A Wise Child’s Guide to the Amazon Synod

Note: I leave for Rome today and three-plus weeks of what already seems certain to become the most controversial – and bitter – among recent synods. It’s very strange not to look forward to being in the Eternal City. But such is the state of things in the Church these days that it overshadows even a sojourn amidst the greatest classical and Christian legacy in the world, under the milk-blue October skies of Central Italy. We will begin regular commentary on the Synod next week – RR

A few days ago, Vaticannews.va, an official outlet, featured an article by a Brazilian Jesuit and theologian defending the mishmash of sociology and sophisms in the Amazon Synod’s Working Document using the most extreme terms imaginable. Father Adelson Araujo dos Santos called claims that the Synod was flirting with “theological errors and heresies” to be “a total distortion of the facts.” In his view, anyone making such claims is in “complete disobedience to the whole doctrine and magisterium of the church.”

Is this necessary now? To disagree with what is, by any normal reckoning, a strange Roman concoction – invocation of cosmovisions, rainforest primitivism, shamans, indigenous religious beliefs and practices (some quite shocking) – is defiance of doctrine and the Church’s teaching authority? Not merely a different view? Not even an error? But a revolt against the Faith?

Synod defenders argue that it merely continues the defense of Creation by JPII and Benedict. But this is, at best, misdirection. Any thinking Christian recognizes there are environmental problems stemming from a wrong idea of Creation, primarily that nature is mere matter and energy that we may use any way we wish. But Care of Creation is not in dispute; a mostly empty sentimentalism about indigenous cultures very much is.

It’s another feint to say that the Church has always understood the need to respect and understand native cultures – to “inculturate” the Gospel by finding openings in the cultures themselves. Quite true. But in the Synod’s Working Document, there’s a great deal about valuing native ways, and – to be blunt – only perfunctory mention of preaching Jesus Christ as the one way, as He told us, to come to the Father.

To date, six cardinals have openly expressed worry about such matters. One, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, is currently prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Another, Gerhard Mueller, was, under both Benedict and Francis, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Just this week, a group of bishops, priests, and laypeople released – anonymously, for fear of reprisals – a statement identifying four major problems with the Working Document, and sent a copy to the pope:

1. promotion of the “diversity of religions” instead of the Church as Christ’s way of salvation;

2. acceptance of indigenous religions and adaptation of Christian rites to them;

3. classification of indigenous ways as sources of revelation like Scripture, tradition, Church Fathers, etc.;

4. recasting of the priesthood and women’s roles along indigenous instead of historic Catholic lines.

The points are clearly stated, with references to authoritative Church documents, and nuanced in ways that a brief summary cannot convey. But anyone may read the full text here and judge whether and where it is correct, or not.

Are all these figures merely disobedient, schismatic; irrationally, inexplicably, personally enemies of Pope Francis – as is now often suggested in Rome – or rather raising legitimate questions about what is a certifiably strange initiative?

In a way, the crazy blessing of indigenous ways – which are, to begin with, not the same across peoples and tribes – doesn’t bother me as much as it does some people. I’ve been involved in debates over religion and environmentalism for almost two decades and I’ve heard it all before. Many times. In many different forums.


In the end, after the ritualistic expressions of guilt and self-abasement by a certain type of Westerner, it has little effect. No developed nation, not even the progressive international institutions, will be looking to indigenous peoples for guidance about the trade-offs needed both to meet the needs of seven billion people and to preserve, as far as possible, the ecosystems of the planet.

Developing nations that are seeking to rise from poverty – and the environmental damage poverty entails – are even less inclined to look to indigenous ways as a path to their future. In international forums, they are quite happy to use Western guilt to get subsidies and concessions, but they want in on global prosperity.

And they are right to do so. Contrary to the extremist ecology-mongers and population-controllers that the Vatican now consults (Google: Joachim Schellnuber, Naomi Klein, Jeffrey Sachs, and judge for yourself); or the media-orchestrated campaigns, like the one involving the troubled Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, a papal favorite; on the whole, even current forms of development save lives, offer people greater freedom and dignity, are gradually eliminating age-old scourges like famine, plagues, resource wars, and early mortality.

You can look it up, if you seek out cooler, informed heads who see both the serious costs of development and the greater benefits. Try here for instance.

Romantic sentimentalism about nature and indigenous peoples may produce a period of environmental mush in various Catholic institutions, but like the felt-banner Catholicism of the 1960s, it will not endure.

Much more substantial and long-lasting, however, will be the way that this confused naturism is being mixed with celibacy and priesthood, largely at the prodding of German theologians, with nods towards women’s ordination. Why those first-world hobbyhorses need to appear in a synod on Amazonia is, to say the least, unclear.

Indeed, why we need a synod on the Amazon at all is a fair question. Persecution of Christians, for example, is a far more immediate and pressing problem globally. How about a synod on religious persecution?

Instead of spending almost a month talking about badly defined issues, it would be far more effective – and probably a lot cheaper – to recruit and support a new wave of missionary priests for a region that is geographically vast, but relatively small in population. Pope Francis himself just proposed October as Missionary Month.

At the end of the day, are the problems of one region – contrary to the pope’s expressed wishes for a “synodality” intended to decentralize power and give national and regional bishops’ conferences a proper authority over local issues – to define how Catholics around the world are now to live?

The Synod will likely not resolve that issue, but maybe by the end we’ll have an answer to another question: What, exactly, is this all, really, about?


*Image: The First Mass in Brazil by Victor Meirelles, 1861 [Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.