Early Amazon Synod Returns: Priesthood, Evangelization and Ecology Discussed

What has come to pass so far, at the halfway mark of the meeting?

Pope Francis celebrates Mass for the opening of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 6. The synod, which is discussing a range of controversial issues, continues through Oct. 27.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass for the opening of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 6. The synod, which is discussing a range of controversial issues, continues through Oct. 27. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The need for “ecological conversion,” the suffering faced by the Amazon’s indigenous people, and how to respond to shortages of priests in remote areas were some of the most discussed topics during the first half of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region.

Various solutions were discussed at the special assembly, attended by 184 synod fathers and running until Oct. 27, including a diaconate for women, an experimental Amazonian liturgical rite (later clarified as a call for liturgical inculturation of the Roman Rite), and the ordination to the priesthood of viri probati (married “men of proven virtue”).

The latter was the subject of frequent discussion in the context of the need for priests to be “present” in the Amazon rather than mere “visitors,” able to bring the Eucharist and other sacraments to indigenous in isolated regions.

Opposition was raised by some participants at the synod, themed “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” who argued that rather than a change in the nature of the priesthood, evangelization was the urgent necessity, especially in the face of Pentecostal proselytism. Others argued that lack of vocations was not just an Amazonian problem, so exceptions should not be made exclusively for this region.

Austrian-born Bishop Erwin Kräutler, bishop emeritus of Xingu, Brazil, and a leading figure of the synod, said he favored viri probati, remarking that many indigenous people could not understand priestly celibacy and that he estimated two-thirds of the synod fathers supported it.

But others said many indigenous people welcomed Christians precisely because of celibacy. Brazilian Bishop Wellington Tadeu Vieira de Queiroz told reporters he did not see celibacy as the main obstacle to new vocations but rather “the inconsistency, infidelity and scandals caused by ordained ministers.” 

The issue of new ministries for women, and in particular women deacons, was raised several times in the context of women carrying out many of the key roles in the region. Often calls were made to give them more effective participation.

In comments to the Register, Bishop Kräutler admitted to supporting the ordination of women and said he saw women deacons as “maybe a step to” women priests, despite Church teaching on the theological nuptial relationship of Christ, the High Priest, to his Church and that previous popes and Pope Francis have firmly rejected the possibility.


Environmental Discussions

On environmental challenges in the Amazon region, the detrimental effects of illegal and violent mining activities were mentioned in several speeches, as were human-rights issues and other social injustices affecting indigenous people.

In particular, synod participants warned against “predatory extractive models,” deforestation and the challenges of migration that can lead to “unemployment, violence, human trafficking, drug trafficking, prostitution and exploitation.”

A “strong appeal” was made for the Church to make use of her “authoritative voice in the moral and spiritual field” to “always protect life,” denouncing the “many structures of death that threaten it.” Indigenous people at the synod said they valued the meeting for shedding light on their suffering and giving them a voice, while other participants called on the faithful to walk with the indigenous people and have compassion for their hardships.

The need for “ecological conversion centered on responsibility and integral ecology” was also stressed in the face of environmental degradation, and a call was made for the Church to ally with indigenous populations and “grassroots social movements” to “fight against climate change.”

The importance of young people as protagonists of “integral ecology” was also discussed. The young feel the need for a new relationship with creation, one that is not predatory, it was said, and the Church should see the environment as a “positive challenge” and an “exhortation to dialogue with young people.”   

Frequent mention was made of Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si and the need to heed its contents. The Church walking together with Amazonians means listening to the “agony of Mother Earth,” one participant remarked, while another said globalization brought benefits but also “wild capitalism and materialism.”

The scourge of continuing infanticide and euthanasia among some Amazonian peoples was raised, primarily by the media rather than the synod itself. Bishop Wilmar Santin of Itaiuba, Brazil, told reporters it was “shocking” that infanticide of a baby born with a defect or the killing of a twin continues, but compared it to abortion in the West. It is “very easy to be horrified at this when certain hospitals [in civilized places] are real slaughterhouses,” he said.

An early critique of the synod was that it was too lenient on the pagan practices of the region and that it even promoted the idea that divine Revelation could be derived from these non-Christian sources.

Amazonian Chief Jonas Marcolino Macuxí, who spoke at a Rome conference hosted by the Tradition, Family and Property organization, told the Register infanticide was dying out until liberation theologians arrived in the region in the 1970s and promoted primitivism — an ideology that aboriginal religions and customs were to be respected and preserved. He said such theologians brought conflict to the region after more than a century of assimilation through teaching hatred of Western culture.


Controlled Communications

As in previous synods during Pope Francis’ pontificate, the Vatican did not give details on who said what in the general congregations, ostensibly to encourage a freer and less inhibited discussion. Overall, communications were tightly controlled, with journalists not allowed to sit in on sessions but instead given daily syntheses of the general congregation discussions.

The membership of the synod’s small working groups, organized on the basis of language, was also not released, although reports of those group discussions were published Oct. 18.