Lost in a Dark Wood: Final Thoughts on the Amazon Synod

There has been a great deal of speculation about the “spirit” behind the Amazon Synod and its likely consequences. Given the way the “spirit” of Vatican II metastasized into something that left the actual documents reflecting the decisions of the Council Fathers far behind, such speculation is entirely warranted. Raymond Arroyo, Fr. Gerald Murray, and I (followed by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller) have just offered some wide-ranching observations on the likely consequences of the synod (click here to view the video).  Pope Francis has emphasized, however, that we should not get caught up in what he thinks of as small disciplinary issues and focus instead on the various “diagnoses” of the big problems related to the Amazon. The reflections below, therefore, look at some of those “diagnoses,” which raise troubling questions.

Even before the bishops assembled in Rome in early October, it was unclear what the Amazon Synod was, really, about. If it was about evangelization in that region, you would want to focus sharply, indeed narrowly, on the practical means. Because if the Church hasn’t made much headway in the region after 500 years, including the past 50 years (since Vatican II) during which several of the Amazon bishops claim to have been carrying out a more sensitive ministry close to indigenous peoples, you wouldn’t want to head off onto yet another period of ineffective wishful thinking.

The most realistic step forward – if evangelization was the goal – would be the expansion of the number of male deacons trained specially for the Amazon. But this description of how they will be trained shows the mission creep that vitiates the Synod Final Document at almost every point:

The curriculum for the formation of the permanent diaconate, in addition to the compulsory subjects, must include topics that favor ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural dialogue, the history of the Church in the Amazon, affection and sexuality, the indigenous worldview, integral ecology and other cross-cutting issues that are typical of diaconal ministry.

Typical of diaconal ministry? This sounds a lot like hoping that in addition to real Catholic theology and pastoral studies – already a tall order for the Amazon region – future deacons will virtually have degrees in Amerindian anthropology, mixed with more than a little first-world political correctness.

If the synod’s goal was protection of the Amazon environment, then there are really much better ways to tackle those complex questions than to invite a bunch of Catholic bishops, who understandably aren’t very deep in environmental science, global economics, and international politics – the central subjects that have to be weighed in making decisions about such matters and the inevitable tradeoffs – to spend three long weeks talking among themselves.

The synod made a hash of the environmental issues for reasons typical of such discussions in Latin America, mixing a proper concern for the Amazon and other threatened regions of the world with vague neo-Marxist myths in which the white hats and black hats are, allegedly, easy to spot.

Yet Brazil had two consecutive far-left governments from 2003 to 2016 – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (now serving 12 years in prison for corruption, despite pleas for clemency from Pope Francis) and Dilma Rousseff (a terrorist in her early life who was impeached and removed from office after multiple scandals). These indigenous “progressives” did little to mitigate harm to the Amazon, which is instead blamed on outside actors and abstractions like an “economy oriented solely to profit” and the “extractive mentality.”

Venezuela, too, has had two consecutive far-left leaders (1999-2019), both close to Communist Cuba: Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, creators of the Bolivarian Revolution, which has sent 6 million Venezuelans fleeing to other countries. One of the bishops from Venezuela complained that thirty-five companies were operating illegally in his diocese and inflicting environmental harm. This is very likely so, but whose fault is that?


Meanwhile, in Ecuador, during the synod, riots erupted when the government tried to raise the price of gasoline in order to reduce public debt. The assumption around the synod, however, was that those killed in the protests, including some indigenous activists, were somehow martyrs to protecting indigenous peoples – and the Amazon. Ecuador rescinded the price increase, but also announced that it would, as a consequence, have to pump more oil.

In recent days, Chile – which had been touting its use of wind and solar sources of electricity to power its subway system – was forced to raise ticket prices because those sources are much more expensive (and unreliable) than fossil fuels. Riots erupted there as well.

Political unrest inevitably arises when you think you are going to solve environmental problems without adequately considering human consequences.

A Vatican meeting on the environmental problems of the Amazon, which do exist and deserve serious treatment, would have a bit more credibility if, instead of blaming the usual suspects (i.e., Americans, corporations, globalization), it recognized that Latin America itself is responsible for not solving many of its own problems, particularly by holding local leaders responsible.

The effort to put evangelization and environmentalism together may read well in the abstract, “integral human ecology” being the term of art. But for all the talk of how this will issue in some new, organic, inspiring approach, the result seems to be yet one more plan by committee that is unlikely to do much of anything at all.

The real goal may always have simply been married priests and women deaconesses, and further development of “synodality.” There are 120 paragraphs in the Final Document, and those subjects come in only after two-thirds of the text has hammered away repetitively about respecting indigenous spiritualities and the natural environment (Pachamama, at least by name, did not make the final cut). But there are precedents in recent synods of less than direct treatment of the important items.

The proposals that, to deal with the shortage of priests, the pope consider permitting married men to be ordained in the region and recommending further study of the possibility of deaconesses are clear enough – as is the likelihood that these will be the first steps towards similar changes worldwide.

There is some talk that the next synod will be on – synodality itself. We can have a pretty good idea that such a synod on synods would lead to further radicalization, primarily devolving decision making to bishop’s conferences and individual bishops, a recipe for the kind of fracturing that the Protestants experienced at the Reformation – and perennial turmoil in the Church.

But just for the record, here’s how the Amazon Final Document sees synodality:

To walk together, the Church today needs a conversion to the synodal experience. It is necessary to strengthen a culture of dialogue, reciprocal listening, spiritual discernment, consensus and communion to find spaces and modes of joint decision and respond to pastoral challenges. This will foster joint responsibility in the life of the Church in a spirit of service. It is urgent to walk, propose and assume the responsibilities to overcome clericalism and arbitrary impositions. Synodality is a constitutive dimension of the Church. You cannot be a Church without acknowledging an effective exercise of the sensus fidei of the entire People of God.

Maybe someone, somewhere can say what this means. The old-school nuns who ran my grade school would have laughed at self-important formulations like this, which are abundant in the text. But clearly they serve a purpose: this would open the door to perpetual revolution in the Catholic Church.

A young journalist told me that, just before the final document came out, he’d been talking with a progressive bishop who said it was bad, so bad that it might be better not to release it at all.

You can read it for yourself and judge by clicking here. But now we have it.


*Image: Kaxinaw Indians in perfect balance on tree branches in the Amazon [Acre, Brazil], 2015 (Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Caters News Agency)

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.