Venezuela Cardinal: What the Pan-Amazon Synod Working Document Gets Right, Wrong

The Synod for Amazonia: Comments Concerning the Instrumentum Laboris; Part 1 of a Series.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa
Cardinal Jorge Urosa (photo: Edward Pentin)

In just a few days a Special Synod for Amazonia will begin, called by Pope Francis in order to study “Amazonia, New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”

This is a synod especially dedicated to the study of the problems of the Church in a particular region, Amazonia, which comprises a good part of South America. However, it will have special importance for the universal Church because the Pope, as also those who have worked on its preparation, understand this synod to have universal application. Therefore, this synodal assembly will influence all the Church and not only the Amazonian countries. Among those, of course, is our country, Venezuela.

The instrumentum laboris, (IL) or working document, has been circulating since June. And in view of the methodology of synods, which use these working documents as the basis for synodal discussions, this document is exceptionally important.

In this case more than usual, because without doubt it is a complicated and innovative document, with an unusual, even rather polemical, content, and has caused great controversy. It is for this reason that I have taken on the task of studying it in order to — while pointing out its strong points — help the Synod Fathers to remedy its weaknesses.


Contents of the Document

The text consists of three parts; the first, titled “The Voice of Amazonia,” discusses the fundamental aspects of the social and cultural Amazonian reality. The second deals mainly with ecological and socioeconomic problems and is entitled “Integral Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and the Poor.” And the third presents proposals of pastoral action: “The Prophetic Church in Amazonia: Challenges and Hopes.” However, the different themes of the three parts are mixed together, which creates repetitions, lengthens unnecessarily the text and diminishes the clarity of the concepts.

Copious in the text are cultural, ecological and socioeconomic themes. Less plentiful, but extremely more important, are the proposals for evangelization and pastoral action.


A Correct Defense of Amazonia and the Amazonian Peoples

It is without doubt praiseworthy to endeavor to tackle the dramatic situation of Amazonia, threatened today by voracious and irrational economic interests. One of the merits of the document is that it includes the experiences, problems and aspirations of many people, collected by the members of REPAM (the Ecclesial Network of Panamazonia), in preparation for this synod.

Therefore, the working document articulates the serious situation, ecological as well as socioeconomic, which the territory and the peoples of Amazonia are suffering. As a Venezuelan bishop, I support the denunciation and the rejection that the instrumentum laboris expresses toward all violence against the Amazonian peoples and land.

The Venezuelan Amazonia suffers in our time this grave situation of exploitation. Concretely, our present government has promoted an aggressive and disorderly mining exploitation in the Arco Minero, or Mining Crescent, in our own Venezuelan Amazon region, south of the Orinoco River. Thank God, this document points out and denounces, justly and correctly, the gravity of the crimes being committed against the Amazon peoples, particularly against the indigenous peoples, which the text identifies as “original peoples.”

The violence of human ambition has converted Amazonia into an area of “estrangement and extermination of peoples, cultures and generations” (23). This aggression calls for, and in all justice demands, the defense of life, of the land and of the natural resources, as also of the culture and social organization of the peoples (17). In this labor the Church in Amazonia has acted with energy, and — as the document correctly states — must certainly continue to do so.

We fully support, then, this indictment and condemn all injustice. We must be in agreement with the document’s defense of the Amazonian peoples, of the natural environment and in its affirmation of the Church’s obligation to accompany and protect oppressed peoples.


The Beauty of the Amazon and an Idealist Anthropology

One special remark: The instrumentum laboris seems to think that all of the population of Amazonia are indigenous, Indians or “originaries.” In Venezuela that is true only in the apostolic vicariates, not in the dioceses established in our Amazonian region, where the majority of the population are criollos, that is, white or mestizo (mixed race) Venezuelans, or Afro-Venezuelans, and not indigenous.

One rather striking aspect of the text is the optimistic and laudatory, almost utopic, description of Amazonia and its native peoples. The territory is essentially presented as a kind of earthly paradise of unlimited beauty (IL, 22) “full of life and wisdom” (5), where the Amazon people — especially the indigenous people — seek “the good life,” which is to live in harmony with themselves, with nature, with human beings and with the “supreme being” (11).

The text also speaks of nature as “Mother Earth” (with capital letters …) almost as if it were a person (44). The document praises the ancestral wisdom of the Amazonian peoples, which is displayed by their care of the Earth, the water and the forest … and proposes that means of evangelization should be developed in dialogue with them, whereby the seeds of the Word (29) would be manifest. Also: “The original diversity which the Amazonian region offers — biologically, religiously and culturally — evokes a new Pentecost” (30). Now: Why would an original diversity foster this “new Pentecost”? We must do a thorough study of the meaning of these phrases, which, at first reading, seem confusing and exaggerated.

Also rather romantic is the description of the Amazonian native people as exceptional beings, who live in harmony with nature and the “supreme being,” and who would be the personification of the utopic “Noble Savage”: virtuous, kind, innocent and confiding. He would possess a wisdom in which we would find the seeds of the Word. This is a very optimistic anthropological vision, yet, it is far from the very realistic Catholic anthropology, with its biblical and Christian view of man, definitely the image and likeness of God, but wounded by sin and in need of redemption.

Would this be why so little is said about the need for salvation and redemption? Nor about the requirement of making an intense effort to strengthen the pastoral and clearly evangelical action of the Church in the Amazon, as if Christ is not necessary and harmony with nature is sufficient? This is a weakness that the synod should correct.


A New Revelation?

The text also speaks of the Amazon land’s cry for justice and presents this region, again almost personalized, as a “theological place, where the faith is lived and which would be a particular source of God’s revelation” (18 and 19). Here we find another problematic point of the IL, one for serious discussion, because it assigns to a particular territory and to the struggle for justice the category of “a particular source of revelation.” Or are they the source of a new revelation?

We must keep in mind that the word “revelation” in the Church magisterium and in theology in general is very concrete and specific. It means the communication, revelation and manifestation that God has made of himself to humanity through Jesus Christ. This is very clear in the document Dei Verbum, concerning divine revelation, of Vatican Council II (DV, 2). We know that complete revelation has already happened in Jesus Christ, and no official document may use ambiguous language which can obscure that theological and doctrinal reality.

The least we can say is that it is inappropriate and imprecise language, which should always be avoided in an official text. We could speak simply of some kind of “manifestation of God.” One of the weaknesses of the text is precisely its abstruse, equivocal and vague language. It will be necessary to use more conceptual clarity and theological and doctrinal rigor and precision during the actual synod.


Dialogue and Evangelization

The final paragraphs of the first part of the instrumentum laboris address the theme of dialogue and evangelization. Certainly the affirmation of the need for dialogue in order to evangelize is totally correct. Our Lord Jesus Christ discoursed with the Samaritan woman. And so we should do today (37). But the document makes statements which seem romantic or perhaps excessive. It presents the Amazon as a “paradigm” of the social pact of dialogue (37); it states that the peoples of Amazonia, especially the poor, the originary and the culturally different, are the subject and protagonists of dialogue. This could be acceptable, but only if it is not considered exclusive. A better expression is necessary.

But: a dialogue with no proposal of conversion? A dialogue with no invitation to accept Jesus as the one and only Savior, as the Redeemer of man, wounded by sin? Why is this message not clearly expressed? Seemingly lacking in the document is the enthusiasm, or greater awareness, of the need for the Church to supply a more intense evangelical action, precisely something absolutely vital for the Church everywhere. This should be the centerpiece, the heart of the text, and then of the synod: the revitalization of the Church in Amazonia. What seems to be missing, or very weakly expressed, is the urgency of implementing the Church’s mission of evangelization. By contrast, regarding evangelization, we must adopt the words of Pope Francis in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 14:

“… Evangelization is fundamentally connected to the proclamation of the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or have always rejected him. … Everyone has the right to hear the Gospel. Christians have the duty to announce it, excluding no one, not as the imposition of a new obligation, but as the sharing of a great joy … .”

Certainly the document speaks of new ways, but these ways in the instrumentum laboris would seem to consist of a dialogue with “ancestral wisdom” (26) and a firm defense of the environment and the original populations. That is all right. But none or little proposals of faith? It does not insist on the explicit proclamation of the kerygma, or on a more evident evangelizing action. This imbalance in the text is a weakness which we hope and ask the Synod Fathers to correct during their deliberations.

We will write further comments in the next article.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino is the archbishop emeritus of Caracas, Venezuela.

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