The proposal to ordain “proven” married men to address a shortage of priests was foreseen as a hot-button topic of debate for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in October, long before the publication of the meeting’s official agenda this month.
And, with the formal release of the synod’s instrumentum laboris (working document), the issue of married priests was indeed present as a potential problem, alongside other areas of concern, such as the document’s treatment of ecological issues and its distortions of inculturation.
But more fundamentally, alarm is being generated by the working document’s apparent intent to apply “local” Amazonian exceptions to Church teaching and practice on controversial matters, under the mantras of “synodality” and “decentralization.” As recent experience has indicated, such “exceptions” can afterward be exported to other geographical areas — thereby transforming a supposedly local exception into a more general rule.
To be held at the Vatican Oct. 6-27, the upcoming synod, titled “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” is a regional one. Unlike previous synods under Pope Francis that brought together bishops from all over the world, this gathering is more limited in participation, comprised of bishops from the large Amazon region, Vatican officials, special papal appointees, and selected experts who work on the ground in the area.
This localization of participants has been justified on the grounds that it’s sensible to limit direct participation to those Church leaders who are intimately acquainted with the needs of the Amazonian geographical region. Perhaps that’s true, but critics note that it’s also highly convenient in terms of ensuring the predominance of synodal participants who support the hotly debated perspectives expressed in the instrumentum laboris regarding themes like the ordination of married men, the creation of an undefined new “women’s ministry,” the mandatory “teaching of indigenous pan-Amazonian theology” in all regional educational institutions, and the working document’s pronounced prioritization of ecological concerns over Christian evangelization.
Regional gatherings are not new in the more-than-50-year history of the Synod of Bishops. But unlike previous regional synods, the Pan-Amazon synod follows the contentious synods on the family in 2014 and 2015 that led to the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia in 2016, with its confusing eighth chapter that opened the door to reception of the Eucharist for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, depending on how local bishops in various parts of the world interpreted Amoris’ unclear guidance.
Indeed, at the family synods the issue of reception of Communion — unexpectedly specified as an issue needing attention by German Cardinal Walter Kasper in early 2014, and thereafter inserted into the synodal process by organizers despite the resistance of a large proportion of the participating bishops — overshadowed everything else under discussion. In effect, the push to obtain a controversial “solution” to a matter that was of limited concern to the large majority of participants became the most prominent focus of that entire synodal process.
Certainly the Amazon basin is an area of great significance, both in terms of its human population and its ecological importance, and it possesses some unique characteristics and problems that warrant local pastoral solutions. Unfortunately, however, the evidence to date strongly suggests the Pan-Amazon synod is in danger of heading down the same road of damaging, unnecessary controversy as the preceding family synods — potentially to a much greater degree.
If the instrumentum laboris is an accurate guide, Catholics can expect synodal recommendations to emerge in October supporting the ordination of married men, some kind of “official ministry” for women, the promotion of indigenous theologies with little consideration given to their underlying pantheistic character, and the advancement of one-sided ecological perspectives — all marketed as limited, regionalized solutions addressing the real-world and dire pastoral needs of “indigenous peoples and cultures.”
But are these innovations really intended to remain limited to Pan-Amazonia and not seized upon by those in other areas with their own agendas? The available evidence indicates otherwise.
Consider, for example, the synodal “study” meeting that took place in Rome shortly after the release of the working document. Cardinal Kasper and several other progressively inclined German Church leaders were a prominent contingent among the 30 participants at the closed-door, invitation-only meeting, which was convened under the auspices of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM). Also in attendance were Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the general relator of the synod and the president of REPAM, and Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops.
It should be noted that it was the German bishops who were the driving force promoting reception of Communion for civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics during the family synods.
Similarly, in the run-up to the Pan-Amazon gathering, leaders of the Church in Germany have been at the forefront of pushing for discussion of married priests, and Cardinal Kasper acknowledged that the issue was discussed at the closed-door meeting in Rome. It seems highly unlikely that the Germans envision that a local exception for married priests would apply only in the Amazon and not to their local Church, too.
This synod’s instrumentum laboris seems to be framed as a culmination of this pontificate’s focus on pastoral listening and accompaniment and its promotion of a conception of synodality that facilitates greater decentralization in order to afford local Churches more latitude to implement local solutions to their local pastoral problems.
Pope Francis has rightly been praised widely for his commitment to a comprehensive “pastoral conversion,” first articulated in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. It is indeed central for the life of the Church to have a listening, pastoral posture, but that is not the only posture the Church — and the Pope — must take.
Equally fundamental are teaching clearly and consistently in conformity with the Church’s magisterium and governing the universal Church clearly and consistently to ensure that it doesn’t disintegrate into an assembly of local regions with contradictory and incompatible doctrines and practices.
So, for the welfare of the Church and for the salvation of the souls that have been entrusted to its care by Jesus, exceptions can never become the rule, at the upcoming Pan-Amazon synod — or anywhere else.