On Friday, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller – former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – published a second commentary on the Synod for the Amazon , to be held in Rome this October. It follows an earlier critique of his , both of them blistering about the radical nature of what is largely a German “paradigm,” not only for the rainforests of South America, but for the whole Church.
The good Cardinal begins by noting something that has been widely reported but not sufficiently appreciated: the Church in Germany lost more than 216,000 members in 2018, on top of similar departures in past years. The response to this crisis has not been – as happened during similar periods of trouble in the Church (i.e., in the Counter-Reformation) – to re-commit to preaching the Gospel even more forcefully. Instead, the German Church has chosen to “secularize” by accepting many things in our postmodern, post-truth world that have never been part of Catholicism.
The result was predictable. Many people concluded that they didn’t really need even this secularized, supposedly more attractive, German Church, since they could already get most of what it was pushing without bothering about Mass, Confession, Communion, monogamy, self-denial, charity, etc.
Even worse, many German Catholics now believe that the Church is not the Mystical Body of Christ, a communion that persists through time, chosen by God, as He had earlier chosen the Jewish people, to carry out his “self-revelation.”
In other words, the Church – in a truly Catholic view – is not like a political party or a club that you join or leave at will when you don’t like the positions it’s taken. The Church is literally a “divine institution,” a reality created to assure us of the true path to salvation.
The Synod for the Amazon could have been an opportunity to remind us of that and to inspire new ways of conveying the Good News to a land that has not been fully evangelized.
Instead, the Amazon is being used as a proxy to advance what German Catholic leaders hope will resurrect a clearly dying church. Cardinal Mueller is unconvinced:
If the church were to try to legitimize herself before a de-Christianized world in a secular manner as a natural-religious lobby of the ecological movement, or try to present herself as a relief agency for migrants by donating money – she would lose even more of her identity as the universal Sacrament of Salvation in Christ, and she will not at all receive that much-yearned-for recognition on the part of the left-wing, green mainstream.
The Instrumentum Laboris (IL – “Working Document”) for the Synod could have made clear – to the people of the Amazon as well as to the whole world again – that Catholicism believes Christ’s own words. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6)
This is, of course, “offensive” today, as it was when it was first spoken. But it’s the main point. If some German theologians are so worried about cultural imperialism and “ethnocide” that they can’t clearly affirm that point, they may be in the wrong line of work.
Because it’s not hard, as missionaries in the past have done, to acknowledge – as a preliminary step towards the greater task – that God has been at work in all cultures prior to the coming of the Gospel.
The proper respect for other people and what they cherish, however, has never been taken as a reason to soft-peddle the Christian claim. Rather, it’s been a way to show how what was good among Jews, Greeks, Romans, now Amazonians, can find its true fulfillment.
You can find a few perfunctory words to that effect in the rambling IL text, but so watered down that the whole mostly reads like something that could have been produced by a U.N. development agency – not an evangelizing Church.
You might even think that Christians are now to regard one of the “nations” to which they have been sent as having a better view of God, Creation, and human relations than our own.
For example, Amazonians are portrayed not – as is only to be expected – as possessing valuable insights or ideas. Instead, “It is necessary to grasp what the Spirit of the Lord has taught these peoples throughout the centuries: faith in the God Father-Mother Creator.” God Father-Mother Creator? This is tantamount to blessing a different “faith.”
And it doesn’t stop even there. The Amazon is described as “a theological place where faith is lived, and also a particular source of God’s revelation: epiphanic places where the reserve of life and wisdom for the planet is manifest, a life and wisdom that speaks of God.” Vatican II declared – in line with constant Church teaching – that we await no further revelation since the close of the New Testament. So does this desire to praise indigenous peoples and the Amazon trump even Vatican II?
In his latest commentary, Cardinal Mueller has particularly tart words for bishops who talk about giving up “power”:
The form of “power” that they wish to give up is something they had better not have in the first place; and the spiritual authority which they received from Christ at their ordination, they cannot give away, since it is not their own property that they may propose to dispense of.
He’s talking about a developed-world, ideologized notion of power relations rather than the power and authority to serve, which is the Christian idea.
Many people have noticed the problems with the IL’s proposals about ordaining married “viri probati,” and distributing power and authority to women. But this abdication of true power and authority really pervades the whole effort.
Curiously, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the woman who showed undeniable power, who was the channel for the conversion of an entire continent – something unprecedented in Christian history – is not mentioned. But perhaps that’s no surprise, since her Son, too, is barely present.
*Image: Christ’s Charge to St. Peter by Raphael, c. 1515 [Victoria and Albert Museum , London]