Political Maneuvering at Pan-Amazon Synod? Vatican Official Says No

Despite last week’s meeting of some synod fathers with six left-wing Brazilian politicians, Paolo Ruffini said that ‘nothing in the synod can be interpreted in a political manner.’

Photos from top to bottom: Cristiane Murray, deputy director of the Holy See Press Office; the six Brazilian politicians meeting synod fathers; five of the politicians outside the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, where controversial statuettes/idols were placed; Murray in her office with a French Communist Party poster behind her; French Communist Party poster.
Photos from top to bottom: Cristiane Murray, deputy director of the Holy See Press Office; the six Brazilian politicians meeting synod fathers; five of the politicians outside the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, where controversial statuettes/idols were placed; Murray in her office with a French Communist Party poster behind her; French Communist Party poster. (photo: Edward Pentin photo/Politicians' photos )

VATICAN CITY — Vatican officials have denied the Amazon synod is being politicized, despite news that the organization running the monthlong meeting of bishops had invited and received six Brazilian politicians from the political left last week and introduced them to a group of synod fathers.

The Pan Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), set up in 2014 to prepare and run the synod, which ends on Sunday, introduced the six politicians last Monday to a half-dozen members of the synod (see video footage of the Oct. 14 meeting).

Responding to a question from the Register about why the six politicians were invited, despite Pope Francis’ express wish that serving politicians not be involved in the synod, the Holy See Press Office’s deputy director, Cristiane Murray, said: “This was never part of the synod, and this was not a synodal event.” She added that “the meeting with the six politicians was a parallel event, and it had nothing to do with the synod.”  

Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and head of the synod’s Commission for Information, also weighed in, saying that “different side events” have been organized around the synod where “other types of participants” can attend. This is “part of the freedom of initiative that everybody has,” he added.

“On the topic of politicization, nothing in the synod can be interpreted in a political manner,” he insisted. “We’re speaking about a synod; we’re speaking about the Church.”

During last week’s meeting between the Brazilian politicians and the synod fathers, the six politicians presented the synod fathers with a report that denounced human-rights violations in the Brazilian Amazon.

The parliamentarians, all on the political left, comprised: Hélder Salomão (Labor Party), Camilo Capiberibe (Socialist Party of Brazil), Airton Faleiro (Labor Party), Nilto Tatto (Labor Party), Bira do Pindaré (Socialist Party of Brazil) and Jandira Feghali (Communist Party of Brazil).

Feghali is ardently pro-abortion and in 2015 voted against legislation that would criminalize infanticide practiced in some Amazonian tribes on the grounds it would interfere with their culture. Meanwhile the Labor Party, to which most of the six legislators belong, is the same political party founded by Brazilian President Lula Da Silva, who is currently serving a 12-year jail sentence for money laundering and corruption.

The synod fathers, who seem pleased to receive them, included Bishop Mario Antonio Da Silva, vice president of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, Archbishop Roque Paloschi, head of the Brazilian Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI), and Bishop Evaristo Spengler of Marajó, Brazil.

Bishop Da Silva reportedly said after the meeting that the report’s contents would not be incorporated into the synod after concerns were expressed that the politicians were influencing the meeting.


No Comment From Synod Leaders

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, president of REPAM and general relator of the synod, has a long history of being closely tied to Brazilian leftist politics, and is often credited with helping to propel Lula Da Silva to the presidency in 2002.

Last week, the Register emailed Cardinal Hummes to ask him why, despite Pope Francis’ explicit wish, these politicians were invited to Rome by REPAM, whether he knew Feghali’s positions were diametrically at odds with the Church’s, whether REPAM would also be inviting politicians from other points on the political spectrum, if he was aware that REPAM member organizations contributing to the synod were receiving grants from the pro-abortion Ford Foundation, and whether he knew the precise meaning of the controversial statue of the pregnant woman.

Similar questions were put to the synod secretariat on Oct. 19, as well, but neither Cardinal Hummes nor the secretariat responded.

The Vatican officials at Thursday’s briefing seemed similarly reluctant to answer these questions. The Register asked Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, if, given the meeting with politicians, he was concerned about politicization of the synod.

The Register also asked what he thought about Church organizations that co-founded REPAM, such as CIMI, which Archbishop Polaschi heads, receiving funds from the Ford Foundation, which promotes contraception and abortion on an international scale.

Murray stepped in to answer the first part of the question in the manner explained above, but ignored the Ford Foundation question and chose not to pass the microphone to the cardinal, who seemed reluctant to answer.

Pressed by the Register to let Cardinal Stella reply, Murray repeated that the meeting of the six politicians was a “parallel event” and that “we already answered the question concerning the Ford Foundation.”

After other reporters began calling on Murray to let Cardinal Stella answer, the cardinal, who spent eight years as apostolic nuncio to Colombia, eventually replied by saying he had learned about “this problem” of Ford Foundation funding when he “read about it here in Rome.”

“I really wouldn’t know what answer to give about this aspect,” he said. “I think that these aspects are not about the synod — details, no doubt, have to be examined in other circles.” (Ruffini explained that the synod “isn’t funded by the Ford Foundation” but, rather, is “fully funded by the Holy See.”)

The cardinal then praised REPAM as a “very beautiful” organization that is familiar to the Amazonian bishops but less known in Rome.

REPAM has been behind almost all activities of the synod, most notably the controversial Oct. 4 prayer ceremony in the Vatican Gardens and the statuette of a pregnant woman, which the Vatican said symbolized fertility and life. Three of the statuettes were seized from a church near the Vatican this week and thrown into the Tiber River on the grounds they were pagan idols.  

The Italian cardinal noted it is part of the Council of Bishops of Latin America (CELAM), adding that it is a “good Latin American reality” that “knows the territory of pastoral ministries” and could “do a lot of good” in the region.


Cristiane Murray’s Role

The Register also asked Murray in a separate question if she could explain precisely her relationship with REPAM, after Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno, REPAM’s vice president, told reporters at an earlier briefing that she was a co-founder of the Church network, and what her political affiliations were.

“I’m not a co-founder of REPAM,” Murray replied. “I covered the events of REPAM as a journalist and as a colleague. It’s an ecclesial network. I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with that.”

When asked why, then, did Cardinal Barreto describe her as a co-founder (see video of his disclosure and Murray’s reaction), Murray said: “I’m not a co-founder. I participated in many events, but I’m not a co-founder.”

She did not answer what her political affiliations are, but they appear to be clearly of the left. A French Communist Party poster is hanging above her desk at Vatican Radio.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.