The pope’s official response to the Amazon Synod was released on Wednesday. Entitled Querida Amazonia (“Beloved Amazon”), it is said to complement rather than supercede the synod’s own Final Document (my analysis of which you can read here) (QA 2). The pope recommends everyone read that document in its entirety, and he says he “officially present[s]” it (QA 3). In addition, Francis says he has chosen not to respond to everything in the document (QA 2). That does not mean that those parts have been rejected or deemed unimportant. Rather, those parts stand on their own authority.
Chapter 1: Social Justice
The first chapter laments the social injustice and exploitation that Amazonia has suffered, both the land and — more importantly — the indigenous people. The powerful have seized the Amazon’s resources as if they did not belong to the native people, and killed and enslaved those people (QA 12). The pope emphasizes that this exploitation, theft, and violence is often legal and perpetrated with the complicity of the local governments. Nevertheless, “they should be called for what they are: injustice and crime” (QA 14).
In the face of this, Christians ought to feel outraged, in imitation of God:
We need to feel outrage, as Moses did (cf. Ex 11:8), as Jesus did (cf. Mk 3:5), as God does in the face of injustice (cf. Am 2:4-8; 5:7-12; Ps 106:40).
The many biblical citations here are telling. The pope refutes a pernicious error that has grown within the Church: quietism. This is the belief that, because the world is full of sin, the spiritual person should seek escape from it through inner peace and faith. Rather than trying to confront sin and correct injustice, one should instead retreat into prayer and meditation, focusing on the Kingdom of God, where all shall be well. After all, sinfulness is the human condition; nothing can be done about it, except to seek your own salvation and escape. In fact, to become upset and outraged about human misery and exploitation would threaten your inner peace, indicating a misplaced, even dangerous concern for temporal things! It is arrogant to think you can do anything about it: only God can remove evil. Those who presume to make the world a better place fancy themselves as gods, worshiping themselves instead of trusting in God’s own timetable for removing evil at the Second Coming of Christ. Christians should keep their focus on eternal things and pray for the end to come. When Christians concern themselves with social justice, they become “worldly,” “secular,” and “political.” They should instead put their attention on the “salvation of souls,” which comes through faith and the sacraments, not political action.
Like all heresies, quietism takes one truth and blows it out of proportion to the exclusion of other truths. All the things quietists value, such as prayer, the sacraments, meditating on the Kingdom of God, are good and necessary. But they do not exclude or minimize social action or the works of mercy. Rather the reverse: they are the foundation for the spiritual person’s social action, without which we cannot be saved (cf. Matt 7:21; 25:31-46). Anger is a natural response to injustice and as such is a good thing (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 46, a. 2). As the pope references, people in the Bible get angry when they witness grave injustice. To suppress this outrage is selfish, in that you put your own desire for contentment ahead of the needs of the afflicted. God gave us anger to spur us to seek justice.
The pope recognizes the Church’s historic complicity in the exploitation of Amazonia, as Catholic missionaries were often part of the exploitative system, though some tried to protect the indigenous (QA 18-19). Francis instructs the Church in the region to scrutinize the provenance of financial donations, as these have often amounted to bribery: as long as the powerful donated to the Church, the Church overlooked their crimes (QA 25).
The chapter concludes by saying that the primary goal going forward is dialogue with the native people: “And the great question is: ‘What is their idea of “good living” for themselves and for those who will come after them?'” (QA 27). No proposal for the Amazon region can be made without their explicit permission (QA 26).
Chapter 2: Culture
In the second chapter, Pope Francis states that the particular cultures of the Amazon region should be preserved and respected. There is a theological motive here:
In each land and its features, God manifests himself and reflects something of his inexhaustible beauty. Each distinct group, then, in a vital synthesis with its surroundings, develops its own form of wisdom. Those of us who observe this from without should avoid unfair generalizations, simplistic arguments and conclusions drawn only on the basis of our own mindsets and experiences. (QA 32)
There are two modes of revelation here. Firstly, creation is the mirror of God’s beauty. When we examine natural beauty, we see the handiwork of God (cf. Rom 1:19-20). To look at the Amazon and see only resources to be seized and sold is gravely evil.
Secondly, the cultures of the Amazon contain divine wisdom. The pope’s reference to wisdom evokes the ancient Christian theology of the “seeds of the Word.” This means that God revealed his truth or Word, not only in the Scriptures, but all around the world, at least in fragmentary form. These partial revelations prepare for and find their fulfillment in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. It is not a competition but a completion. This profound idea was first expressed by the second-century apologist St. Justin Martyr:
There seem to be seeds of truth among all human beings. (First Apology 44 [tr. Roberts-Donaldson])
Each [philosopher] spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic Word, seeing what was related to it. […] Whatever things were rightly said among all human beings are the property of us Christians. For next to God we worship and love the Word, who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God[…]. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted Word that was in them. (Second Apology 13)
The Word of God is in the Old Testament called the Wisdom of God (e.g., Prov 8:22-31). While the Fathers of the Church looked especially to the writings of Plato, because he was a luminary of their own culture, the principle is universal. When the pope says that the peoples of the Amazon also have wisdom, he speaks in accord with Christian tradition. Westerners who trade in derogatory stereotypes about the Amazon peoples and scorn their wisdom as “uncivilized” (cf. QA 29), thinking their own culture to be superior, fail to think with the Christian tradition and sound theology.
A threat to the preservation of cultures is “a consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy” (Laudato Si’ 144; QA 33). This is a common theme from Pope Francis: that globalization threatens to reduce every culture and every human being to nothing but consumers, whose sole value is in their purchasing power. Those who lack that power are disposable. He often calls this “throw-away culture.”
This is not a blanket rejection of what nationalists call “globalism.” Pope Francis, shortly before the synod, denounced the dangers of nationalism and isolationism, saying, for example, that “A country must be sovereign, but not closed.” Here he quotes John Paul II: “The challenge, in short, is to ensure a globalization in solidarity, a globalization without marginalization” (QA 15). We want people and cultures to work together without erasing individual and cultural identities.
It is good for nations and cultures to work together and share; that is not the danger:
Identity and dialogue are not enemies. Our own cultural identity is strengthened and enriched as a result of dialogue with those unlike ourselves. Nor is our authentic identity preserved by an impoverished isolation. (QA 37)
Nationalism and isolationism claim to offer preservation of culture and identity. Those are good goals, but they achieve it by looking down on other cultures with a superiority that manifests itself in violence and racism. What Pope Francis proposes as an antidote to globalism is instead intercultural dialogue in which cultures are not static but are enriched by the other. The “blending” of cultures is a good thing and something that cannot be prevented in any case. It is about building bridges, not walls, another theme of his papacy.
Chapter 3: Ecology
The third chapter draws heavily upon Francis’s 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’. The main point, which comes originally from Pope Benedict XVI (the “green pope”), is that natural ecology must be integrally united with human and social ecology (QA 41). It’s not enough only to care for nature; this task is inextricably bound with caring for human beings, for whom the earth was made to be our common home (QA 42). Thus:
To abuse nature is to abuse our ancestors, our brothers and sisters, creation and the Creator, and to mortgage the future. (QA 42)
Pope Francis strikes a liberationist note when he likens the cry of the poor and of the earth itself (the two cries are united) to the cry of the Israelites in Egypt, which prompted God to remember his covenant (Exod 2:23-25; 3:7; QA 52).
A biblical foundation for caring for the earth is Jesus’ words that God remembers even the sparrows (Luke 12:6; QA 57). To this I would add God’s explicit concern for animals stated in Jonah 4:11. (And, of course, Genesis 1 and 2!)
Pope Francis says that we can even “enter into communion with the forest” and in that way offer a prayer of praise and song to the Creator of all (QA 56)! This harks back to St. Francis of Assisi’s famous Canticle of the Sun, in which God is praised (“Laudato si'”) through nature. Note well that there is nothing like nature-worship or idolatry here. We do not worship the forest or the river any more than St. Francis worshiped the sun and the moon; we worship God by extolling and contemplating all his marvelous creations, of which the Amazon river and forest are prime examples!
In this chapter the Holy Father reiterates the danger of consumerism, which sees nature only as something to be used rather than God’s creation and an instrument of praise (QA 58-59).
Chapter 4: Mission and Evangelization
The fourth chapter concerns the Church itself and what it needs to do to evangelize and flourish in the Amazon region. Here are where the hot-button issues lie that were so scrutinized in the Catholic and secular media.
First the Roman Pontiff defines what the Church’s fundamental mission is: to proclaim the kerygma (Greek for proclamation), which is that God “infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives” (QA 64). Christians must return to this foundation again and again and never lose sight of it (QA 65). As the pope warned against indifference toward the suffering (quietism), so now he warns against the opposite error: reducing Christianity to a “social message” or a “moral code” and reducing the Church to “just another NGO” (QA 63-64). This is something he has said before. As usual, Catholicism is a both/and, not an either/or. We must both struggle for social justice and political change — the alleviation of human misery and protecting of the earth — and proclaim salvation in the name of Jesus the Savior. These are not opposed. It is precisely our faith in Jesus Christ that motivates us Christians to take care of the poor, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow — in a word, the marginalized. In them, we find Jesus himself (Mt 25:37-40). If we do not find him there, we will not find him in the Bread and Wine, either.
For evangelization to be successful, the pope says, the Gospel must be inculturated. It must adapt and integrate itself into the forms, thought-patterns, and customs of every culture (QA 66-67). In the early Church this was done so successfully within Greco-Roman culture that many Greek philosophical terms made their way into the vocabulary of Christian dogma (e.g., prosopon, ousia, hypostasis). In fact, it was almost too successful in that it can be difficult to separate the religion’s essence from particular Greco-Roman and medieval forms. This is a constant danger for missionaries, who end up trying to impose Western culture rather than propose the Gospel (QA 69). Francis quotes John Paul II saying that “inculturation commits the Church to a difficult but necessary journey” (Address of 1/17/87).
Inculturation is a two-way street of intercultural dialogue (QA 68-69). Not only does a culture receive the Gospel, but the Church then learns from that culture: “The Church herself undergoes a process of reception that enriches her with the fruits of what the Spirit has already mysteriously sown in that culture” (QA 68). This refers back to that cultural wisdom that Justin Martyr called the “seeds of the Word.” The Church discovers what God had already revealed to that culture and integrates that wisdom into her own understanding of revelation. Again Francis quotes JP II: “The Holy Spirit adorns the Church, showing her new aspects of revelation and giving her a new face” (Vita Consecrata 116). This understanding of missionary work as an intercultural exchange sets it free from the bane of colonialism. Francis quotes an episcopal conference document (as is his wont) that lists some of the things the Church can learn and embrace from Amazonian culture:
Openness to the action of God, a sense of gratitude for the fruits of the earth, the sacred character of human life and esteem for the family, a sense of solidarity and shared responsibility in common work, the importance of worship, belief in a life beyond this earth, and many other values. (QA 70)
Pope Francis also alludes to the “Pachamama” controversy. (Conservative Catholics claimed a statuette of a pregnant woman at the synod was an idol of the goddess Pachamama.) Like many of us at the time, the pontiff defends the traditional Catholic practice of incorporating indigenous religious elements:
Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. […] It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry. A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error. Some religious festivals have a sacred meaning and are occasions for gathering and fraternity, albeit in need of a gradual process of purification or maturation. (QA 78-79, emphasis added)
An early example of this in Church history is when St. Gregory the Great advised that pagan temples and festivals in England, rather than being destroyed, be absorbed and transposed into Christianity, even if it took time to fully purify the old ways (Bede, History of the English Church and People, 86-87, quoted in Henry Karlson’s excellent post, “Christian Missions, Inculturation and the Amazon Synod“). Pope Francis said at the time that the display of the “Pachamama” figure had no “idolatrous intentions.” Given everything the Church teaches about protecting nature and its reverence of the Virgin Mary as a universal Mother, the adoption of “Pachamama” is a textbook example of “tak[ing] up an indigenous symbol.”
Next, Francis writes about the need to inculturate the liturgy and the sacraments themselves (QA 81-84). It is in the nature of the sacraments, being material means of supernatural grace, to inculcate in us an appreciation of the material world (QA 81). He quotes his encyclical Laudato Si’ to the effect that the sacraments encourage environmental stewardship and refute any temptation to “flee the world” (quietism again!) (QA 82). Without going into specific proposals, he reminds us that Vatican II called for the inculturation of the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium 37-40, 65, 77, 81). This means more than just translating Latin (let alone in a slavishly-literal way). Francis laments that “over fifty years have passed and we still have far to go along these lines” (QA 82). If the Church is going to grow in the Amazon, it will need a fully-inculturated liturgical life.
Clergy and laity
At last we reach the issue that became so all-consuming in the media that it threatened to swallow up the synod: whether to allow married deacons to be ordained as priests in remote areas. The synod asked for this in the Final Document:
We propose that criteria and dispositions be established by the competent authority, within the framework of Lumen Gentium 26, to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community with a legitimately constituted and stable family, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, in order to sustain the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region. (111)
Pope Francis has chosen not to respond directly to this proposal in this document. Instead, he calls for an increase in the number of deacons, and for they, along with religious women and laypeople, to “regularly assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities” (QA 92). He says that the need for more priests has to be considered in the larger context of a need for a renewal of the spiritual life of the whole communities with lay ministers (QA 93).
Many have already misinterpreted his decision not to respond as the equivalent of responding in the negative. This is mistaken because Pope Francis opened his document by saying that the Final Document remains valid in its own right, that his exhortation does not supercede it, and that he “officially present[s]” the Final Document. Therefore, the synod’s proposal to ordain some married deacons as priests remains open. That this is the case was confirmed explicitly by Cardinal Michael Czerny at the press conference presenting the exhortation.
I think Francis refused to decide for now as a way to fight back against the narrative that this synod was all about married priests. (It is not just the fault of the media, as Francis’s opponents in the Church have consistently claimed that the entire synod is merely a subterfuge to abolish the law of priestly celibacy.) The pope has already told some U.S. bishops he is frustrated with the media’s reaction to his exhortation fixating on the celibacy issue. The family synods were similarly overwhelmed by discussion of whether some remarried Catholics would be allowed to receive Communion again. Apparently to fight back against this, the pope relegated the decision to allow it “in certain cases” to a footnote. But rather than keeping the focus on other issues, this caused outrage from conservative Catholics who thought he was trying to make changes on the sly. This time he has separated the issue of married priests, which was never the focus of the synod, from the broader concerns of the Amazon region. Francis believes that the broader concerns — social injustice and exploitation, erasure of indigenous identities, and destruction of the environment — are more pressing. The question of married priests has become a distraction (as did the “Pachamama” affair), just as the question of divorced Catholics distracted from the broader problem of ministering to families in the Church.
Finally, many of the bishops at the Amazon synod proposed ordaining women as deacons: “In a large number of these consultations, the permanent diaconate for women was requested” (Final Document 103). They deemed this possible because
1) Women deacons are mentioned in the New Testament (Rom 16:1-2; 1 Tim 3:8-11).
2) There was an office of deaconess in the early Church, complete with an ordination ritual by the bishop (e.g., Apostolic Constitutions 8, 19-20).
3) The Roman magisterial decisions against women’s ordination in the 20th century (Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) concern only priestly ordination, whereas deacons are ordained to service, not priesthood.
A careful examination of the exact wording Francis uses in this section (QA 99-103) reveals that here too he has not directly and explicitly responded to the request. As with the proposal for married priests, it is still technically “on the table.” I am not playing around with words; the pope already re-opened the theological commission on women deacons for further study. If he had already settled the issue magisterially, he would not have done this. From the point of view of defined doctrine, women deacons remains an open question.
That being said, however, Francis clearly opposes ordaining women and says so. This has caused some Catholics already to feel disappointment, hurt, and anger. To ordain women, Francis says, would amount to “clericalizing” them and be a narrow response to the problems at hand (QA 100). This should be not too surprising to hear, as he forecasted his view on this question right after the synod concluded.
Francis is sensitive to the criticism that excluding women from ordained ministry keeps power in the Church in male hands; that it is sexist. He has two responses: first, that the priesthood is not primarily an exercise of power. He does not deny that priests exercise hierarchical power, but he insists that this power should be understood as the power to sanctify (QA 87), chiefly by celebrating the Eucharist and confession (QA 88). These are the only aspects of priestly ministry that cannot be delegated to the laity. In contrast, women have contributed much to the Church in the Amazon, especially by baptizing (in the absence of priests), catechizing, praying, and acting as missionaries (QA 99). He calls these roles “the kind of power that is typically theirs” (QA 101, emphasis added). These roles should not be informal or ad hoc, but publicly commissioned by the bishop as stable lay ministries (QA 103). Through these official ministries, women would “have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions, and the direction of communities” (QA 103, emphasis added). “A Church of Amazonian features requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority” (QA 94, emphasis added). By giving lay ministers real decision-making power, and defining the power of the priesthood as more sacramental than administrative, he envisions a Church in which the clergy are not the only decision-makers. Rather, they would exercise their sacramental power alongside many forms of lay ministry that also exercise real power.
By Francis’s own admission, clericalism is a huge problem in the Church; he attacks it constantly. Therefore, turning the pope’s dream here into a reality seems to me to remain very far off. In the U.S., Catholics generally consider the priest to be “the boss” in everything, even where there are lay ministers and parish councils. Getting Catholics and priests themselves to re-conceptualize priestly and lay ministries in this way would be a sea change. (And it would probably mean re-writing parts of canon law, too.) However, in the Amazon there are few priests, so maybe it could happen if bishops actively supported it. The pope indicates that it is already de facto the case to an extent. According to Austen Ivereigh: “Almost all of the region’s Catholic communities are run by lay people, 60 percent of them women; only a tiny proportion have resident clergy.”
Francis believes that diverging responses to problems in the Church (such as these debates about women deacons and married priests) are best resolved by “transcending the two approaches and finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined” (QA 104). In other words, he does not want one side to win and the other to lose, but for the whole problem to be transcended creatively. This will not happen overnight, and it seems almost impossible in our highly-polarized society. “But with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). The pope insists that seeking a transcendent answer doesn’t mean “relativizing problems, fleeing from them or letting things stay as they are. Authentic solutions are never found by dampening boldness, shirking concrete demands or assigning blame to others” (QA 105). He has anticipated himself being criticized for “letting things stay as they are” and “shirking” the synod’s “concrete demands” on women deacons and married priests! He awaits a higher answer that will allow both sides of the Church to “join the other in a new reality” (QA 104).
The chapter concludes by saying the Church must engage its mission within the context of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue (QA 106-10). We Christians should not focus so much on what divides us, but what unites us (QA 108). This has nothing to do with watering down doctrine or obscuring our own Catholic identity (QA 106). As he said before: dialogue and identity are not enemies (QA 37)! As with other papal documents, the exhortation concludes with a prayer to Mary.
The document is powerful. It is unfortunate that our endless culture war, which afflicts even the Body of Christ, has reduced this synodal process and its documents to the almost 60-year-old debate about married priests and women’s ordination. The issues raised in the first three chapters are matters of life and death. I do not mean to downplay the importance of the bishops’ proposals for the reformation of ministry, which are also serious for the Church, but they should not overshadow everything else the way they have done. That Pope Francis placed the controversial section as the final chapter says something; he did the same with Amoris Laetitia after the family synods. I hope Catholics will take the time to read this document and, more importantly, act on its words about social justice, cultural preservation and dialogue, and ecology.
This article appears in our coverage of the Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia. Click here to view the full series.
Image: Adobe Stock.
Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).