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There has been considerable venting about “neo-colonialism” in the first week of Synod-2019, the neo-colonialists in question being various businesses, often headquartered outside the Amazon region, which are involved in economic development projects in Amazonia. And no doubt some of those enterprises expose a face of private enterprise that needs refreshing and, in some cases, a major face-lift. At the same time, denunciations of “neo-colonialism” from churchmen who are rather comfortably placed can have something of a strange ring to it; the poor of Amazonia need the economic opportunity that will come from properly functioning and regulated free enterprise far more than they need homilies cast in the old vocabulary of politicized liberation theologies.

There is, however, another “neo-colonialism” evident at Synod-2019, and it involves matters closer to the Catholic Church’s specific competence—and indeed closer to the Church’s basic mission. It’s the neo-colonialism of dumbed-down expectations compounded by the imposition of First World preoccupations on Third World societies, shaken and stirred by a view of indigenous religiosity that is far more redolent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Margaret Mead than of biblical revelation.

Elements of this ideological neo-colonialism were on display at the synodal press briefing on October 9, which featured Bishop Erwin Kräutler, C.PP.S., an octogenarian Missionary of the Precious Blood from Austria, who is bishop emeritus of the territorial prelature of Xingu in northeastern Brazil. Ever since the release of Synod-2019’s Instrumentum Laboris, Bishop Kräutler has claimed a measure of credit for many of its ideas, and at the press conference he vigorously flogged one of his favorite themes, stating “with great sincerity, [that] there is no other option” than the ordination of viri probati (mature married men, presumably village or tribal elders) as priests to celebrate the sacraments in Amazonia. That Bishop Kräutler should take this line was no surprise; what was striking was the rationale he offered: “The indigenous people do not understand celibacy. For them, at least those I have met . . . they cannot understand this thing that a man is not married, that he does not have a woman taking care of the house, of the home.”

Thus did a thoroughly neo-colonialist view of the intellectual and imaginative capacities of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon (“they cannot understand”) meet some good old-fashioned gender stereotyping (“a woman taking care of the house”).

On first reading Bishop Kräutler’s comments, the first thing that came to mind was the second reading in the Office of Readings for the Memorial of St. Peter Claver, the 17th-century Spanish Jesuit who gave his life in service to African slaves in the New Kingdom of Granada (today’s Colombia). Claver is estimated to have baptized some 300,000 slaves, and his reflection on his ministry in a letter sent back to Europe is worth quoting in full:

Yesterday, May 30, 1627, on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, numerous blacks, brought from the rivers of Africa, disembarked from a large ship. Carrying two baskets of oranges, lemons, sweet biscuits, and I know not what else, we hurried toward them. When we approached their quarters, we thought we were entering another Guinea. We had to force our way through the crowd until we reached the sick. Large numbers of the sick were lying on the wet ground or rather in puddles of mud. To prevent excessive dampness, someone had thought of building up a mound with a mixture of tiles and broken pieces of bricks. This, then, was their couch, a very uncomfortable one not only for that reason, but especially because they were naked, without any clothing to protect them.

We laid aside our cloaks, therefore, and brought from a warehouse whatever was handy to build a platform. In that way we covered a space to which we at last transferred the sick, by forcing a passage through bands of slaves. Then we divided the sick into two groups: one group my companion approached with an interpreter, while I addressed the other group. There were two blacks, nearer death than life, already cold, whose pulse could scarcely be detected. With the help of a tile we pulled some live coals together and placed them in the middle near the dying men. Into this fire we tossed aromatics. Of these we had two wallets full, and we used them all up on this occasion. Then, using our own cloaks, for they had nothing of this sort, and to ask the owners for others would have been a waste of words, we provided for them a smoke treatment, by which they seemed to recover their warmth and the breath of life. The joy in their eyes as they looked at us was something to see.

This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions. And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought here to be eaten, any other language would have proved utterly useless. Then we sat, or rather knelt, beside them and bathed their faces and bodies with wine. We made every effort to encourage them with friendly gestures and displayed in their presence the emotions which somehow naturally tend to hearten the sick. 

After this we began an elementary instruction about baptism, that is, the wonderful effects of the sacrament on body and soul. When by their answers to our questions they showed they had sufficiently understood this, we went on to a more extensive instruction, namely, about the one God, who rewards and punishes each one according to his merit, and the rest. We asked them to make an act of contrition and to manifest their detestation of their sins. Finally, when they appeared sufficiently prepared, we declared to them the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Passion. Showing them Christ fastened to the cross, as he is depicted on the baptismal font on which streams of blood flow down from his wounds, we led them in reciting an act of contrition in their own language.

Bishop Kräutler spent thirty-four years, from 1981 to 2015, in what must have been a very difficult and challenging episcopal ministry, for which sacrifice he deserves full marks. Nonetheless, his attitude toward indigenous peoples starkly contrasts with Peter Claver’s. The contemporary Austrian missionary, Bishop Kräutler, claims that indigenous peoples do not, and presumably cannot, understand celibacy, a discipline directly related to the gospel concept of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God—and indeed to the exemplification of that in the life of the Lord Jesus. The 17th-century Spanish missionary, Father Claver, believed that even the most hard-pressed and ill-educated people could grasp essential truths about “the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Passion,” the meaning of “sin” and “confession,” and the superabundance of divine grace available through a humble embrace of the Cross of Christ.

Which of these two missionaries speaks more powerfully to the heart and mind of the first Jesuit to be elected Bishop of Rome? That is certainly one question to ponder as Synod-2019 unfolds, and as the Church awaits Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

Synod-2019’s second and third weeks will likely take up the complex question of the “inculturation” of the gospel in Amazonia. The Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris displayed a very positive—some would say, highly uncritical—view of indigenous religions, so among the questions that ought to be discussed in both the synod general assembly and the synod’s language-based discussion groups is whether there are elements of indigenous religion in Amazonia that are incompatible with Christianity—the answer to which question should bear on proposals for an “Amazonian” adaption of the liturgy. (For one striking description of the challenges at the farther limits of “inculturation” in Amazonia, the synod Fathers might consult Beth Conklin’s study of the postmortem rituals of the Wari’ people of the western Amazonian rainforest, Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, published by the University of Texas Press and hailed by one reviewer as “a classic, an ethnography of exceptional depth and clarity by an anthropologist whose sensitivity and insight are apparent on every page.”)

As the discussion of the religious salience of indigenous pieties unfolds at Synod-2019, it would be helpful to keep in mind something pointed out to me recently by my longtime friend and former colleague Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, editor of The Catholic Thing, and a knowledgeable student of Latin American affairs who is conversant in both Spanish and Portuguese. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, Dr. Royal pointed out, was a secular man with little affection for the Catholic Church. But in parsing the cultural development of Mexico in a book entitled The Buried Mirror, Fuentes observed that it was quite a dramatic, even astonishing, event—one that was decisive for the development of Mexico’s rich and complex culture—when Catholic missionaries announced to the indigenous population a God who sacrifices himself (in the person of his Son) for human beings, in stark contrast to the indigenous gods who demanded the sacrifice of (often living) human beings.

If Carlos Fuentes could grasp that, surely the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region can.           

 —George Weigel


At a news conference in Rome the week before Synod-2019, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, was at pains to insist (with reference to the impending synod) that “now, more than ever, there’s freedom of expression” in the Church. The cardinal’s view was dutifully amplified by Robert Mickens of  La Croix International, who wrote that “Pope Francis has completely transformed the Synod of Bishops from a rubber-stamping body with a tightly controlled agenda dictated by the Roman Curia into a protected space for deep discernment and fearless debate that takes place after widespread and ongoing consultation with the People of God.” One understands the impulse to defend one’s side in today’s Catholic debates; but these descriptions of recent synod practice and experience do prompt the thought, “Mr. Orwell, call your office.”

One remembers the interim report during Synod-2014, prepared by the synod general secretariat, which so blatantly misrepresented the discussions that had taken place during that synod’s first days that it created an uproar among the synod Fathers and the de facto rejection of the interim report.

One remembers the procedures originally decreed for Synod-2015, which seemed so incompatible with genuine debate, and so lacking in a mechanism for determining the mind of the synod, that a group of thirteen cardinals wrote Pope Francis, asking him to alter the procedures to permit both a real exchange of views and a determinative expression, by votes on propositions, of the synod Fathers’ judgments (both of which requests, it should be noted, the pope granted).

One remembers the flawed process that characterized both Synod-2015 and Synod- 2018, at which drafts of the Final Report on which the synod Fathers were to vote were not circulated in a timely fashion, and then only in Italian, Cardinal Baldisseri vociferously objecting to translations and harrumphing after a stormy session in 2018 that “the next time, it will be in Latin!”

It is certainly true that very few churchmen have been happy with the way synods have been conducted over the past half-century, since the institution of the Synod of Bishops was created by Pope Paul VI. There have been improvements in recent decades, including more time spent in language-based discussion groups, which tend to facilitate a degree of honest exchange that is difficult in the synod’s general assemblies (which feature a disconnected series of four- or five-minute “interventions” or speeches, with little back-and-forth). But it is preposterous to suggest that the current synod process involves a great turn toward open debate and “deep discernment”; the synods of 2014, 2015, and 2018 were obviously orchestrated, if not manipulated, to achieve the result that the synod general secretariat wanted from the outset—an orchestration intensified in 2018 by quiet warnings to Third World bishops not to get involved with American bishops, said to be “against the Pope” (which was a lie).

Synod-2019 will suffer from the same structural deficiencies of its predecessors, and more than a few members of the synod will find themselves nodding off during the lengthy speechmaking in the Synod Hall. (The late Cardinal Francis George once said, of his brother-cardinal Karl Lehmann, “I don’t mind that he sleeps; we all do. But he snores!”) This year’s synodal process will be even more flawed, however, by the fact that churchmen critical of the preparatory process for Synod-2019 have been excluded from the synod itself , and by what seems to have been the selection of synod delegates to avoid any serious challenge to the themes in the synod’s oft-criticized working document, the Instrumentum Laboris.

To honor the principles of “synodality” and “collegiality,” and to give our readership a sense of the kind of robust debate that might have occurred at Synod-2019, had such a debate really been sought by the synod’s organizers, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2019 herewith offers two “debates,” drawn from pre-synod commentaries and interviews, so that some of the serious issues engaged here in Rome this month might be seen in wider focus, rather than through the myopic lens created by the synod general secretariat.

The participants in these “debates” include (among those present at Synod-2019), Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, the emeritus archbishop of São Paulo and the synod’s General Relator or Rapporteur, and (among the uninvited) Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, emeritus archbishop of Caracas, and Bishop José Luis Azcona, a native of Spain who served as a missionary bishop in the Amazon region for twenty-nine years, from 1987 until retirement in 2016. Best thanks to our colleagues at CRUX NOW, the Catholic News Agency, and Die Tagespost for the interviews and stories from which these excerpts are drawn, and to Charles Paternina for a translation of Bishop Azcona’s interview with Die Tagespost. [Xavier Rynne II]

Debate 1. On reading the signs of the times in Amazonia. 

Cardinal Hummes:

“Ours is a Church that is aware that its religious mission, in keeping with its faith in Jesus Christ, inevitably involves ‘care of the common home.’ This bond also proves that the cries of the land and those of the poor in this region are one and the same.

“This synod is held within the context of a serious and urgent climatic and ecological crisis, which involves our entire planet. The plant is experiencing galloping devastation, depredation, and degradation of Earth’s resources, all fostered by a globalized, predatory, and devastating technocratic paradigm. . . . The Earth cannot take this any more.”

[And the threats in Amazonia with which the synod must contend, as summarized from the cardinal’s remarks by CRUX?]

  • Criminalization and assassination of leaders and defenders of the territory.
  • Appropriations and privatization of natural goods such as water.
  • Predatory hunting and fishing, mainly in rivers.
  • Mega-projects, such as hydroelectric and forest concessions, logging for monocultural production, construction of roads and highways, or mining and oil projects.
  • Pollution caused by the entire extractive industry that causes problems and diseases, especially among children and young people.
  • Drug trafficking.
  • Resulting social problems associated with these threats such as alcoholism, violence against women, sex work, human trafficking, loss of original culture and identity, and conditions of poverty.

[And thus the “core issues” for the Synod, again summarized by CRUX from the cardinal’s opening address to the synod?]

  • An outgoing Church and its new pathways in Amazonia.
  • The Church’s Amazonian face: Inculturation and inter-culturality in a missionary-ecclesial context.
  • Ministries in the Church in Amazonia: Presbyterate, diaconate, ministries and the role played by women.
  • The work done by the Church in looking after our “shared home”; listening to the Earth and to the poor; integral environmental, economic, social, and cultural ecology.
  • The Amazonian Church in the urban reality.
  • Issues concerning water.

[from Crux Now, October 7, 2019]

Cardinal Urosa:

“There is an imbalance [in the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris] because the main work of the Church is evangelization, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to all populations, both the indigenous and the urban population in the Amazon—there are millions living in cities like Manaus, Belen de Para, Iquitos, not only the indigenous in isolated areas. . . .

“The [Instrumentum Laboris] presents an almost idyllic Amazonian population, the perfect man, the noble savage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. [But these] are normal people, human beings with the same problems, virtues, and defects as all people in the whole world. And to them, too, we have to bring the Gospel.

“The [Instrumentum Laboris] talks a lot about accompanying, following, understanding, and dialoguing-with, but little about the need to announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that, in some ways, explains the reality of the growth of the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches in the region, while the Catholic faith in the Amazon is not growing with the same force.

“We must make a serious study, a good examination of the ecclesial reality of the population of the Amazon. We must ask ourselves why Evangelicals and Pentecostals grow, and the Church does not . . . 

“There is no analysis of the reality of the [Amazonian] Church [in the Instrumentum Laboris]. There is an analysis of the ecological, economic, and cultural situation, but not of the situation of the Church. Jesus Christ is not spoken of as the one who gives the explanation of the reality of man, as the Second Vatican Council teaches.

“Jesus Christ is referred to as ‘the good Samaritan.’ Jesus Christ never presented himself as the good Samaritan. The good Samaritan is the person we have to imitate by helping others. Jesus Christ presented himself as the Redeemer, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as the Resurrection, as the Light of the World. . . .”

[from Crux Now, September 25, 2019]

Bishop Azcona:

“. . . the Amazon, at least the Brazilian Amazon, is no longer Catholic . . . If the Amazon has a Pentecostal majority, it is necessary to address that reality thoroughly. Any nostalgia for an Amazon that no longer exists is fatal to its integral evangelization [today]. Even in some areas of the Amazon the Pentecostal majority reaches 80%. . . . This is today’s Amazonian face! [And] there’s not one word about this in the Instrumentum Laboris.”

“Unfortunately the Synod doesn’t know, or knowing doesn’t understand, the significance, for the present and the future of the Amazon, of the faces of the anguished, re-victimized, and denigrated children, [abused] by their own parents and relatives, subjected to a slavery that forms an essential part of the abandoned and destroyed face of Jesus in the Amazon. . . . If during approximately one year there were 100,000 abused children in  [the Brazilian state of] Pará, isn’t this face of destroyed children an essential part of the Amazonian face?”

[from Catholic News Agency, August 21, 2019, and Die Tagespost]

Debate 2. On the ordination of viri probati (mature married men) for service as priests in Amazonia.

Cardinal Hummes:

“Another issue consists in the lack of priests at the service of local communities in the area, with a consequent lack of the Eucharist, at least on Sundays, as well as other sacraments. . . . This means pastoral care made up of sporadic visits instead of adequate daily pastoral care.

“Participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, at least on Sundays, is essential for the full and progressive development of Christian communities and a true experience of the Word of God in people’s lives. It will be necessary to define new paths for the future.

“During the consultation stages, local communities, missionaries, and indigenous persons, faced with the urgent need experienced by most of the Catholic communities in Amazonia, requested that the path be opened for the ordination of married men resident in their communities, albeit confirming the great importance of the charism of celibacy in the Church.”

[from CRUX NOW, October 7, 2019]

Cardinal Urosa:

“We have had in Venezuela, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, a situation of a great shortage of priests in much of the territory; however, the faith was lived and maintained. It is not just a matter of receiving or not receiving the sacraments, but of the experience of the faith that was had, that arrived through the catechists to the families, that communicated them to their children.

“The problem is not in the shortage or not of priests, but in the evangelization that can be done, not only with priests but through catechists. And that was the salvation of the Church in the plains and in [the] eastern region of Venezuela.

“The problem of the lack of priests is not the cause of the lack of growth. The problem is that perhaps, and I stress the word ‘perhaps,’ there has been little emphasis on evangelization, on catechesis, on the experience of faith in families.”

[from CRUX NOW, September 25, 2019]

Bishop Azcona:

 “The ordination of viri probati is going to be useless” because “it’s placing a piece of new cloth on old cloth. The tear is bigger!”

 “The clergy in the Amazon need, as does the entire Church, repentance, conversion, the faith that saves in the strict sense. . . . The meaning of the priestly ministry and specifically in the Amazon is lost or is dead in the lives or in the authentic pastoral conversion of priests. Why ordain viri probati within a priesthood in crisis?”

 “. . . The fundamental root of this shortage of vocations in the Church and also in the Amazon, including the evangelized indigenous peoples, is due to an alarming lack of faith or the absence of faith that works in practice through love, and necessarily in history and society . . .”

 “Is this the love of the Church in the Amazon? Is this the love of God that sufficiently pervades the criteria for pastoral care . . . or is it . . . Pelagius [who] commands the ship of the Church in the Amazon?”

 [from Catholic New Agency, August 21, 2019]

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