Postscript: Smoke From Amazon Synod Affects the Lungs of the Whole Church

GUEST EDITORIAL: The Pan-Amazon synod manifested a certain lack of ‘care for all the Churches’ in three ways.

A general view of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region on Oct. 6 at the Vatican.
A general view of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region on Oct. 6 at the Vatican. (photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
A venerable phrase kept occurring to me during the last days of the Pan-Amazon synod: sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium. It means the “care for all the Churches” and refers to the governance of the entire Church universal. Had this necessary care for the welfare of the Church as a whole been sufficiently present, I wondered, throughout the synod’s controversial deliberations?

The Amazon synod, which closed Oct. 27, highlighted the need for all bishops to recover a fuller sense of their sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium in the pastoral care of the entire flock of Christ. The governance of the Church universal is entrusted to the entire College of Bishops, which acts in two ways, according to Vatican II: through its head alone, the pope, and as a body united to its head, the pope.

Each individual bishop, therefore, has not only the care of the particular Church (diocese) entrusted to him, but participates in the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium, in the care for all the local Churches united in the one flock of Christ.

It was, by the way, the title given to the papal bull of 1814, whereby Pope Pius VII re-established the Society of Jesus after it had been suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. The phrase was not in my mind due to the prominence of Jesuits in this current moment of the Church’s life, beginning with the novelty of a Jesuit pope.

It came to mind because the Amazon synod manifested a certain lack, to my mind, of the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium in three ways.

First, there is the pastoral problem of access to the sacraments in the remote areas of the Amazon. This is not a new problem in the history of the Church, and it even earned the attention of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to address the imbalance in the global distribution of priests by creating new structures for priests to serve in lands far away from their home dioceses. That’s where the idea of “personal prelatures” came from, though none have been set up to address the distribution of priests around the world. The only personal prelature erected has been for Opus Dei, but for quite different canonical reasons.

The sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium has, in practice, usually meant that bishops are willing to share their priests for ministries outside their dioceses — in the missions, in seminaries, in universities, in the military, in the Roman Curia and national bishops’ conferences, in various associations of the faithful and for particular needs.

The Amazon synod did not emphasize an intensified sharing of priests, but, rather, new measures — married priests; studying a “diaconate” for women — that have not been previously employed elsewhere. The synod fathers were not seized with the conviction that their sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium meant providing themselves for the remote regions within their own countries.

Second, the synod participants did not appear to give much weight to the impact that their deliberations would have on other parts of the Church. Considering “new paths” for the Amazon without thinking them through as part of a universal Church is a failure of the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium. A particular bishop, or group of bishops, cannot regard themselves as somehow apart from the Church universal, unconcerned with how their decisions will have a wider effect.

Strangely, though, there were some synod voices that did consider the wider impact, but not so much with concern for other local Churches, but, rather, with an agenda to impose.

Using the particular urgencies of the Amazonian situation as an entry point to changing universal disciplines is turning the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium inside out and upside down. Instead of a local Church looking to serve the needs of the universal Church, there is instead a desire to exert pressure on the universal Church to change in order to accommodate the local.

Third, the whole Church was watching the Pan-Amazon synod, and there was no shortage of bishops who were concerned by what they saw and heard. They remained, with few exceptions, silent.

Part of this was an ecclesial courtesy, allowing the synod the freedom to discuss and deliberate absent external pressure. But now that the synod is over and its final report published, the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium invites bishops who were not part of the synod to offer their contributions.

For example, the Amazon is not the only remote place where access to the sacraments can be difficult. Decisions taken for the Amazon will then have wider implications. Bishops in other parts of the world ought to share their wisdom about that.

Theology is not a regional exercise; if there are theological concerns about Amazonian matters, they are theological concerns for the whole Church. A local bishop ought not to content himself with the idea that the Amazon is not his diocese and therefore is not his concern.

At the heart of the Amazon synod was the question of the Church as a missionary enterprise. Almost all parts of the Church outside of Europe have to address what it means for the Gospel to encounter indigenous peoples, either today or in the past. Indeed, the very missionary identity and integrity of the Church is at risk. Every bishop must be concerned about that.

Pope Francis suggested that perhaps the next synod in 2021 might be on “synodality” itself, examining how the Church ought to govern herself.

Structures do change over time, but the charge to the apostles — their care and governance of the entire Church — remains perpetually valid, a charge that includes the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarium.

Father Raymond J. de Souza isthe editor in chief of Convivium magazine.