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As leaders of the Catholic Church prepare to open the Amazon Synod on Sunday, the fundamental question to ask is whether the focus will be on the Amazon basin or on its inhabitants—on the ecological health of Amazonia or on the spiritual welfare of the people who live there.

The official topic of the event—“Amazonia: new ways for the Church and for an integral ecology”—does not answer this question. Will the synod fathers suggest that the Church should change her ways for the sake of environmental goals? Or will they insist that an “integral” ecology includes a spiritual dimension—that mankind cannot find salvation while ignoring what Thomas Jefferson termed “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”?

For that matter, will the synod’s discussions address the topic of salvation? The word “salvation” occurs just five times in the instrumentum laboris, the working document that forms the basis for the synod’s deliberations. The word “ecology,” on the other hand, appears 24 times, and “environment” (or “environmental”) appears 27 times. The name of Jesus, proclaimed by Catholics as the unique means of salvation, is mentioned a comparatively modest 23 times.

Preserving the environment has undoubtedly been a key theme in the teaching of Pope Francis. But in preparations for the synod, the calls for “cosmovision” have gone well beyond even the provocative pleas of the pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’, raising concerns that the synod’s work, rather than spurring evangelization of the Amazon basin region, will encourage Catholics to be evangelized by the environmental movement. Chapter 7 of the instrumentum laboris, entitled “Ecological conversion,” does nothing to allay such fears. Who is to be converted, and by whom?

The working document offers a similar treatment of the native religions and tribal customs practiced in the Amazon region. “Indigenous rituals and ceremonies are essential for integral health,” the document states, “because they integrate the different cycles of human life and nature. They create harmony and balance between human beings and the cosmos.” Should Catholic missionaries then encourage the natives of the region to preserve their rituals and ceremonies, rather than introducing them to the Eucharistic sacrifice that offers the ultimate bond between creatures and Creator?

With its focus on the environment of the region and the material needs of the inhabitants, the working document has provoked unusually sharp criticisms from influential prelates. “Some points of the instrumentum laboris seem not only in dissonance with respect to the authentic teaching of the Church, but even contrary to it,” wrote Cardinal Walter Brandmüller. Cardinals Robert Sarah, Marc Ouellet, Raymond Burke, and Jorge Urosa have offered similar cautions.

Yet the prelates who will steer the synod discussions have expressed no misgivings about the working document. Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, whom the pope appointed as relator general for the synod, this week told reporters that the instrumentum spoke with “the voice of the Church in the Amazon.” More skeptical reporters observed that the document’s most stalwart public defenders were not natives of the Amazon region but German-speaking bishops and theologians, who came into the discussion carrying their own heavy baggage of progressive ideology.

Such debates are not uncommon during the preparations for a synod meeting. But in the era of Pope Francis, the synod meetings themselves have been marred by contention and by complaints of manipulation: by the pontiff’s appointment of allies to key posts, by drafting committees that ignored certain viewpoints, by last-minute changes in the rules of procedure. The synod reports have furnished material for controversial papal documents—and for lingering criticisms based on arguments that the meetings had effectively suppressed. In other words, the meetings did not resolve differences of opinions but sharpened them.

At each recent synod session, one topic has dominated the media coverage. During the Amazon Synod, the attention of the secular media will be riveted on the proposal to allow for ordination of viri probati, married men of proven character, to alleviate the critical shortage of priests in the region. Contrary to popular belief, this break from the Roman tradition of priestly celibacy would not require any change in Catholic doctrine. (The Eastern churches in communion with Rome allow for married priests, and in the West some married men—for instance, former Anglican clerics—have been admitted to the priesthood.) But a break from celibacy would certainly be a major change in the traditional discipline of the Roman Church, with consequences that would reach far beyond the Amazon basin.

Moreover, it is a measure of the depth of current disagreements that more tradition-minded Catholics see the proposal as a possible stalking-horse for a more radical campaign to ordain women. That would involve a change in doctrine. Pope John Paul II taught in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that the Church could never ordain women as priests. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, shortly before he became Benedict XVI, observed that this teaching was “set forth infallibly.” Even Pope Francis has said that it “is not a question open to discussion.”

Yet it is discussed—by, among others, Bishop Erwin Kräutler, the retired bishop of Xingu, Brazil, who said that the ban on women’s ordination “is nevertheless not a dogma.” And the opinion of this Austrian-born prelate is not irrelevant here, because Bishop Kräutler was a member of the preparatory commission for the Amazon Synod—and, according to widespread rumor, the principal drafter of the instrumentum laboris.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading his Flock

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