Pan-Amazonian Synod Participants Include Former UN Head, Liberation Theologians

The appointments appear to align with the synod’s expected emphases on environmental concerns, and on indigenous spirituality.

(photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has personally invited Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego as well as ex-United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take part in the Amazon Synod next month, according to a full list of participants published Sept. 21 by the Vatican. 

The two U.S. prelates are among 185 members to be invited to the Oct. 6-27 event, whose other participants include every bishop of the region, religious superiors, experts, fraternal delegates, and the heads of Vatican departments.

Cardinal O’Malley, a trusted member of the Pope’s Council of Cardinals as well as head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has a strong interest in Latin America and is a fluent Spanish speaker.  

Bishop McElroy has been a vocal proponent of combatting climate change, saying in July this year it should be a “central priority” for the U.S. Church. The synod, whose theme is “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” is expected to focus on environmental concerns.

A third U.S. bishop, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, will also be taking part, as will all the heads of Vatican departments, including Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.  

Ban Ki-moon is a controversial addition to the list of participants. The South Korean diplomat struck up an alliance with the Vatican in 2015 when, as U.N. Secretary General, he took part in a conference on climate change and sustainable humanity at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 

Despite the U.N.’s often radical pro-abortion and secularist agenda, Ban’s appointment as a “special invitee” spotlights the strong orientation by the Holy See towards to the U.N. and its goals, particularly on the environment, that has grown under this pontificate. A current U.N. official, René Castro Salazar, an American citizen who serves as assistant director general of the climate and biodiversity department in the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, will also be taking part.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis said in the context of a non-binding U.N. resolution related to a Mauritian territorial dispute, that the faithful should be obedient to international institutions such as the U.N. “If we are a humanity we should obey,” he said. And synod organizers have said the Church aims to “accompany” the Amazonian peoples “in various international and regional spheres of the United Nations system so that they may present their concerns about particular situations.” 

Other synod participants announced Saturday include Jeffrey Sachs, an American non-Catholic economist. Although Sachs claims to “love the Church’s social teaching,” he is a known advocate of population control and abortion. A participant in Vatican conferences since 1999, Sachs is believed to have been a contributor to Pope Francis’ 2015 environment encyclical Laudato Si— a document that forms the backdrop of this synod. Also a participant is German climatologist Professor Hans Schellnhuber, an atheist who was also involved in Laudato Si.


German Participants

The list of synod participants also reveals the significant influence the German Church is thought to hold over the meeting. As well as the Pope personally choosing Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, to take part, he has also invited the heads of two large German Church aid agencies, Misereor and Adveniat. 

A Register investigation over the summer revealed the two relief organizations had made significant financial and other contributions in preparation for the synod, in particular the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM). They also have ambitious plans for the meeting, hoping its outcome will extend beyond the Amazon region. 

In a joint foreword to the German translation of the synod’s working document in July, Msgr. Permin Spiegel, director general of Misereor, and Father Miguel Heinz, president of Adveniat, said the synod would be an “unmistakable signal of departure” for the Church and have "significance for the Church worldwide.” The synod's working document, they added, called for “a profound change in the Church.”

In a July 25 interview with Dom Radio, Msgr. Spiegel said “it will be exciting to observe” whether the Pope will be “willing to go along” with synod proposals for viri probati (ordination of married men to bring the Eucharist to remote areas) and women deacons, and whether such changes will “have repercussions for us here in Germany.”

Also listed as a special expert at the synod is Father Eleazar López Hernández, a Mexican liberation theologian regarded as the “midwife” of Indian theology. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has frequently warned him about his writings, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger commented in 1996 — reportedly with Father López in mind — that such theology was regressive and wished to “cast Christianity aside …as if the Gospel had been oppressive.”

In 2012, Father López wrote that such indigenous theologies “do not employ discursive or philosophical language, but a mythical-symbolic one” and that “all Church theology should be like that because God cannot be objectified like the other objects of knowledge and science.”

Another controversial appointment, although not unexpected as he has been a key figure behind the synod and its preparation, is Father Paulo Suess. In a 2014 interview, the 81-year-old German-born expert in the theology of inculturation of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples said that “we can discover God's Revelation among these indigenous peoples” — a position that also appeared in the working document, and that was heavily criticized. 

A member of the Amerindia group that defends and promotes liberation theology, Father Suess has worked for many years in Brazil with Bishop Erwin Kräutler, emeritus of Xingu, Brazil — also a key figure behind the synod and a participant. 

Despite the Amazon synod being ostensibly about evangelization, the conversion of indigenous people to the faith does not appear to be high on the agenda of either Churchman. In 2014, Father Suess said rather than evangelization, the “principle of life was the most important” to the indigenous people and for that “they need land and have to be strengthened in their identity.” Bishop Kräutler, a member of the pre-synodal council and a leading author of the synod’s much-criticized working document, once boasted of never having “baptized an indigenous” person and that he did not “have the intention of ever doing so.”

As well as Cardinal Marx, the Pope has personally chosen to participate Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, as well as two prelates embroiled in controversy: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who is dealing with widespread criticism of his controversial reforms of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, and Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, coordinator of the Pope’s Council of Cardinals, who has come under fire over his handling of financial and abuse scandals in Honduras.

Also among the 33 papal invitees are Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Council of European bishops’ conferences; Cardinal-elect Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, and Cardinal-elect Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Congo. 

The Pope has also invited Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, a member of the Council of Cardinals, and Jesuit Fathers Antonio Spadaro, papal adviser and editor of La Civilta Cattolica, and Giacomo Costa, vice president of the Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini Foundation.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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