Pope Francis’ October synod on Pan Amazon region looks prophetic

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, September 4, 2019

sidoro Jajoy, a shaman from Colombia’s Inga tribe, blesses people in Bogota Aug. 14, 2019, during a preparatory meeting for the October Synod of Bishops for the Amazon. (CNS photo/Manuel Rueda)

VATICAN CITY — As the Amazon rainforest burns, Pope Francis’ decision to hold a synod of bishops focusing on the region next month seems prophetic. From Oct. 6-27, church and community leaders from across the Pan-Amazon region will gather in Rome to discuss this forgotten part of the world, a “lung” of the planet that is now struggling to breathe.

Francis announced this would be the theme of the synod two years ago, revealing his knack for spotting hot-button humanitarian issues. In his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’” (“On Care for Our Common Home”), the pope wrote about the “richly biodiverse lungs of our planet which are the Amazon and the Congo basins,” describing them as vitally important for the “entire earth and the future of humanity.” He warned about the exploitation of the Amazon by global economic interests and the responsibility of governments to preserve their natural resources. 

The bishops from the Amazon region will be focusing on “integral ecology,” which holds that the protection of the planet and of humanity are intimately connected. Environmental concerns and social-justice concerns are inseparable, and in this way Francis has developed the body of Catholic social doctrine.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has removed protections from the rainforest. Campaigners argue his policies have increased deforestation and helped to fuel the latest wildfires. Bolsonaro is nervous about the synod, given the powerful voice the church has in the region.

Catholic communities in the Amazon are renowned for their solidarity with the exploited, and defense of the Earth. The president has already dispatched a delegation of diplomatic and military representatives to meet with Vatican officials in an attempt to ensure they can influence the outcome.

Brazil’s military is proprietorial about the Amazon, which it sees as sovereign to them. Bolsonaro’s lobbying has been politely rebuffed. Francis wants the synod to be a protected space where the Amazonian church can develop its own prophetic voice, free of political and commercial influences.

In Rome, officials point out that while the majority of the Amazon region is in Brazil, it is a massive territory that includes parts of eight other countries. The pope does not neglect the sovereignty issue. In “Laudato Si’” he argues how the transnational business interests “undermine the sovereignty of individual nations.” Bolsonaro has fired environment protection agents, saying that agriculture business is stagnating, and helping the landowners.

The Amazon synod has also faced resistance from inside the church, particularly from Rome-based cardinals unhappy with parts of the synod’s working document, which will provide the framework for the bishops’ discussions when they meet next month.

The critics have complained about the document’s methodology, denouncing it as heretical. They don’t like the thrust of the text, which calls on the church to listen to those from the Amazon region. The working document calls for an “inculturated liturgy,” official roles for women and the possibility of ordaining older married men as priests. 

The charge of heresy is a bold one, given that synod working documents are simply that: They are always edited, reworked and adapted. They are not magisterial texts.

What can’t be disputed, however, is the unprecedented listening exercise that took place before the Amazon gathering, taking into account contributions from 87,000 people across nine countries who took part in consultations, debates and assemblies. 

“The document largely expresses the feelings and desires of multiple representatives of the Amazon people,” according to Cardinal Pedro Barreto, one of the synod organizers, whose archdiocese of Huncayo covers the western Amazonian region of Peru. Writing in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica in July, he said, “This is an unprecedented experience for a special synod, and it is, therefore — without losing sight of the fact that it is an eminently ecclesial event — a good indicator of what is happening in this territory.”

By calling a synod dedicated to the Amazon, and having a wide consultation exercise, the pope is seeking to be guided by the sense of the faith (“sensus fidei”) in the region which, when united with the bishops, cannot be in error. 

It was 160 years ago when an English cardinal, John Henry Newman, produced a valuable contribution to the church’s understanding of the “sensus fidei,” and the “sensus fidelium” (“the sense of the faithful”). In an article, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” Newman wrote that the consent of the faithful is a crucial test for the church, adding that the “body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine.” He describes the “consensus” of the laity as the “voice of the Infallible church.”

On Oct. 13, halfway through the Amazon synod, Newman will be declared a saint. The canonization, like the Amazon gathering, also feels prophetic.


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