Querida Amazonia combats caricatures, presents a robust Christocentrism

An unidentified man presents a neckerchief to Pope Francis at the start of a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 15, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In the midst of all of the attention given to the Pope’s failure in his apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, to positively endorse married priests in the Amazon, and of his more explicit rejection of the ordination of women to Holy Orders, a deeper truth about the significance of the document is being ignored. Namely, that the currently reigning popular narrative concerning Pope Francis is an exaggerated caricature—a caricature that has been manufactured largely by the more extreme factions in the Church with an eye toward using this unnuanced image to further their own agendas.

That narrative, and with due regard to various shades of difference, boils down to the following: Pope Francis is a true “modern” (if not a “modernist”) and he is far more “liberal” than any of his predecessors, and he seeks to change the Church in radical ways, conforming it to the norms and ethos of modern sensibilities. Progressives have appropriated this image and thus popularize the view of Francis as a true champion of radical change. And of course, for them, “radical change in a liberal direction” equals “reform”. On the other side of the table sit the curmudgeons of the Right, who agree with the progressives that this is precisely who Francis is, and who therefore accuse him, variously, of fomenting everything from mere “ambiguity”, to “heresy”, to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. Okay, I made that last part up, but it nicely encapsulates their approach to Francis, which is to see in him nothing but nefarious categories, and who view his “Jesuit tricks” with such raw hostility that it would have made Jack Chick blush.

Of course, my own description here of the extreme factions is a bit of a caricature, but not by much, since the toxic binaries in the Church today are very real, catalyzed in large part by the magisteria of a thousand internet popes. And so it was predictable that Querida Amazonia, with its non-mention of celibacy, and its downplaying of women’s ordination, would be greeted by both factions with a combination of derision and suspicion. For example, certain representatives of the “binding synodal path” in Germany accused the Pope of cowardice for not climbing on their particular theological hobby horses (celibacy and female ordination). And right-wing bloggers immediately threw cold water on the enthusiasm from many conservatives, who had been fearful of the worst, by stating that the worst was still coming, and that this was just a “Peronist” tactic to pacify the Right, even as the Pope was plotting to send his Freemason flying monkeys into the Church through different doors.

Finally, and most telling (it seems to me), is that both of these binaries, obsessed as they are with the ecclesiastical furniture, have largely emitted a collective “yawn” at the bulk of the document, which turns our focus away from the fever swamp of debates over clerical issues, and toward a deep and rich theological analysis of the relationship between the Gospel and the Amazonian cultures. Therefore, I concur with the analysis of Cardinal Mueller, who described Querida Amazonia as a document of “reconciliation”. And here I hasten to add that it is not a superficial reconciliation, characterized by anodyne bromides designed to please everyone, but a reconciliation rooted in a profound incarnational theology that goes beyond the binaries and into the deeper waters of contemplative, poetic, and prophetic critique.

In other words, it is a reconciliation rooted in the truth of the incarnate God.

The focus of the document is not so much on the Amazonian region in general as it is on the situation faced by the indigenous peoples who have lived there for millennia, and whose traditional way of life—a way of life characterized by a pro-cosmic spirituality and a close, almost symbiotic, relationship with the natural forces of the Amazon—has been decimated by the juggernaut of modern, capitalist consumerism, and the raping of the land by major corporations, both domestic and international. Querida does verge at times on an over-romanticization of indigenous culture, ignoring the many bestial features of all ancient “nature spiritualities”, but this can be at least partly excused by the fact that the overall aim of the document is to accentuate the need for the Gospel to be truly inculturated into the Amazon instead of acting as an extension of Euro-American colonialism. Such a project necessarily requires a careful adjudication of both what is positive and negative in a culture, with Christ as the rule and measuring rod.

But this is a principle the Pope makes explicitly clear, much to the consternation of the religious relativists and syncretists. The Pope, it turns out, is a Catholic after all and he explicitly states in the text that Christ is the unique and sole savior of the human race. Nevertheless, and all over-romanticizations of indigenous cultures aside, the Pope wants to make it abundantly clear that the supremacy of Christ as the unique savior does not equate to the cultural hegemony of Europe, and what is positive in the Amazonian cultures must be our starting point, given that we are now centuries into the effacing of their culture by both the Church and the State.

Querida Amazonia is also a document that stands in continuity with the message of the last two popes. I think this is important. Pope Francis quotes his predecessors quite often, drawing upon the rich teaching of John Paul II on the necessity of inculturation (rooted, I might add, in his careful appropriation of Vatican II on that topic), and the many statements by Pope Benedict on the deep relationship between the ecology of nature and the ecology of the human social and moral environment. The continuity Pope Francis is seeking appears to be quite deliberate and his own emphasis on the necessity of spiritual conversion as the prerequisite of any true “environmentalism” places him squarely in the deep tradition of meditation on the cosmic Christ and Catholic contemplative discourse in general. Hopefully, this will quiet some of the hysterics surrounding the “Pachamama” affair. The latter was indeed handled in a ham-handed way by the Vatican at the Synod, but in my view it wasn’t so much a nod toward “paganism” as it was simply a lame attempt at inculturation that was mired in kitsch and the optics of public relations. Still, the Pope does manage a defense of the event by criticizing those who say that indigenous symbols cannot be appropriated by the Church in the service of the Gospel.

His silence on the issue of celibacy is indeed curious, given the attention that was paid to that issue at the Synod and the recent dust-up over the book by Cardinal Sarah/Benedict XVI on the topic. My own view is that he is still leaving the door open to further discussion on that topic and it may be his way of simply waiting for the bishops of the Amazon themselves to make a formal request for married viri probati. This may very well happen since Francis makes it clear in the text that he wants to make the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, more readily available in the Amazon region. And if he does decide in favor of that request, should it come, it would not necessarily imply a general opening to all for the same.

Furthermore, it would be well within his rights as the Supreme Pontiff to make such an adjudication, and should in no way further the false narrative of “Francis the modernist”. Finally, it may well be that the Germans are their own worst enemies on that score, as Francis may have been well-disposed to ordaining married viri probati in the Amazon, but held back as a message to the Germans who have been quite open that they would view any such concession as an open invitation to do the same.

Of much greater significance is his more explicit rejection of the ordination of women. Because if he had green-lighted the ordination of women to the diaconate (and by that I mean the real diaconate of Holy Orders and not some ersatz ministry with that title merely applied to it as an “honorific”) there would be open rebellion in the ranks and even the possibility of schism. Pope Francis knows this and shows himself to be a true man of the Church by closing the door on that topic. All I can say on that score is: “Peter has spoken through Francis”.

I think it is also important to address some of the mild criticisms of the text that I have seen in various reviews from conservatives concerning the Pope’s use of terms like “encounter” and “dialogue”. For example, Rusty Reno, in First Things, opines that he wishes the Pope had avoided such terms, freighted as they are with the weight of so much Leftist, secular drivel, and calls upon the Pope to use theological language drawn from the Church’s tradition instead. But I disagree. Those terms, though overused and misused in the secular sphere, are, nevertheless, perfectly understandable terms and there is no necessity to read them uncharitably as a nod toward the secular Left.

Indeed, in Querida Amazonia, the Pope specifically rejects a view of the Church as one more United Nations, philanthropic, “NGO” and posits a meaning for those terms rooted in the logic of the incarnation. By way of comparison, I recall that there were many similar criticisms of Pope John Paul’s appropriation of the modern language of “human rights” owing to the close affinity of that language to the secular humanism of political Liberalism. But John Paul, as with Francis now, was simply drawing upon a perfectly useful term and applied it with great effect in the service of the faith.

Finally, as the owner and manager of a Catholic Worker Farm in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, I am perhaps also a bit more appreciative than most for the Pope’s words concerning the devastating effects of runaway capitalist consumerism in the Amazonian region. The Pope spares no words in his harsh and prophetic denunciation of the gods of mammon that have driven the destruction of the Amazonian forests and rivers. He locates the rapacious lust for ever-greater profits by the corporate Titans of the world within the hermeneutic of Augustine’s libido dominandi and calls us all to a life of evangelical simplicity and solidarity with the poor. This is most welcome and those who complain that the Pope has no special expertise in economics need to be reminded that neither did the prophets. Or Jesus.

My fervent hope therefore, is that a new and more nuanced narrative with regard to Pope Francis will emerge. A narrative rooted in his robust and full-throated Christocentrism. And, I will add, in his manifest love for the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

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