The Political Pan-Amazon Synod
NEWS ANALYSIS: A set of ideological presuppositions, derived from the political left and also rooted in some strands of liberation theology, informed both the synodal discussions and the synod’s final document.
VATICAN CITY — The Pan-Amazonian synod that took place last month highlighted an array of sociopolitical and environmental concerns affecting both the indigenous people of the region and the wider world.
Common themes included threats to the environment, the exploitation by corporations at the expense of the indigenous people, and the harmful effects these extraction industries have on both people and the environment.
But while these were genuine concerns, many of them also carried with them a set of political presuppositions.
These presuppositions included the assertion that climate change was anthropogenic and would be as devastating as the United Nations and others claim, that corporations and some governments are generally exploitative, and that the West was chiefly to blame for most of the destruction and injustice in the region.
The synod’s final document stressed that the Church must listen and learn from the indigenous people and a colonialist attitude must be avoided. Meanwhile, many of the martyrs the synod highlighted were those who heroically laid down their lives, but often for resisting exploitation or fighting social injustice, rather than killed because of odium fidei — hatred of the faith.
At the same time, George Weigel observed that synod fathers failed to mention the “colossal failures of corrupt leftist regimes” in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela and “the much-deplored deterioration of environmental and human conditions” that has taken place in Brazilian Amazonia over the past two decades under socialist Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.
Such perspectives, coupled with the presence of leftist and communist politicians, invited by synod organizers to parallel synod meetings, and the renewal of the 1965 “Pact of the Catacombs” that marked the beginning of liberation theology, consequently gave rise to criticism that the synod had a particular temporal and political focus, one that was decidedly leftist and used as a vehicle for political rather than religious ends.
The criticism is one with which professor Stefano Fontana, director of the Cardinal Van Thuan International Observatory on the Social Doctrine of the Church, agrees for two main reasons. Firstly, he believes the synod suffered from an erroneous approach, one which started from “the historical-political reality of the Amazon and went back from there to the Gospel, rather than doing the opposite,” and “proclaiming Christ in temporal realities.”
This had the effect, he believes, of “excluding” the Church’s social doctrine, which “starts from Revelation and right reason and then arrives at political problems.” It sought a “political model of coexistence” from the indigenous peoples, Fontana told the Register, and used that to challenge “the faith of the Church.”
Secondly, he believes the synod acted as a “catalyst” and basis for “political forces linked to a revolutionary presence” in Latin America — partly evidenced, he argued, in such expressions as a “theology of the people, the theology of liberation” and “base communities.”
Julio Loredo of the Brazil-based Plinio Correa Oliveira Institute, part of the Tradition, Family and Property movement founded in 1960 as a bulwark against communism in society and the Church, had a similar critique. The synod, he said, was “theological,” but with “political consequences,” as it was littered with indications of liberation theology — the 1960s and 1970s doctrine, often based on far-left politics, that aimed at liberating the poor from socioeconomic oppression.
One of the main tenets of liberation theology is “precisely the fusion between faith and politics, between theory and praxis, between theology and revolution,” Loredo explained. “Communism is the Kingdom of God on earth,” he said, quoting Father Ernesto Cardenal, a founder of liberation theology whom Pope St. John Paul II prohibited from administering the sacraments but whom Pope Francis rehabilitated this year. “Theirs is a political utopia cloaked in religious language,” Loredo said.
For Loredo, the synod’s final document contains “the blueprint not only for a new Church” but also a new socialist society based on the abolition or attenuation of “private property” and “more communitarian relations.”
Liberation Theology Thread
Fontana also saw a thread of liberation theology running through the synod, a theology, he said, that comes after praxis and “struggles for justice” and whose proponents, such as Leonardo Boff, would later apply to “environmental and even cosmic issues.” The concept of “integral ecology” is “very ambiguous,” Fontana also said, but figured prominently during the synod, forming part of the synod’s theme. It was mentioned earlier in Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si.
“Today the ‘practice of liberation’ is replaced by the ‘practice of integral ecology,’ so that the primitive life of pagan peoples can become a model of universal coexistence,” Fontana argued.
Loredo said Marxist liberation theology was abandoned in 1980 because its promoters had to find alternative ways to “promote the revolutionary process,” and one means was through “ecological theology” — or in Boff’s words: “To the cry of the poor we added the cry of the Earth.”
Another proponent of such Marxist thinking, Brazilian Dominican Frei Betto, admitted earlier this year that the synod was an alternative means to promote liberation theology. “We have before us an opportunity that will allow us to move forward,” Betto told an audience in Brazil. “We must not propose liberation theology. It scares many people. We need to talk about socioenvironmental issues instead.”
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, an expert in the theology of liberation and the thinking of one of its most famous founders, Dominican Father Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, would not be drawn on whether the synod was a means to promote a Marxist version of the theology via other means. Liberation theology “in a good sense” can question and help overcome “unjust suffering in the face of God’s love revealed in the cross of Christ,” he said.
But the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained that a Marxist strand represents “the most radical form of anti-theology, where God is negated and man is at the mercy of man,” and he warned that the Church can sin against the Holy Spirit by “joining in such materialism, abandoned by God.” If it does, he argued, people will be “deceived about their faith in the Triune God and in Jesus Christ.” When people “without God” try to build a new world, “they only create hell on earth,” he added.
Without explicitly saying Marxist liberation theology was a key component of the synod, Cardinal Müller indicated that an atheistic ideology might have infiltrated the meeting because the final document speaks of a “supreme being” instead of “God the Father of Jesus Christ” — the former expression, he noted, was used by the “Deists of England,” the Freemasons and those who “wanted to suppress the Christian faith in favor of a general, natural religion, without dogmas, moral principles and the divinely guaranteed authority of the magisterium.”
Fontana said the problem with such leftist politics entering into theology, and in turn the synod, is that its basis is an “immanentist” philosophy — focused on the material and this world — where principles and norms are “evolving,” as opposed to a focus on transcendence. Such a culture within the Church accepts secularization as part of a historical journey, he said. For proponents of such a philosophy, the doctrine of the Church “is also in evolution as a historical product,” he explained, an approach that was promoted by such theologians as Karl Rahner with “disastrous” consequences.
Loredo said “many of the synod’s main players,” such as Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the synod’s relator general, and Bishop Erwin Kräutler, a principal synod organizer, “come from Marxist liberation theology” and that Boff, a former priest who, according to Loredo and others, was a “main source of inspiration” for Laudato Si, “never disavowed Marxism.”
Loredo said the presence of Marxist liberation theology thinking was particularly prominent in Article 36 of the final document, where it speaks of “Basic Christian Communities.” These are the “militant branch of liberation theology,” Loredo claimed, which in the past were involved in guerrilla warfare. The communities “were declining,” he said, but the synod gave them “a boost.”
Venezuelan Christine Vollmer, a former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the “same groups” that organized the synod are part of the movements that installed leftist demagogues such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. “Everyone knows that,” she told the Register. “The same thinkers, the same stale arguments, ignoring completely the real issues.”
Fontana said such leftist political currents predate liberation theology but are a symptom of a Church which “seems to be very horizontal and not very vertical,” as Cardinal Robert Sarah and others have been saying “for some time.”
“You have to understand that most of the synod’s organizers and players are people long involved in revolutionary activism in Latin America,” Loredo said. “In other words, they see the synod as a moment, as a step, in the revolutionary struggle they have being waging for decades.”
Quoting Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto, vice president of REPAM, the organization that effectively ran the synod, he said: “This synod brings to completion a process begun in the Latin American Church 40 years ago.”
The liberation theology movement “is living the synod as a new beginning, as a starting point for a new phase of their revolutionary commitment — a quantum leap, if you wish,” Loredo said. “Indeed, never have they been more openly endorsed at such a high level in the Church.”
“Will this prove true? I do not have a crystal ball,” he said. “However, the reaction the synod provoked in the vast majority of the faithful makes me think they are in for a rougher ride than they expected.”
Asked whether more emphasis could have been placed on the supernatural and salvation of souls rather than the political and the temporal, Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, one of the synod’s special secretaries responsible for managing the synod and drafting its final document, told the Register Nov. 11 that the meeting “was open to any and every proposal seeking to protect and enhance life, ‘to keep the trees standing and the waters flowing,’ and to provide the Church with new pastoral paths.”
“By their votes the bishops expressed their faith, hope and charity,” he continued. “To me, this is the best evidence of balance, thanks to fidelity to the synodal process and docility to the Holy Spirit.”
The final document, Cardinal Czerny said, “is a worthy result of all that went before, both in the careful preparation and during the three weeks of session, and we now look forward to the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation.”
Cardinal Hummes, final document drafting committee member Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, REPAM spokesman Mauricio Lopez Oropeza, and the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, were all asked questions about concerns over the political and temporal focus of the synod, but none of them returned the Register’s emails.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.