the most startling and problematic of statements:
To focus too much on internal church questions, however, is to miss the real point of the Pope’s remarkable exhortation. The mission comes before the Church, which is a means not an end. The mission is the inculturation of the Gospel. As the Gospel spreads, the hermeneutic (the way the world is seen) changes. For Francis, the battleground is between two hermeneutics.
This is troubling, as it asserts, quite blatantly, a very faulty ecclesiology. In short: the mission does not come before the Church, because the Church—the Mystical Body of Christ and the Household of God—is herself the mission in this world; the Church is not a means to an end, but is, as the Catechism states, “[T]he goal of all things”; the Catechism goes even further: “The world was created for the sake of the Church” (par 760); thirdly, the mission is not inculturation of the Gospel, but the Gospel, period:
The Lord’s missionary mandate is ultimately grounded in the eternal love of the Most Holy Trinity: “The Church on earth is by her nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, she has as her origin the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in their Spirit of love. (CCC, 850)
More to this: “Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church'” (par 760), for the Church is “the world reconciled” (par 845).
Ivereigh’s deficient ecclesiology is certainly utilitarian; it also smacks of what Pope Pius XII, in Mystici Corporis Christi, called “popular naturalism”, which “sees and wills to see in the Church nothing but a juridical and social union” (par 9). It certainly falls well short of the grand—yes, cosmic—vision articulated so well in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium.
Which brings me to this conclusion: If Ivereigh has correctly identified and articulated “the real point of the Pope’s remarkable exhortation,” then we will soon be wishing to go back to arguments over celibacy and the priesthood, which is relatively small potatoes compared to such a woeful understanding of the Church.
On the other hand, if Ivereigh is wrong about this bold claim, then why should he be taken seriously as a theological guide to the thought of Pope Francis?
The progressive German bishops thought they could run ahead of Francis and pursue a “synodal path”, apparently confident there would be no repercussions. Many of the bishops at the Amazonian synod thought they could push for married priests and perhaps even deaconesses, assuming Francis was happy to oblige. More than a few commentators believed Francis was going to check off on all of their pet progressive causes, seeing him as a fellow ideologue. And many obviously feel the need to explain why Francis didn’t do what they wanted or expected, even though he didn’t do what they wanted and expected. What all of them seem to have overlooked is that Francis—for good and for ill—is his own man and is, I’m quite convinced, more concerned with loyalty to him than to this cause or that project, no matter how sympathetic he might be to those causes and projects. It turns out that being more Francis than the pope is a good way to be reminded that Francis is the pope.
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