Amazon Synod Mission Abandoned?

COMMENTARY: The footnotes to the synod’s working document indicate that it is at odds with how the Church — including Pope Francis — has traditionally taught about the mission.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with representatives of the indigenous communities of Chiapas in San Cristóbal de Las Casas on Feb. 15, 2016.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass with representatives of the indigenous communities of Chiapas in San Cristóbal de Las Casas on Feb. 15, 2016. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano via Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

The special synod for the “Pan-Amazonian Region” has a difficult question to answer: Why should the Church intensify its efforts in these remote mission lands if the mission itself is unclear?

The preparatory instrumentum laboris (working document) — from which the synod deliberations will proceed in October — was released June 17. Addressed to the theme “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” the document raises questions about the validity of the Church’s mission in Amazonia.

Do the indigenous peoples of the Amazon need the Gospel? And if they do, is it the same Gospel that the Lord Jesus sent the apostles to preach ad gentes (to the nations)?

While the affirmative answer to those questions is given repeatedly by the Church’s magisterium, the instrumentum laboris (IL) obscures that reality and borders on calling it into question. As a “working document,” it will leave the synod fathers in October with a substantial amount of work to do.

While initial media coverage has focused on a proposed discussion about ordaining married “elders” to deal with a shortage of priests, the IL proposes a discussion on something rather more profound. Would it be possible to ordain such men as priests only for the sacraments, but not, as it were, as pastors with governing authority?

The IL asks whether it is time to “reconsider the notion that the exercise of jurisdiction (power of government) must be linked in all areas (sacramental, judicial, administrative) and in a permanent way to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

That is a rather fundamental question, which touches upon who can serve as pastor of a local parish and who can serve as head of Vatican congregation. It is a complex matter of both ecclesiology and sacramental theology.

While the question itself is not without merit, it is quite implausible that it should be taken up by a synod focused on the needs of a region with fewer people than the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. That is a question for the whole Church.

Leaving aside married priests, the treatment of the Church’s mission is most startling. One way to read magisterial documents — and should the Holy Father approve, the final document of the synod could become a magisterial document on its own — under Pope Francis is to check the citations.

For example, in the nearly 400 footnotes in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) there was not one pointing to Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), indicating that what was presented was not grounded in the most comprehensive presentation of the Church’s moral theology.

When the Catechism paragraph on the death penalty was changed last year, there were no citations of magisterial documents of any kind and only one reference to a single address given by Pope Francis, indicating again that the change was not deeply rooted in the Church’s Tradition.

On the mission of the Church today, the principal magisterial documents are Ad Gentes, the decree of the Second Vatican Council on the missions, and Redemptoris Missio, the 1991 encyclical by St. John Paul II on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate. Indeed, John Paul taught, the Church does not so much have a mission but is a mission. In the charter for his own pontificate, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis himself emphasized that the Church is to be a communion of missionary disciples.

While the Pan-Amazon synod’s working document draws heavily upon Evangelii Gaudium and, above all, Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), Vatican II and John Paul are scantly cited, and then only in passing on points of lesser significance. That’s an indication that the working document is at odds with how the Church — including Pope Francis — has traditionally taught about the mission.

In the section on “ecological conversion,” “integral conversion” treats first the “communal” dimension of this conversion, with its “social and environmental links.” It is only after this socio-ecological conversion is emphasized that it is mentioned that it ought to take place in the “process of faith.”

The IL treats extensively ecological questions, resource extraction, water purity and accessibility, urbanization, migration, corruption, education and health. The mission of spreading and strengthening the faith is not the primary focus, and it sometimes disappears from consideration altogether.

Indeed, while the efforts of the first missionaries are defended against the charge of colonial oppression, whether the Catholic faith is something good for the Amazon’s indigenous peoples is treated at best in an ambiguous fashion.

The IL is a maximally judgmental document, compiling a long list of those who have abused the Amazon. Indeed, the IL links the duty to “announce” the Gospel and the duty to “denounce” malefactors, putting the proclamation of the faith and social criticism on the same plane.

Out of this picture, the peoples of the Amazon themselves seem curiously exempt from original sin. Aside from a passing remark about the “abuse of assets by the Amazon peoples themselves,” there is very little sense that the cultures of the indigenous peoples require any purification by the Gospel.

Even on a natural level, the traditional practices of the Amazon get a favorable reading, noting that “indigenous rituals and ceremonies are essential for integral health because they integrate the different cycles of human life and nature.” The terms “medicine man” or “shaman” do not appear in the instrumentum laboris, but they appear nonetheless as benevolent figures, not potential sources of destructive magic or superstition to be overcome by both reason (science) and faith.

The IL boasts that it has proceeded from the “bottom up,” with extensive “listening” to the “voice of the Amazon,” not only its peoples, but the land, trees and water themselves. Yet the dominant voice of the IL is not the 21st-century Amazon, but 17th-century Europe, with its idealized view of “noble savages” that exist in an Eden-like state of harmony, uncorrupted by sin. And without sin, why would there be a need for redemption?

The IL goes so far as to speak of the Amazon region as a “theological locus” and “source of revelation,” meaning that the land and its peoples themselves teach us about who God is. That could be an utter banality, meaning only that all creation bears the stamp of its Creator, with man above all in his image and likeness. That could be said about any place or people. Or it could be a type of pantheism, or paganism, at odds with the Gospel. The synod will have to clarify that, and much else.

The working document of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan Amazon Region invites participants to “discover the incarnate and active presence of God … in the spirituality of original peoples … in the different popular organizations which resist mega-projects.”

Whatever that means, it does not begin with the revelation of the Father’s love in Jesus Christ.

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

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