Many concerned observers are wondering whether the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which runs through Oct. 27, will lead to doctrinal changes. And if so, would these changes be legitimate development of Church teaching?
The Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region addresses a wide range of issues affecting the people of the Amazon Basin, an immense area of 2,100,000 square miles, comprising parts of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru, including the exploitation of indigenous populations, the pastoral needs of Catholics, and the necessity for dialogue with natives who have their own religious beliefs. The synod also rightly addresses the care of the natural resources in the region.
The synod’s instrumentum laboris (working document) suggests some changes that bear on fundamental and sacramental theology: What is the Church’s mission of evangelization, and how does it affect the proper attitude toward primitive religions? Can married men be ordained priests? Can women be ordained deacons and priests?
An examination of whether or not these changes constitute authentic doctrinal development or represent a corruption of doctrine must take into consideration the purpose of synods as well as the needs of the Amazon region.
Since ancient Christian times synods have been local gatherings of the hierarchy of the Church to address needs of local Churches, resulting in doctrinal and pastoral statements regarding the practice of the sacraments and ecclesiastical government. In modern times these meetings of bishops have extended to that of all the hierarchy in a country or region as well as meetings of the clergy and laity of a diocese.
Ecumenical councils, instead, are larger gatherings representing bishops from throughout the world who meet to discuss and decide doctrinal and pastoral matters which foster the communion of the Church. The Pan-Amazon synod is one that purports to be limited to that geographical area but which threatens in its discussions of the priesthood and the liturgy to propose doctrinal changes that would affect Church teaching in many other parts of the world.
Only parts of the vast region of the Amazon have had missionaries. Various religious orders sent missionaries to this immense area beginning in the 16th century. One estimate of the population is as high as 20 million people, with two-thirds living in Peru, mostly in the Peruvian highlands. A large part of the population lives in six cities, four of which have a population of less than 400,000. There are as many as 400 indigenous tribes, each with its own native religious beliefs.
Some synod fathers say the instrumentum laboris (working document) proposes for discussion that the Catholic Church offer a prophetic voice against social problems of the inhabitants of the area along with addressing destruction of the natural resources. It also proposes that viri probati (“men of proven virtue”) and women in undefined ministries meet the needs of Catholics, given the shortage of priests.
Authentic Doctrinal Development
An examination of the proposals being discussed at the Pan-Amazon synod calls for a good understanding of development of doctrine. The recently canonized St. John Henry Newman wrote an important book (An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine) that established seven tests to examine whether a development in doctrine is authentic development or whether it is a corruption. For Newman, authentic development of doctrine is growth of doctrine in continuity with former doctrine. His tests serve more as a retrospective evaluation of developments once they have taken place but can also be useful in examining proposed doctrines. All seven tests could shed some more light on the subject, but two — the “type of the Church” test and the “continuity of principles” test — are of particular value for our consideration.
Newman’s First Test and the Question of Evangelization
The first test holds that when a doctrinal development is authentic it retains the type of the Church. According to Newman, the Church’s type has always been one of a smaller, persecuted and evangelical body. The Church has had a strong missionary dimension since its beginning. However, some at the synod have instead placed emphasis primarily on the protection of nature and exploitation of the indigenous peoples. In the Americas, first evangelizers defended the natives from exploitation but unabashedly and resolutely preached the Gospel.
Underlying Newman’s work was the belief that cultures are not equal in the degree of civilization and religious truth attained. Although missionaries should respect the seeds of revelation in all cultures, they must proclaim Christ and present a Christian culture, which would be a light shining in the darkness to the indigenous cultures that are less advanced. This does not ignore the problems that are, of course, still present in societies with Christian roots, but only serves to emphasize the need for continual evangelization in the world.
Newman’s Second Test and the Question of Celibacy
The second test of development of doctrine proposed by St. John Henry Newman is that continuity of principles or ideas constitutes the hallmark of authentic development. When that continuity of guiding principles is missing, it is likely that the said doctrine is erroneous.
Some synod fathers have suggested that married men who are viri probati be ordained priests to meet the shortage of priests in order to offer the Mass to the faithful. Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who Pope Francis appointed president of the synod, has expressed the need for an inculturation which, according to the cardinal, calls for indigenous clergy, without any suggestion of the necessary seminary formation.
It has been the custom in the West, beginning before the fourth century, for only celibate men to be admitted to the priesthood. The practice was sanctioned by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. There have been exceptions to this, with the admission of married Anglican (and other Protestant) clergy who have become Catholic and have afterward been ordained priests.
In the East in the seventh century, the discipline allowing for married men to be ordained was accepted by the Council of Trullo and recognized by Vatican II, although priestly celibacy continues to be honored, and the episcopate is reserved to celibate clergy.
The centuries-old principle holds that priestly celibacy is a great spiritual good for priests in their service to the faithful. St. Paul VI affirmed this teaching in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotales Celibatus (The Celibacy of a Priest). In this letter he wrote:
“The Christian priesthood, being of a new order, can be understood only in the light of the newness of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff and eternal Priest, who instituted the priesthood of the ministry as a real participation in His own unique priesthood. The minister of Christ and dispenser of the mysteries of God, therefore, looks up to Him directly as his model and supreme ideal.”
St. John Paul II reiterated this teaching in his “Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday” (1995).
For his part, St. John Henry Newman warned against the mistaken assumption that somehow marriage makes chastity easier and would concur with the above arguments regarding married clergy. Newman pointed to sad experiences among married Protestant clergy. History indicates that marriage does not eliminate the moral problems associated with priests living in concubinage.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, suggested that those considering married priests to overcome the shortage of priests in the Latin Church should “proceed with caution,” as allowing married men to be ordained does not solve the shortage in his Church, especially in the U.S. and Canada. He said, “Don’t look for easy solutions to difficult problems.”
Another principle that would be contradicted by the ordination of viri probati is that of rigorous priestly formation, which, for centuries, has been seen as essential, mandated by both the Councils of Trent and Vatican II. A crash course in saying Mass would not substitute for priestly formation or make for good priests.
Newman’s Second Test and Women’s Ordination
A greater rupture with Tradition and doctrine would be the ordination of women for sacramental ministry in the Church. The specific term deaconesses appears in the third century, and in only certain regions of the Church, to designate specific ecclesial ministries, but there is no mention of ordination of these ministers.
A detailed historical study of this subject was undertaken by the International Theological Commission (2002). According to the study in a second-century text called the Didascalia Apostolorum:
“Deaconesses should carry out the anointing of women in the rite of baptism, instruct women neophytes, and visit the women faithful, especially the sick, in their homes. They were forbidden to confer baptism themselves, or to play a part in the Eucharistic offering (3, 12, 1-4).”
After a historical overview, it concludes “that a ministry of deaconesses did indeed exist, and that this developed unevenly in the different parts of the Church. It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate.” In 2016, Pope Francis established a commission to study again the subject of female deacons.
In addition to a desire for the diaconate for women, some participants at the synod, as with other voices in Germany and the U.S., call for the ordination of women to the priesthood. In the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone), St. John Paul II gave a definitive No to this proposition, explaining that it was not a matter of ecclesiastical prerogatives but the express will of Christ, who established his Church on earth to ordain only men.
The Pope asserted:
“Priestly ordination, which hands on the office entrusted by Christ to his Apostles of teaching, sanctifying and governing the faithful, has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone. This tradition has also been faithfully maintained by the Oriental Churches.”
He also explained:
“In the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, I myself wrote in this regard: ‘In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.’”
Persevering in Missionary Work
The scope of this article does not allow for a more extensive examination of arguments such as the likeness of a priest to Christ in his masculine identity, the eschatological dimension of celibacy, and God’s fatherhood as theological explanations for Christ’s will. Yet even this cursory treatment of the subject shows how far some proposals of the synod would diverge from St. John Henry Newman’s teaching on authentic development of doctrine on the priesthood and sacramental practice.
Rather than contradict Church Tradition and guiding principles, the synod for the Amazon would benefit from an in-depth study of lessons from the first evangelization of areas of the Americas and Africa.
Aside from drawing conclusions about errors to avoid, it could provide a stimulus for the very difficult, bold, faith-filled and persevering work of missionaries of all ages. In addition, a deeper understanding of the role of the laity advanced by St. John Henry Newman and other saints and promulgated by Vatican II will strengthen the existing efforts of lay catechists in the work of evangelization.
Serious concern for the human and spiritual needs of the indigenous people of the Amazon and the desire to counter serious abuses against them and the resources of the Amazon are very worthy causes, but ones which do not justify doctrinal changes, leading to inauthentic development in Catholic doctrine and the potential for disastrous results.
Father Juan Vélez is author of Passion for Truth: The Life of John Henry Newman (TAN Books, 2012)
and Holiness in a Secular Age: The Witness of Cardinal Newman (Scepter Publishers, 2017).