Querida Amazonia: The good, the baffling, and the unexpected

Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The long-awaited (dreaded) post-synodal apostolic exhortation has finally dropped. For months, Catholics on the side of the angels have been trolled by the Left into fearing/believing that this document would open the door to married priests and deaconesses – and six years of experience leads ro the conclusion that the Pope also takes perverse delectation in trolling “conservatives.” Not a few of these faithful Catholics have responded with anger and rage. Throughout these long months, I have counseled patient prayer, along with a well-founded hope that Christ would not abandon His Church. The papal cheerleaders (like Austen Ivereigh, Massimo Faggioli and Antonio Spadaro, SJ) are disconsolate, even as they try to spin their depression into reasons for hope – although Faggioli does seem to say that the Left’s confidence in Francis to do their bidding was ill-placed. We should restrain our glee, confining ourselves to thankful praise of God that our worst fears were not realized.

This document is surely out of character for Francis, not at all in keeping with his free-wheeling style. In some sense it reminds me of the amazement that struck observers in 1968 when Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae, against all expectations to the contrary, especially given his pattern of conflict avoidance.

Some other introductory comments:

• Now we can understand the probable cause for the decision of Cardinal Reinhard Marx to forego a bid for a second term as president of the very problematic German episcopal conference. Indeed, word has it that some months back (when he was summoned to Rome by the Pope due to his refusal to heed the Pope’s admonitions about the infamous German “synodal path”), a massive shouting match between them could be heard. However, none of this has kept Marx from weighing in on this document by indicating that it will not stop the Germans from pursuing a married priesthood and female deacons!

• Although German money bankrolled the Synod, apparently it was insufficient to produce their desired final text.

• When the Benedict XVI/Cardinal Sarah book appeared, many hoped that it would stanch any papal attempts at moving in the wrong direction – I, among them. Reliable sources, however, suggest that the text of the exhortation preceded that wonderful book by at least a month. One highly placed cleric was given a copy of the document to review on December 12 – and there were no references at all to either married priests or deaconesses.

• As I read this document, one question kept popping into my head: “Where in the world have the bishops of the Amazon been for the past 500 years that such a document was even thought necessary?”

• There are 145 footnotes, 39% of which are Francis quoting himself. However, there are numerous citations of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. Thomas Aquinas (quoted accurately and interpreted correctly, unlike in Amoris Laetitia).

It seems to me that the best way to proceed with a review of Querida Amazonia (oddly and unusually titled in Spanish, rather than Latin) would be to cull key passages and to offer some commentary on them.

3. . . . I have preferred not to cite the Final Document in this Exhortation, because I would encourage everyone to read it in full.

This is very strange. I don’t believe any post-synodal apostolic exhortation has ever refrained from quoting the Final Document of the synod in question. Due to all the controversies surrounding the synod itself, did the Pope want to distance himself from them, so as to gain a better hearing for his own work here? His justification for this approach (namely, to allow the Final Document to be read and appreciated on its own) rings hollow. Some commentators have suggested that this is just a back-door way of giving the Final Document a hearing, however, in the press conference featuring the release of the exhortation, Cardinal Baldisseri (head of the Synod office) clearly said that the Final Document has no magisterial authority.

The exhortation is structured by way of four “dreams” of Francis:

7. I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.

I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.

I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.

I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.

I couldn’t help but think I was listening to Martin Luther King, Jr., here!

8. Our dream is that of an Amazon region that can integrate and promote all its inhabitants, enabling them to enjoy “good living.” . . . We do not need an environmentalism “that is concerned for the biome but ignores the Amazonian peoples,”

This will not please environmental extremists (like the teenage pop star, Greta Thunberg, from Scandinavia) who see human beings as the enemies to be eliminated to preserve Mother Earth.

18. It is encouraging to remember that amid the grave excesses of the colonization of the Amazon region, so full of “contradictions and suffering,” many missionaries came to bring the Gospel, leaving their homes and leading an austere and demanding life alongside those who were most defenceless. . . . .Since it was often the priests who protected the indigenous peoples from their plunderers and abusers, the missionaries recounted that “they begged insistently that we not abandon them and they extorted from us the promise that we would return.”

This, too, is fighting language for those who accuse the Church of destroying the wonderful indigenous cultures that practiced human sacrifice and canibalism. The footnote (17) attached to this paragraph is a most welcome citation of the historical record of the Church and the popes on the rights of the indigenous and their condemnation of slavery.

22. Christ redeemed the whole person, and he wishes to restore in each of us the capacity to enter into relationship with others. The Gospel proposes the divine charity welling up in the heart of Christ and generating a pursuit of justice that is at once a hymn of fraternity and of solidarity, an impetus to the culture of encounter. The wisdom of the way of life of the original peoples – for all its limitations – encourages us to deepen this desire.

Acknowledging that the culture of the original peoples had/has limitations is also verboten in “woke” circles.

24. . . . The Amazonian peoples are not immune to corruption, and they end up being its principal victims.

25. Nor can we exclude the possibility that members of the Church have been part of networks of corruption, at times to the point of agreeing to keep silent in exchange for economic assistance for ecclesial works. Precisely for this reason, proposals were made at the Synod to insist that “special attention be paid to the provenance of donations or other kinds of benefits, as well as to investments made by ecclesiastical institutions or individual Christians.”

These are truly remarkable admissions. In regard to ecclesiastical complicity in corruption, might this be a papal swipe at the financial dalliances of the Brazilian episcopal conference with promoters of agendas at variance with Catholic doctrine and morality?

28. The important thing is to promote the Amazon region, but this does not imply colonizing it culturally but instead helping it to bring out the best of itself. That is in fact what education is meant to do: to cultivate without uprooting, to foster growth without weakening identity, to be supportive without being invasive.

33. Here I would like to point out that “a consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a leveling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity.” This especially affects young people. . . .

Francis has been very “bullish” on efforts to uproot traditional mores, especially through the use of bribery. His view of education here is very holistic. Likewise, his persistent attacks on “consumerism.”

36. Like all cultural realities, the cultures of the interior Amazon region have their limits. Western urban cultures have them as well. Factors like consumerism, individualism, discrimination, inequality, and any number of others represent the weaker side of supposedly more developed cultures.

37. , , , Far be it from me to propose a completely enclosed, a-historic, static “indigenism” that would reject any kind of blending (mestizaje). A culture can grow barren when it “becomes inward-looking, and tries to perpetuate obsolete ways of living by rejecting any exchange or debate with regard to the truth about man.”

Once again, we hear of indigenous limitations and, likewise, the need for the indigenous cultures to be in conversation with other cultures, particularly one characterized by Christian principles.

39. The globalized economy shamelessly damages human, social and cultural richness. The disintegration of families that comes about as a result of forced migrations affects the transmission of values, for “the family is and has always been the social institution that has most contributed to keeping our cultures alive.”

The centrality of the family is highlighted here.

41. . . .The Lord, who is the first to care for us, teaches us to care for our brothers and sisters and the environment which he daily gives us. This is the first ecology that we need.

In the Amazon region, one better understands the words of Benedict XVI. . . .

To be sure, believers have an obligation to be responsible stewards of creation. Here Francis brings to his side Benedict.

42. . . . the forest is not a resource to be exploited; it is a being, or various beings, with which we have to relate. . . . we are water, air, earth and life of the environment created by God. For this reason, we demand an end to the mistreatment and destruction of mother Earth. The land has blood, and it is bleeding; the multinationals have cut the veins of our mother Earth.

This is just pure silliness: The forest is a “being”? “We are water, air, earth and life”? Really? This is the very kind of nonsense that makes normal, serious Christians jittery around environmentalists.

47. Poetry helps give voice to a painful sensation shared by many of us today.

More high drama!

48. The equilibrium of our planet also depends on the health of the Amazon region. . . .

51. To protect the Amazon region, it is good to combine ancestral wisdom with contemporary technical knowledge, always working for a sustainable management of the land while also preserving the lifestyle and value systems of those who live there.

A very commonsensical approach.

58. . . . Sadly, many of those living in the Amazon region have acquired habits typical of the larger cities, where consumerism and the culture of waste are already deeply rooted. A sound and sustainable ecology, one capable of bringing about change, will not develop unless people are changed, unless they are encouraged to opt for another style of life, one less greedy and more serene, more respectful and less anxious, more fraternal.

Another welcome admission of Amazonian complicity in abandonment of wholesome indigenous views and practices, as well as encouragement for lifestyles that are more human.

Now begins the specifically ecclesial section of the exhortation.

63. An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them. How sad it would be if they were to receive from us a body of teachings or a moral code, but not the great message of salvation, the missionary appeal that speaks to the heart and gives meaning to everything else in life. Nor can we be content with a social message. If we devote our lives to their service, to working for the justice and dignity that they deserve, we cannot conceal the fact that we do so because we see Christ in them and because we acknowledge the immense dignity that they have received from God, the Father who loves them with boundless love.

64. They have a right to hear the Gospel, and above all that first proclamation, the kerygma, which is “the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another.” . . . Without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO and we would not follow the command given us by Christ: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).

65. Any project for growth in the Christian life needs to be centred continually on this message, for “all Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma.” . . . Indeed, the kerygma and fraternal charity constitute the great synthesis of the whole content of the Gospel, to be proclaimed unceasingly in the Amazon region. That is what shaped the lives of the great evangelizers of Latin America, like Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo or Saint Joseph of Anchieta.

This is truly shocking material to come from the pen of Francis. After all, he consistently has conflated “evangelization” with “proselytism,” repeatedly dubbing the latter “solemn nonsense.” Of course, orthodox Catholics should welcome this papal encouragement to engage in the promotion of the Gospel, as taught by Paul VI and John Paul II. Many Catholic social service agencies in the United States need to take this admonition seriously as they shy away from any form of faith-sharing. Bishop Erwin Kräutler of the Amazon, who bragged that he had never baptized an indigenous person in over thirty years, would do well to meditate long and hard on these paragraphs.

67. Saint John Paul II taught that in proposing the Gospel message, “the Church does not intend to deny the autonomy of culture. On the contrary, she has the greatest respect for it,” since culture “is not only an object of redemption and elevation but can also play a role of mediation and cooperation.”

This is a very healthy understanding of the relationship between faith and cultures.

73. Inculturation elevates and fulfills.

This is exactly backwards! The faith purifies cultures, not the other way around!

74. Similarly, a relationship with Jesus Christ, true God and true man, liberator and redeemer, is not inimical to the markedly cosmic worldview that characterizes the indigenous peoples, since he is also the Risen Lord who permeates all things. In Christian experience, “all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation.” He is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind, as the Lord who reigns in creation without ever losing his transfigured wounds, while in the Eucharist he takes up the elements of this world and confers on all things the meaning of the paschal gift.

The first part of this paragraph is in harmony with the Pauline theology of the recapitulation of all things in Christ. We move into weirdness, indeed, panentheism, when we read that Christ “is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind.” This is totally absurd. I suspect that the papal theologian never saw this paragraph.

78. . . . Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. Rather, we ought to know how to distinguish the wheat growing alongside the tares, for “popular piety can enable us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on.”

79. It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.

Certainly, the Church throughout her history has appropriated various signs, symbols, feasts and vesture from various cultures and religions – traditionally called “the despoiling of the Egyptians.” We can think here likewise of the Patristic notion of the “logoi spermatikoi” (the seeds of the Word) that are a long-range, divinely planned preparation of a people for the Gospel (“praeparatio evangelica”). However, one must be careful to understand the original meanings of the appropriated items, leading one to ask if these can be incorporated into Christianity. This seems like nothing more than a ham-fisted attempt at justifying the whole Pachamama debacle. Might it also be a hint of movement toward an “Amazonian Rite”?

82. In the Eucharist, God, “in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter.” The Eucharist “joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation.” For this reason, it can be a “motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.” In this sense, “encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature.” It means that we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols. The Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy among indigenous peoples; over fifty years have passed and we still have far to go along these lines.

The first two sentences are clear Catholic doctrine. What follows is an unfortunate “instrumentalization” of the Eucharist. The Eucharist should never be “used” to serve any purpose other than the glory of God and the sanctification of men.

87. . . .. it is important to determine what is most specific to a priest, what cannot be delegated. The answer lies in the sacrament of Holy Orders, which configures him to Christ the priest. The first conclusion, then, is that the exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies the priest alone to preside at the Eucharist. That is his particular, principal and non-delegable function. There are those who think that what distinguishes the priest is power, the fact that he is the highest authority in the community. Yet Saint John Paul II explained that, although the priesthood is considered “hierarchical,” this function is not meant to be superior to the others, but rather is “totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members.” When the priest is said to be a sign of “Christ the head,” this refers principally to the fact that Christ is the source of all grace: he is the head of the Church because “he has the power of pouring out grace upon all the members of the Church.”

88. The priest is a sign of that head and wellspring of grace above all when he celebrates the Eucharist, the source and summit of the entire Christian life. That is his great power, a power that can only be received in the sacrament of Holy Orders. For this reason, only the priest can say: “This is my body.” There are other words too, that he alone can speak: “I absolve you from your sins.” Because sacramental forgiveness is at the service of a worthy celebration of the Eucharist. These two sacraments lie at the heart of the priest’s exclusive identity.

I am not sure what the first two sentences mean. What follows, however, is the perennial teaching of the Church on the Sacred Priesthood. Paragraph 88 must be directed to the Amazonian bishop who claimed that he has had women celebrating the Eucharist for years. Now, the question is: Will that bishop be disciplined for such permissions, if it has indeed been happening?

90. This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region. At the same time, it is appropriate that the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation be thoroughly revised, so that priests can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures. This formation must be preeminently pastoral and favour the development of priestly mercy.

Prayer for vocations has worked for countless dioceses in the United States. Might it work for the Amazon, too? Local seminaries have always been preferred to far-distant ones, precisely so that future priests would be trained to understand the cultures they would be sent to evangelize and catechize.

92. . . . Priests are necessary, but this does not mean that permanent deacons (of whom there should be many more in the Amazon region), religious women and lay persons cannot regularly assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities, and perform those functions ever more effectively with the aid of a suitable accompaniment.

93. Consequently, it is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist. That would be a very narrow aim, were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities. We need to promote an encounter with God’s word and growth in holiness through various kinds of lay service that call for a process of education – biblical, doctrinal, spiritual and practical – and a variety of programmes of ongoing formation.

94. A Church of Amazonian features requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority and familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life in the different places, but also open to the multiplicity of gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on every one. . . . The challenges in the Amazon region demand of the Church a special effort to be present at every level, and this can only be possible through the vigorous, broad and active involvement of the laity.

Readers of CWR will recall that I expressed amazement months ago about the paucity of permanent deacons in the Amazon. Of course, one could suppose that they have been deliberately kept at bay, so as to exacerbate the vocations crisis, so as to force the Church’s hand on the ordination of women and married men. The Pope’s appreciation for the lay vocation puts him squarely in the corner of Saint José Maria Escrivá, Vatican II’s “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” and John Paul II’s “Christifideles Laici.”

99. In the Amazon region, there are communities that have long preserved and handed on the faith even though no priest has come their way, even for decades. This could happen because of the presence of strong and generous women who, undoubtedly called and prompted by the Holy Spirit, baptized, catechized, prayed and acted as missionaries. For centuries, women have kept the Church alive in those places through their remarkable devotion and deep faith. Some of them, speaking at the Synod, moved us profoundly by their testimony.

100. This summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures. Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders. But that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.

101. Jesus Christ appears as the Spouse of the community that celebrates the Eucharist through the figure of a man who presides as a sign of the one Priest. This dialogue between the Spouse and his Bride, which arises in adoration and sanctifies the community, should not trap us in partial conceptions of power in the Church. . . . Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother. . . . we will fundamentally realize why, without women, the Church breaks down, and how many communities in the Amazon would have collapsed, had women not been there to sustain them, keep them together and care for them. This shows the kind of power that is typically theirs.

102. We must keep encouraging those simple and straightforward gifts that enabled women in the Amazon region to play so active a role in society, even though communities now face many new and unprecedented threats. The present situation requires us to encourage the emergence of other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women and responsive to the specific needs of the peoples of the Amazon region at this moment in history.

103. In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.

The entirety of this section, “The Strength and Gift of Women” is a succinct synthesis of John Paul’s “Mulieris Dignitatem.”

106. In an Amazonian region characterized by many religions, we believers need to find occasions to speak to one another and to act together for the common good and the promotion of the poor. This has nothing to do with watering down or concealing our deepest convictions when we encounter others who think differently than ourselves.

The key sentence here is: “This has nothing to do with watering down or concealing our deepest convictions when we encounter others who think differently than ourselves.”

107. We Catholics possess in sacred Scripture a treasure that other religions do not accept, even though at times they may read it with interest and even esteem some of its teachings. We attempt to do something similar with the sacred texts of other religions and religious communities, which contain “precepts and doctrines that… often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.” We also possess a great treasure in the seven sacraments, which some Christian communities do not accept in their totality or in the same sense. At the same time that we believe firmly in Jesus as the sole Redeemer of the world, we cultivate a deep devotion to his Mother. Even though we know that this is not the case with all Christian confessions, we feel it our duty to share with the Amazon region the treasure of that warm, maternal love which we ourselves have received. In fact, I will conclude this Exhortation with a few words addressed to Mary.

This is a fine re-statement of Catholic “particulars” or the uniqueness of Catholic life. Here we find an expression that has popped up before in the exhortation (and will do so again in paragraph 109): “Jesus as the sole Redeemer of the world.” This must have gladdened the heart of Pope Benedict who, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, promulgated (with John Paul’s explicit approval) “Dominus Iesus,” stressing this very point and for which he was pilloried in the left-wing Catholic press.

108. None of this needs to create enmity between us. In a true spirit of dialogue, we grow in our ability to grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction. In this way, it becomes possible to be frank and open about our beliefs, while continuing to discuss, to seek points of contact, and above all, to work and struggle together for the good of the Amazon region. The strength of what unites all of us as Christians is supremely important. We can be so attentive to what divides us that at times we no longer appreciate or value what unites us. And what unites us is what lets us remain in this world without being swallowed up by its immanence, its spiritual emptiness, its complacent selfishness, its consumerist and self-destructive individualism.

If our unique Catholic identity proclaimed in paragraph 107 is taken seriously, we do not need to fear a statement like: “The strength of what unites all of us as Christians is supremely important.”

So, where does this document leave us?

First, I would once more offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the Holy Spirit for preserving the Church from further confusion and error.

Second, is this a perfect document? By no means, however, when even Rorate Caeli offers muted praise for it and when heretofore papal cheerleaders of the Left have donned their widow’s weeds, simple and loyal sons and daughters of the Church ought to rejoice.

Third, should this exhortation be seen as a “turning point” for this pontificate? The adage calls us to moderate our expectations: “One swallow does not a summer make.” That said, history would remind us that Pius IX began his pontificate as a “liberal”; he ended it being considered nothing but a reactionary!

Fourth, for many of us, the past six years have been one long descent into the darkness. Might the prayers we have offered incessantly that this document would not further that descent give us the confidence to pray that this might be but the first of many future steps into the light?

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