The Amazonian “Paradigm”

The second week of the Amazon Synod began yesterday and the usual voices said the usual things in the usual way. There was more talk of inculturation and valuing indigenous peoples and eco-conversion, but curiously little to reassure us about how it all is supposed to be successful in the future, since so many participants claim to have already been engaged in just such activities for quite some time in the past.

Venezuelan Bishop José Ángel Divassón Cilveti said at yesterday’s press briefing that the Church in the Amazon region was something like “liturgical” (his language wasn’t clear) before Vatican II. After the Council, beginning in the mid-1970s in his telling, it became more engaged with the people and started helping to promote education, healthcare, indigenous rights, and much else.

If true, this would be damning evidence of the Church in those areas of Latin America. Forget the 50+ years since the Council. After 500+ years since the voyages of Columbus, it hadn’t been working to improve conditions for the far-flung flock? In most places around the world, where missionaries have brought the faith they have also tried to encourage material improvements as well. Bishop Cilveti may be right – it doesn’t seem plausible (it seems more plausible that he and others started to get involved in “social justice” forms of activity) – but it’s terrible if true.

Then again, we know that Bishop Erwin Kräutler, the main figure behind the Instrumentum Laboris and its full-throated enthusiasm for native cultures, has boasted that in thirty years working in the Amazon region, he’s never baptized an indigenous person. If a Catholic missionary hasn’t brought the faith to the people, to whom he was sent explicitly for that purpose, it may be no wonder that he hasn’t brought much in the way of education, healthcare, etc. either.

I wrote here yesterday of the dubious ways that “ecological conversion” is being spoken of when Church figures – as is only to be expected – don’t really grasp the technical side of environmental issues or the tradeoffs that inevitably face us when different good are in conflict.

It would not be much of a stretch to say that something similar is in play in this effort to promote “new pathways” for the Church in the Amazon. Many of the people who have been speaking in the public sessions have spent three or more decades in the Amazon, and to hear them tell it, they’ve been on the side of the angels all that time. So the new paths look very much like the old paths, except for the addition of primarily first-world “solutions,” like married priests and women in roles of authority.


I’ve said here before that the argument that indigenous peoples don’t understand celibacy, if true, is another failure of evangelization after centuries of the Church’s presence in the region.

A journalist prodded the panelists yesterday asking whether there was any opposition in the synod hall to ordaining married viri probati. The answer was vague, that all different kinds of views are being presented. The director of the Vatican Communications Office, Paolo Ruffini, turned even further from an answer by reminding everyone that the synod is only advisory: in the end, the pope will take the advice offered and decide what he wants to do with it.

Brazilian Bishop Carlo Verzeletti described his situation: There are 1010 villages in his diocese, he has only a handful of priests, and about 100 ordained deacons. Meanwhile, the Pentecostals are violently “invading” (his term). He would ordain married men, if the pope allows it, and he even already knows which ones.

It’s hard to tell someone about his own situation, which he obviously knows first-hand. But from a distance and at the risk of being wildly off base, just maybe the new ways he ought to pursue are not to give in to the usual secular perspective and take the radical leap into trying to recruit more priests, largely expand his deacons if needed, in short to try Catholicism, which has managed to persist in all sorts of highly unfavorable situations for millennia.

It’s ironic that the strongest voices at the synod seem to want to preserve age-old indigenous beliefs and practices, which are inevitably now going to change as they come into contact with the modern world. At the same time, they show what seems only a perfunctory desire to preserve another age-old set of beliefs and practices, the ones that involve preaching the Gospel to all nations.


Some further reflections on the Newman canonization:

In a widely distributed newspaper article soon to be published in the Vatican’s Osservatore Romano, the Prince of Wales has told us that Newman was a saint for our times, essentially because he could argue civilly with those with whom he disagreed. And he also did something or other, which somehow was good for diversity and helpful in making the U.K. “a community of communities.”

It’s easy to mock this political-speak, which these days issues from the mouths of virtually every Western leader. But Prince Charles was not far off from what we often hear from the Vatican these days, everything about living peaceably with one another in a superficial, public sense. All but nothing about the importance of truth, both in itself and as the only real basis for the common good.

Pope Francis’ homily at the canonization Mass Sunday was all but inaudible; you could barely tell what language he was speaking. But I did pick out one of his favorite phrases; he spoke of our need to come out of our “comforting certainties.” I suppose there was a time when bourgeois Catholicism was a great danger to living an authentic Christian life. But I don’t know of anywhere today where certainties, of any kind, are a serious danger in our post-truth world.

Indeed, if there’s a way in which Newman is a saint for our times, it’s in the fact that he found his way into Truth and put forward arguments intended to lead others to Truth as well. In fact, his Grammar of Assent explains how we come to religious certitude – which unlike many people inside and outside the Church today – he thought something invaluable, one of the names of God.


*Image: Our Lady of Cocharcas Under the Baldachin by the Cuzco School [Peru], 1765 [Brooklyn Museum]