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The Synod of the Amazon is a sign of the times. So its Instrumentum laboris says. Who could disagree? And what times these are! Some are saying hopefully that the Synod of the Amazon will change the Church forever, that the Church will never be the same again. Others are saying that the Synod is an instrument of apostasy. In the grim humor of Dom Giulio Meiattini, “if there is still something Christian in this Instrumentum laboris, that is, a few words and expressions here and there, there is no need to worry: it is undoubtedly biodegradable!”

Biodegradable Christianity—now there is a sign of the times, a sign of our times. For our times are times in which even the faith of the Catholic Church threatens to disappear into the wetlands of our own confused and decaying cultures. Our times are times when eco-theology in the Amazon basin and sexual theologies in the bowels of Europe can, with a “liberationist” flourish, flush the gospel of Jesus Christ down Leonardo Boff’s drain.    

The real problem here is not, as some suggest, the expensive German plumbers who, after all, are doing the flushing for free. The real problem is the Great Apostasy, now several centuries in the making, which has at last produced a global union of such plumbers—a union now so powerful that it can elect popes and conduct its dirty business in the name of the Church itself.

The Amazon, we are told in the name of the Church, “is living a moment of grace, a kairos,” because it is “living the culture of encounter.” Encounter with the God and Father of Jesus Christ? No, encounter with itself and its own lands, peoples, and cultures, which are veritable sources of revelation. Encounter also with “the other,” with “love lived in any religion” and in every cultural space. Except that of the colonialists and neo-colonialists, of course, who do not know how to love. (The neo-colonialists, one would think, must surely include the European Marxists and Gramscians running this synod, but apparently not.) 

In this moment of grace, of encounter, the oppressive space of “petrified doctrines” is broken open. Old wineskins, to change the metaphor, are burst, that the new wine may flow freely. Dogma gives way to dialogue, christology to pneumatology, the exclusive to the inclusive:

Many peoples of the Amazon are inherently people of dialogue and communication. There is a broad and essential arena of dialogue between the Amazon’s spiritualities, creeds and religions that requires an approach of the heart to the different cultures. Respect for this space does not mean relativizing one’s own convictions, but recognizing other avenues/pathways that seek to decipher the inexhaustible mystery of God. Insincere openness to the other, just like a corporatist attitude, that reserve[s] salvation exclusively for one’s own creed, [is] destructive of that very creed. This is what Jesus explained to the Doctor of the Law in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37). Love lived in any religion pleases God. “Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness” (EG 246).

Now, a proper critique of this marshy stuff, which finds the divine in every weed and breaks no bruised reed, would require much more open space than I have here; more even than the eminent Cardinal Müller carved out in his own critique of the Instrumentum—the very fact of which, coming from a former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, should suffice to show what kind of times we are living in. But I will venture two observations of my own, briefly and bluntly.

The first is that it is one thing to say with Thomas Aquinas that grace presupposes nature and quite another to say that, “as Pope Francis has affirmed, ‘Grace supposes culture’ (EG 115).” Or so it turns out, as the ambiguity in Evangelii gaudium is happily resolved by the Instrumentum.

To say that grace presupposes nature is to say that the redemptive and perfective gifts of God, gratia sanans and gratia elevans, presuppose what Bernard of Clairvaux calls gratia creans. They presuppose the gift of creation, which already has its proper purposes and powers, its own order and goodness. It is in rescue of creation, which because of sin has been subjected to futility, and in realization of “the glorious liberty of the children of God,” that new graces are extended, word of which is given through the gospel.

To say that grace presupposes culture, on the other hand, is not merely to say that it belongs to the human being, as a social animal, to have and to generate culture, and that the gospel comes to human beings as those who are already inculturated. It is not merely to say that the gospel can and should take hold of a culture, affirming in it what conforms to divine design, while contesting that which does not. To judge by the programmatic paragraph quoted above—from which arise many like remarks about the revelatory status of the peoples, lands, and cultures of the Amazon (not to mention the Rhine) as authentic theological loci in their own right—it is to say something more than that and indeed other than that. It is to say that in these peoples, lands, and cultures we find discrete foundations for talk of God and his gospel. We find in them the seeds of new gospels.

“Grace supposes culture” means that the culture in question is somehow divinely authored and designed, therefore good and revelatory in itself. Or at least that it is an appropriate response to divine design, hence good and revelatory—the fact notwithstanding that all culture, as Scripture and tradition have it, is the product of fallen people in whom the imago dei, so far from being on the way to perfection, is badly distorted and in danger of disappearing, but for Christ’s redemptive work.   

Let us leave aside here what Cardinal Müller notices about the Instrumentum; namely, the general absence of Scripture and tradition and the appalling misuse of both where they do appear. Or rather, let us admit that this is to some extent deliberate. For Scripture and tradition are the very font of the “petrified doctrines” that must be overcome. They constitute the very space that must be broken up. It is no accident, I suggest, that “what is missing in the IL is a clear witness to the self-communication of God in the verbum incarnatum, to the sacramentality of the Church, to the Sacraments as objective means of Grace instead of mere self-referential symbols, to the supernatural character of Grace.” For once we take all that into account it becomes clear, as Müller says, that “the integrity of man does not just consist in communion with biological nature, but in the Divine Sonship and in the grace-filled communion with the Holy Trinity.” It becomes clear that “eternal life is the reward for the conversion to God, the reconciliation with Him,” which every man and every culture requires.

Let us notice instead—this is the second point, about which I will be still more brief and still more blunt—what Cardinal Müller politely does not. Let us notice that the maxim “grace supposes culture” is indeed a teaching of the current pontiff, a teaching that is being developed in this way, at this time, with his approval.

The kairos, the culture of encounter, being lauded in the Pan-Amazon Synod is a Bergoglian kairos and culture. The church “called to be ever more synodal,” to be “made flesh” and “incarnated” in existing cultures, is a Bergoglian church. And this church, not to put too fine a point on it, is not the Catholic Church. It is a false church. It is a self-divinizing church. It is an antichristic church, a substitute for the Word-made-flesh to whom the Catholic Church actually belongs and to whom, as Cardinal Müller insists, it must always give witness if it means to be the Church. 

So where does that leave us? It leaves us, quite frankly, with the question of how both the true Church and the false can have the same pontiff, and what is to be done about that fact. Others are raising this very question in their own way. It is a most uncomfortable question, whether for the lowly layman or for the lofty cleric, against both of whom the Instrumentum takes aim if they give the least hint of petrification. I expect that it is a very uncomfortable question for the pontiff himself, who holds the office of Peter while using it to attack “petrification.” But it is the question raised by the Synod of the Amazon, which is indeed a sign of the times.

Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Christian Thought at McGill University and the author of Ascension Theology and Theological Negotiations.

Photo by michael_swan via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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