In an interview on Oct. 7 with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Cardinal Robert Sarah deplored the effort by some in the Church to use the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region as a laboratory to profoundly alter Catholicism.

The African cardinal was referencing some of the central synodal themes of discussion, such as ordination of married men, “ordained” women’s ministries and a radical interpretation of inculturation and syncretism. “These points touch the structure of the universal Church,” said Cardinal Sarah (whose new book the Register reviewed).

“Taking advantage to introduce ideological plans would be an unworthy manipulation, a dishonest deception, an insult to God, who guides his Church and entrusts to it his plan of salvation.” 

This attempted imposition of contentious and discredited Church concepts on the Amazon by Europeans and North Americans can be characterized in another way — as theological colonialism.

Underway within the synod halls, as well as outside that gathering, are thinly veiled efforts to enshrine their ideological agendas in one impoverished region of the world, allegedly out of necessity, and then, as Cardinal Sarah noted, to export them across the universal Church.

The fear that theologically heterodox ideologies might be manipulated into the synod, which closes Oct. 27, has been prominent ever since the synod organizers released the instrumentum laboris (working document) in June. The document included a laundry list of proposals, some of which have long been part of the agenda to alter foundational Church teaching. That caused several cardinals, including Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to sound the alarm that the working document was offering a “false teaching.” 

Concerns over the problematic instrumentum laboris were dismissed by the synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, who reminded the gathered press Oct. 3 before the synod began that the document bears no magisterial weight.

That was followed at the very opening of the international gathering by Pope Francis’ Oct. 7 declaration that the instrumentum must be seen as “a martyr text” that must be destroyed for the synod to do its work.

All of that would have been more reassuring had the Holy Father not been followed a few minutes later by the official he appointed to guide the proceedings, 85-year-old Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes.

The former Vatican official gave an opening address in which he bluntly put forward the viri probati (ordination to the priesthood of married “men of proven virtue”) as a topic to be discussed.

He was followed, at synod press conferences throughout the opening week, by various bishops who advocated for the ordination of married men and women deacons. 

Emblematic of this persistent effort to further theological colonialism and shape public opinion was Bishop Emeritus Erwin Kräutler, former bishop of Xingu, Brazil, who is believed to be the main author of the instrumentum laboris and has long been an advocate for an end to clerical celibacy.

In a news conference at the Holy See Press Office, Bishop Kräutler declared, “There’s no other option” but to ordain married men in the Amazon, declaring, “Indigenous people don’t understand celibacy.”

He went on to promote the idea of women deacons, arguing, “We need concrete solutions, and so I’m thinking of the female diaconate.” He later admitted to the Register that he would like to see women eventually ordained as priests and that the synod “may be a step” to achieve that goal. All of this was discussed despite the fact that Pope Francis has stated categorically on multiple occasions that the ordination of women is a closed door. 

Nevertheless, projects warned about by Cardinal Sarah and others have been going for some time. Catholic groups, some operating under the aegis of the German bishops, have been funding social justice and aid projects in the Amazon for many years.

For example, the most prominent group in organizing and running the synod, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), describes its primary purpose as advocating for the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples in the Amazon. It is closely supported by the region’s bishops’ conferences, and Cardinal Hummes is its president. But it also collaborates closely with the German bishops’ Latin American relief organization, Adveniat, which provided in 2016 alone 3.2 million euros to sponsor various projects in the Amazon.

A second German aid organization under the German bishops, Misereor, gave more than 52 million euros to finance 337 projects across Latin America and the Caribbean. Both Adveniat and Misereor have organized events highlighting Amazonian spirituality throughout the synod, along with CIDSE, a network of European and North American Catholic social-justice organizations headquartered in Brussels.

This close financial connection raises alarm because at the precise moment the Pan-Amazonian synodal process is underway, the German Church is pushing forward, despite the public opposition of senior Vatican officials, with its own “synodal path” that similarly intends to discuss possible changes in the areas of clerical celibacy, ordained ministries for women, and the Church’s teachings regarding sexual morality. This simultaneous timing surely is no mere coincidence.

Also, as the Register reported on Oct. 17, the Ford Foundation — which has a long record of funding groups that promote abortion, gender ideology and “LGBT” advocacy — has granted millions of dollars of funds to the Brazilian bishops’ Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI) and to two other organizations that, like CIMI, are members of REPAM and therefore participating actively in the Pan-Amazon synodal process.

There are other voices speaking out in the Paul VI synod hall, calling for a thorough renewal of the zeal for evangelization and creative solutions in fostering vocations that do not also demand the abandonment of the Church’s ancient tradition of the discipline of celibacy or the rejection of Church teaching on the ordination of women.

They are joined by some of the most prominent leaders in the Church, such as Cardinal Sarah, Cardinal Peter Turkson, the prefect for the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, who has written a new book exhorting clerical celibacy.

Cardinal Sarah understands well the dangers of theological colonialism. In his interview with Corriere della Sera, he warned that if there truly is an effort to use the synod to turn the Church in the Amazon into a laboratory, “this is dishonest and misleading.” He also gave clarity for how all Catholics should react to any abuse of the Gospel, especially in parts of the world most in need of evangelization.

Looking at the Amazon, he was “shocked and indignant that the spiritual distress of the poor in the Amazon was used as an excuse to support typical projects of bourgeois and worldly Christianity. It is abominable.”