Pan-Amazonian Pandemic: A Pivotal Moment in the Church

Contrary to the picture painted by the Pan-Amazonian Synod planners, Western culture has brought great blessings to this world

Victor Meirelles, “The First Mass in Brazil,” 1860
Victor Meirelles, “The First Mass in Brazil,” 1860 (photo: Public Domain)

Note: This is the second article in a five-part series in which I express my serious concerns about the working document (instrumentum laboris) for October’s Pan-Amazonian Synod. Part One focused on the near deification of the environment. Part Three will focus on the radical redefinition of evangelization as listening and learning rather than preaching and teaching. Part Four will ask, “Where is Jesus?” The final article will refute the notion that a married clergy is needed and challenge the right of a local synod to make such a sweeping change.

In the first article in this series, we noted that the working document (instrumentum laboris) for the upcoming Pan-Amazonian Synod had a heavy focus on environmentalism. There was an almost worshipful adulation of the pristine rainforest and a great lament over environmental damage in the region. Yet the document seems to undermine some of the very things that would be most likely to improve the situation: better stewardship over the earth, recognition of human dignity, and greater fairness and justice. It also nearly completely ignores the most important point: the evangelization of human persons so as to usher in the Second Coming of Christ and the great liberation of all creation. Romans Chapter 8 contains this teaching:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, but in hope, for the creation itself will be set from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:19-22).

This passage was discussed in detail in the first post of this series, but for the purposes of today’s article, note that the liberation of creation from its current futility depends on the full number of the elect becoming complete. There is certainly a place for recycling and good forest management, but evangelization is the real key to remedying the fallen condition of the natural world, which is now so vulnerable to decay and death. The working document seems to minimize the importance of that very evangelization, speaking more of our duty to listen and learn from the denizens of the Amazon than to preach, teach, and draw them more deeply to Christ.

This self-defeating tendency is also evident in the document’s consistent demonization of the Western world. For all our faults—and they are many—some of the greatest developments in conservation, environmental awareness, agriculture, animal husbandry, recycling, appreciation for human dignity and codification of basic human rights have occurred in the very lands and cultures vilified in the instrumentum.

Let’s begin by surveying some of the ways the document speaks in unreasonably disparaging terms of the Western, developed world.

The document consistently portrays the Amazon and its people as victims of Western intrusion:

The family in the Amazon has been a victim of colonialism in the past and of neo-colonialism in the present. The imposition of a western cultural model inculcated a certain contempt for the people and customs of the Amazon territory, even calling them “savages” or “primitive.” Today, the imposition of a western extractivist economic model … affects families by invading and destroying their lands, their cultures and their lives, forcing them to emigrate to the cities and their peripheries [Instrumentum Laboris 76].

… Beholding the reality of the Amazon with believing eyes has made us appreciate the work of God in creation and its peoples, but we also observe the presence of evil at various levels: colonialism (dominion), an economicist-mercantilist mentality, consumerism, utilitarianism, individualism, technocracy, throwaway culture.

  • A mentality that was historically expressed in a system of territorial, political, economic and cultural domination that persists to this day in various ways that perpetuate colonialism.
  • An economy based exclusively on profit as its only goal, which excludes and tramples on the weakest and on nature, constitutes an idol that sows destruction and death (cf. Evangilii Gaudium 53-56). …
  • Technological development has brought great benefits to humanity, but it has as well become an absolute and an instrument of possession, domination, and manipulation (cf. Laudato Si 106) of nature and human beings. All of this has generated a predominant global culture that Pope Francis has called the “technocratic paradigm” (Laudato Si 109).
  • The result is the loss of a transcendent and humanitarian horizon and the spread of the “use and throw away” logic (Laudato Si 123), generating a “throwaway culture” (Laudato Si 109) that assaults creation. [Instrumentum Laboris 103]

… [L]ife in the Amazon is threatened by environmental destruction and exploitation and by the systematic violation of the basic human rights of the Amazon population. … [T]he threat to life comes from economic and political interests of the dominant sectors of today's society, especially resource-extractive companies…. As Pope Francis affirms, those who pursue such interests seem to be disconnected from or indifferent to the cries of the poor and the earth (cf. Laudato Si 49, 91) [Instrumentum Laboris 14].

The document also connects the Church to the great evil of Western exploitation that has ruined the pristine Amazon. Although it is expressed in rather opaque language, the message seems to be that our doctrine is getting in the way of forming some sort of new “polyhedric” (?) Church.

A Church with an Amazonian face with its many nuances tries to be an “outgoing” Church (Evangilii Gaudium 20-23), rejecting a monocultural, clericalist and colonial tradition that imposes itself…. Certainly the complex, plural, conflictive and opaque sociocultural reality prevents the application of “a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance” (Evangilii Gaudium 40). The universality or catholicity of the Church, therefore, is enriched by “the beauty of the Church’s varied face” (Novo Millennio Ineunte 40) in which the different manifestations of the particular churches and their cultures form a polyhedric Church (cf. Evangilii Gaudium 236) [Instrumentum Laboris 110].

… Given that a colonial and patriarchal mentality still persists, a deeper process of conversion and reconciliation is essential [Instrumentum Laboris 117].

Talk about singing a new church into being! Although it is expressed in rather opaque language, the message seems to be that our doctrine is just too rigid and is getting in the way of forming some sort of new “polyhedric” (?) Church that is presumably unencumbered by all those confining doctrines.

Left to themselves and untouched by this demonized Western world, the document speaks glowingly of the Amazon and its (unevangelized?) people:

The life of Amazon communities not yet influenced by Western civilization is reflected in the beliefs and rites regarding the actions of spirits, of the many-named divinity acting with and in the territory, with and in relation to nature. This worldview is captured in the ‘mantra’ of Francis: “everything is connected” (Laudato Si 16, 91, 117, 138, 240) [Instrumentum Laboris 25].

Any participation by these noble people in the demise of their culture or environment is blamed on deliberate seduction by “agents” of modern Western culture:

The Amazon cosmovision and the Christian worldview are both in crisis due to the imposition of mercantilism, secularization, the throwaway culture and the idolatry of money (cf. Evangilii Gaudium 54-55). This crisis especially affects young people and the urban contexts that lose their solid roots of tradition [Instrumentum Laboris 27].

The drama of the inhabitants of the Amazon appears not only in the loss of their lands due to forced displacement, but also in succumbing to the seduction of money, bribes and corruption by the agents of the techno-economic model of the “throwaway culture” (Laudato Si 22), especially among young people [Instrumentum Laboris 53].

If the noble humans of the Amazon have cooperated at all, the document suggests that they have done so more as victims with few options than willingly. They have reluctantly yielded to “the current model of predatory, genocidal and ecocidal economic development, opting for captivity in order to live in freedom” (Instrumentum Laboris 57).

The picture that the instrumentum laboris paints is one of a nearly demonic Western culture that is predatory, genocidal, and ecocidal; it sows destruction and death; it worships money. It is rife with consumerism, utilitarianism, mercantilism, secularism, individualism, and technocracy. It seeks political, economic, and cultural domination, and wants to establish an economy based exclusively on profit, fueled by bribes and corruption.

The demonization of the Western world and culture is so over-the-top that it is hard to take the document seriously. Anti-Western ideology is widespread and quite in vogue, but that does not make it right or Christian. The language used in the working document fairly drips with loathing contempt, refusing to acknowledge anything good about the culture in which the Church herself flourished for centuries.

It can be argued that Western culture at her best is the fair flower of Christendom. It is not and was not sin-free, but it is not the demon described repeatedly in this document. Indeed, it has given much, and it can be part of a solution—if one is needed—for the Amazon and its people.

As a writer and blogger for more than a decade, I have written about and lamented the shortcomings of our culture, especially since the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. However, I do it with a profound love for the best of the culture in which I have been nurtured. I find the analysis in this document simplistic and even insulting; it is hard to reconcile it with Christian reflection.

Western culture has brought great blessings to this world! Though Western culture draws deeply from the fonts of the Old Testament and ancient Greece and Rome, it is in the Christian era that it especially flourished.

The emergence of the powerful gospel vision led to the rise of monasteries that preserved scripture and other knowledge. From these came universities and the emergence of branches of learning that have enriched the world and led to unprecedented understanding of God’s creation. Western literature, art, poetry, music and architecture have blessed the world. The study of justice in the Western world has given rise to a body of law and a legal system that has helped to ensure greater justice and has even led to the development of international law. The rise of hospitals in the early Christian era and medical study that followed in the West has driven back disease, dramatically lowered infant mortality, and relieved an enormous amount of human suffering. Modern Western economies have raised the standard of living for huge numbers of people, drawing many out of crushing poverty and subsistence living, and making food and consumer goods available in rich variety. Agricultural sciences have almost miraculously raised crop yields such that abundant food can be made available worldwide. Forest management has permitted us to reap the copious benefits of trees yet keep our forests from being depleted through replanting and other care.

While some of this progress has stressed both humans and the environment, part of the genius of Western governments is that political processes, labor unions, and other interest groups have flourished to correct excesses and abuses. The rights, safety and dignity of workers are important preoccupations of the West; so are measures aimed at limiting pollution and being better stewards of the earth that God has given us. Some of the cleanest areas of our planet are in the Western world, where environmental damage has been greatly ameliorated.

In short, the Western world, while surely not perfect, has secured a higher, healthier, and more dignified standard of living for vast numbers of people, made mind-boggling technological advancements that have benefited a huge swath of the world’s population, cured innumerable diseases, and gained great knowledge about the environment and how to protect it appropriately. It has done this more than has any other culture. It is simplistic, mean-spirited, and decidedly unseemly to demonize the West in the way the working document does.

It is also self-defeating, because many of the stated goals of the instrumentum are already on vigorous display in the Western world. The document seeks a greater appreciation for the dignity of the human person, a better respect for the environment and an appreciation for diversity—look to the modern West for an example and for help.

Why demonize the very culture where these things have been studied and advanced? If there is concern for the rainforest, why not invite a partnership with those who have long studied forest management, in places like the northwestern United States, where logging companies long ago discovered that they could not simply clear-cut trees without devastating results? More careful and selective harvesting and replanting now takes place to ensure that trees remain abundant and healthy. If greater appreciation for the dignity of the individual is sought, why not look to the American legal system, which has gone a long way toward ensuring the rights of minorities balanced with the common good? And as for respect for diversity, we have it in the U.S. almost to a fault. A simple acknowledgement in the document that such models exist in the West is not an unreasonable expectation.

No culture (including those of the Amazonians) is perfect, but it is damaging and self-defeating for the Pan-Amazonian Synod to focus exclusively on the negative, as if Western culture is uniquely bad or responsible for every ill in the world. There is much that is good in the West and can bless the Amazon and its people, too.

Jesus spoke in parables about the admixture of good and evil that is evident everywhere, including the Church. He spoke of the wheat and the tares and of the dragnet. He Himself was found in the company of saints and sinners. And while He sometimes taught that sinners should be expelled (Matthew 18:15; 1 Corinthians 5:1ff), He generally counseled patience until the harvest. The demonizing tone used in the working document contrasts sharply with Christ’s sage wisdom. It is unbecoming and counterproductive; it sounds more political than Christian. No such language should find support in the Synod or in the final document it produces.