After reading Querida Amazonia, my initial reaction was to think we have a Pope that believes there are some issues more important than the priesthood. Those of us who criticize clericalism certainly believe this, yet many of us were disappointed by the exhortation.
This may say something about us, especially those of us on the “progressive” end of the Catholic spectrum, that we never thought we would say.
What many see in our current Pope is a man not afraid of brushing against the grain, of saying — and doing — things that may shock and provoke us into thinking differently. Expectation leading up to the publication of Querida Amazonia bore the same assumptions, with people across the spectrum expecting him to enact some monumental change to ordained ministry in the Church. When we learned that his apostolic exhortation “failed” to mention the question of priestly celibacy at all–instead proposing more conventional solutions to increase access to the sacraments–many, especially the progressive wing of the Church, found his silence discomforting. It was almost as if the Pope of change, the “great reformer” had caved to outside pressure.
As days have passed, I’ve concluded that my discomfort is nothing but shock, but that I — and other Catholics rather enamored with the idea of change — are simply not used to experiencing it under Francis. But what was it that shocked us? A Pope keeping his word, a Pope deciding to speak about–and to be pastoral towards–those about whom the October 2019 synod was concerned: the people of the Amazon and the crisis they are facing. That is, Pope Francis wrote Querida Amazonia in response to the challenges and suffering unique to the people of the Amazon, which has been caused by the social, political, and ecological situation in the region.
Francis has provoked all of us, whether we were for or against this change. The issue at the heart of the Amazon Synod was not the clericalistic question surrounding the ordination of married men. At least that was not the central issue. Nor was it about reaffirming traditional practices for the sake of holding on to traditions, but of allowing the traditions of the Church and the people of the Amazon to flourish and bear witness to the Gospel. The purpose of the Synod was to help the Church address the spiritual and temporal needs of a region with a rich and culture and unique challenges.
Through the synodal process, we as a Church were called to reflect on what our sisters and brothers in the Amazon are actually experiencing. The question of how the Church can better fulfill her apostolic mission there is central, but we cannot neglect the other serious issues faced by the people of Amazonia: political exploitation, hunger, marginalization, ecological disaster, and — as our prejudiced assumptions seem to have proven — they also suffer from a healthy helping of indifference from us.
It’s true that many, including faithful Catholics in the Amazon region, demonstrated a degree of disappointment at reading about the absence of viri probati in Francis’s apostolic exhortation. Reports have brought to light countless missionaries lamenting the slow pace at which the Church moves. It’s also true that the sacrament of the Eucharist in the region is often hard to come by, with many communities being visited by a priest several times a year, at most.
But what’s true most of all is that most people in the region are not fighting for access to the spiritual nutrition the Church offers us in the Eucharist, but a more mundane form of nutrition: actual food, and a way to survive.
During a conversation with a friend of mine here in Rome, in which I lamented the “missed opportunity” of at least touching on the question of viri probati, she stopped me and said: “Dear, they’re fighting for life.” She was right: how can we adequately address the spiritual needs of people when their basic physical needs are not met?
Fine, mea culpa: I guess my expectations were slightly more connoted by a rather odd form of clericalism that affects many progressive Catholics, one that allows us to chime in with Francis about the problems of a clericalist Church, yet still believe that the main solution to the problems in the Amazon is the ordination of more people.
If that’s not clericalism — throwing dog collars to plug up holes and feed the hungry — I don’t know what is.
Clericalism runs so deep in our Church that it clouds our own crusades against it. Francis invites us to think about the lives of people in the Amazon, how they are often neglected by the governments that purport to love them, and how most of us outside the region are too detached from their suffering to sense that feeling of “healthy indignation” that sets the tone of Querida Amazonia.
As some may have seen, Cardinal Müller has recently “congratulated” Francis for writing a document that reconciles the differences between those who want change and those who prefer stagnant immobility. Meanwhile, swathes of Catholic progressives have been expressing that Francis failed us, failed the Church, and failed the people of the Amazon.
Admittedly, when I first thought of writing a reaction piece about Querida Amazonia, I wanted it to be provocative — my title was, “Why I’m (still) Disappointed.” In an early draft, I even wrote that Francis must have been tired of provoking, of shocking.
Now I think, by keeping his word and by turning the attention of the Church to the Amazon, he provoked me enough.
This article appears in our coverage of the Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia. Click here to view the full series.
Image: Fires and Deforestation in the Amazon Frontier. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Daniele Palmer is a freelance journalist. He studied history in London and is preparing a PhD on French Political Thought. He currently works from Rome as the Vatican correspondent for Where Peter Is.