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Eighty years ago, on October 1, 1939, a month after the German invasion of Poland launched World War II in Europe, Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, made a radio broadcast on the Chamberlain government’s war strategy, during which he famously described Russia (which had also invaded Poland on September 17, 1939) as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

The same might be said about the synodal Special Assembly on Amazonia, which was formally opened by Pope Francis on Sunday, October 6, at a Mass in St. Peter’s in the Vatican.

As its double-barreled title—“New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology—suggests, Synod-2019 has, on the surface, a dual focus: the pastoral life of the Church in a vast region of Latin America, and the environmental issues raised by development efforts in “Amazonia.” The tacit concession implied by the synod’s title is that evangelization in Amazonia has been something of a failure, despite the fact that the Church has been active in Latin America for over half a millennium (and despite the Latin American Church’s recommitment to a grand strategy of vigorous evangelization at the Aparecida Conference of Latin American bishops in 2007, in which a leading role was played by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, of Buenos Aires—who is now, of course, Pope Francis). The tacit proposal inside the synod’s title is that a robust Catholic response to Amazonia’s ecological challenges is something of a prerequisite for the evangelization of the area. Whether the next three weeks of synod “interventions” (addresses to the entire synod membership, which includes 184 bishops and some 70 advisers and consultants) and small-group discussions succeeds in bringing the Amazonian Synod’s two focal points into alignment remains to be seen–as it remains to be seen precisely how these October deliberations and the synod’s final report shape the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation that Pope Francis will issue; recent experience suggests that the connection between synod and post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation can be tenuous.

But as the sharp debate preceding Synod-2019 ought to have made clear, much more will be going on in Rome over the next three weeks than debates about evangelization, environmentalism, and their possible connection.

The Pre-Synod Scrum

The debates within a synod of bishops are framed by its Instrumentum Laboris (working document, or IL). And while the working documents for the synods of 2014, 2015, and 2018 were subject to criticism, the Catholic Church has rarely seen anything like the scorn heaped on the IL for Synod-2019.

Some senior churchmen flatly pronounced the IL heretical: an exercise in Gaia-worship that had little to do with Christianity and far too much to do with the wooliest elements of contemporary eco-theology, one of the many variants on the theologies of liberation that caused such an uproar in the Catholic Church in the 1970s and 1980s. Others found the IL an oversized word salad displaying an incontinent affection for politicized gobbledygook. (Canadian author David Warren lifted out of the IL some of its riper expressions: “Agro-industrial mono-cultivation … ideological colonialisms … neo-colonialism of the extractive industries … mercantilist vision, … colonizing mentalities … networks of solidarity and inter-culturality … xenophobia and criminalization of migrants and displaced persons … victims of a ferocious neocolonialism, … colonizing project … ferocious neocolonialism.” All of which, Warren noted, were flowing down “the Amazon, the mother and father river of all.”)

Then there was the debate over the IL’s proposal that the synod discuss the possibility of ordaining viri probati (trusted married men) to the priesthood in response to what was claimed to be Amazonia’s severe sacramental deficit, with some Catholic communities only able to celebrate the Eucharist once or twice a year. One of the synod’s key organizers, the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes (who will also serve as the synod’s “Relator General”), has long been an advocate of ordaining viri probati (although he prudently dropped the subject after being appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy under Pope Benedict XVI). In a pre-synod press conference obviously aimed at meeting some of the criticisms that had been directed to the IL, Hummes claimed that this proposal emerged from “the voice of the local Church,” but did not explain how the ordination of minimally-prepared indigenous elders, solely for the celebration of sacramental rites, would distinguish these Catholic priests from local shamans in the minds and hearts of the unevangelized. 

Then there was the debate over what struck some as the IL’s too-effusive embrace of indigenous religions, which seemed to suggest that indigenous religions contained far more than what the Church had traditionally described as semina Verbi, seeds of the Word that, in divine providence, could prepare the ground for genuine Christian evangelization. This concern was not assuaged when, a few days before the synod, what was described as an “indigenous ecological ritual” was celebrated in the Vatican gardens by Amazonians. The “ritual” included a male fertility totem with a distinctively male, er, profile; the entire exercise seemed to surprise Pope Francis, watching it at a distance. He declined to give his prepared address and left abruptly after reciting the Lord’s Prayer. 

At the same press conference at which Cardinal Hummes spoke, the General Secretary of the synod of bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, made an interesting attempt to deflect attention from the IL his office had issued, claiming that it, like previous synodal working documents, was really a “martyr document,” written to be superseded by the synod’s final report. That may have struck some as reassuring; it certainly raised eyebrows among others who remembered with some asperity that Cardinal Baldisseri had insisted that the much-criticized IL for Synod-2018 was part of that synod’s permanent record. 

The Issues Beneath the Issues

The viri probati issue will be the most mediagenic at the synod, but the debate over the IL and eco-theology with which it is redolent raise some very fundamental issues for Christian orthodoxy. Among them are several noted by the Canadian theologian Douglas Farrow of McGill University, who saw in the IL an expression of concerns about its theological direction that had been raised throughout the present pontificate: 

♦ Does the IL and the theology underlying it substitute for divine revelation a self-referentiality in which we are a revelation to ourselves?

♦ How does the IL’s discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the peoples of Amazonia square with the Holy Spirit who guides the Church—for the IL seems to propose a Holy Spirit disconnected from Christ, the incarnate Word of God? 

♦ Doesn’t the IL’s tendency to place Christianity alongside, even “within,” human religiosity mean a rejection of the Cross? And if so, doesn’t that mean that what is being proposed is not a way of grace but a 21st-century way of works-righteousness?

♦ Where is the Great Commission in all this, and how does the IL’s eagerness for doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral experimentation square with the dominical injunction to teach “all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20)? 

♦ Where, if anywhere, is the bright line between the IL’s insistence on “synodality” and a Protestant ecclesiology that erodes the universal authority of the Church in faith, morals, and worship, so that the boundary between Catholicism and not-Catholicism becomes so porous (as in liberal Protestant denominations) as to be virtually invisible?

To which one might add:

♦ Are there elements of indigenous Amazonian religiosity that are contrary to the letter and spirit of the gospel and must be identified as such in any true evangelization of Amazonia?

♦ Are the IL’s references to the Earth as a living being that “speaks” to us far too close for comfort to a pantheism that denies the reality of the God of the Bible? 

♦ Why, when the people of Amazonia are said to “speak” to the Church during a multi-year pre-synodal listening period, do these indigenous reflections speak in the accents of German theology and Western preoccupations?  

And on the empirical/historical side of things:

♦ What is the evidence that Amazonia is a Catholic region being denied the Eucharist because of a lack of priests? Would it not be more accurate to say that Amazonia is a territory crying out for evangelization, which is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community, not just its clergy, as the Aparecida Document and Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) insisted?

♦ What is the relationship between Amazonia’s priest-deficit and the historic reluctance of white clergy of Spanish or Portuguese origin to work with indigenous peoples?

In Sum

Whatever its declared purpose, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region is going to expose, in what one expects will be a heightened way, theological and indeed doctrinal tensions within Catholicism that have roiled the Church for the past half-century—many of which were once thought resolved, but which have been resuscitated over the past six and a half years. In this sense, the Amazonian Synod will be yet another battle in the war over the proper interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and its call to engage the modern world in order to convert it to the truth of God in Christ, which is also the truth about our humanity and its destiny. Given the way in which the correlation of forces in Synod-2019 has been arranged by Synod General Secretary Baldisseri to his satisfaction, there may be little doubt as to how the battle will unfold over the next three weeks. But that by no means will suggest that the larger struggle over Vatican II’s legacy has been resolved; it will, however, sharpen the world Church’s understanding of what is involved in that struggle, which is nothing less than the integrity of Catholic faith and the Church’s obedience to its Lord’s command to teach all that he commanded. 

- Xavier Rynne II

A Note to Readers

Unlike its predecessors—Letters from the Synod-2015, Letters from the Synod-2018, and Letters from the Vatican during the February 2019 abuse summit—these Letters will not appear on a daily basis, but as occasion demands during the course of Synod-2019. Your editor is deeply grateful to his colleagues at First Things in New York, at the Catholic Herald in London, and at the Catholic Weekly in Sydney for their collaboration. Readers throughout the Anglosphere are encouraged to watch their websites for future Letters from Synod-2019, and for other information about what’s afoot in Rome in October 2019. XR II

Photo by lubasi via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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