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The Amazon Synod’s Self-Subverting Vision

Robert Royal made the extraordinary suggestion last week that Catholics should actually read the Final Report of the Amazon Synod [1]. So I did.

Everyone is entitled to his own impression.  And I don’t state mine as authoritative, simply as my own sense, which can be wrong.  Also, I understand that the meaning that many prelates wished to place on the text, as they voted on the paragraphs one-by-one, could be different from the sense that I believe the whole text most naturally has – when those paragraphs are placed together.

But my general impression is of a deep disaffection with Christendom as it has existed for centuries, and an attempt to replace it with a different structure, located in the Amazon, at least at first.  This structure will have its own rite, its own seminary, with its own curriculum, and its own cadre of married priests and woman deacons.

The document at times speaks as though, in a spirit of pluralism, it is proposing an additional thing, which will exist side-by-side with the old.  But the contempt it shows for the West and, indeed, for the existing Church as inserted in Christendom, compels the inference that it means ultimately to replace the one with the other.

Indeed, if global warming requires that we adopt Amazonian integral thinking or perish, as the document asserts, then the imminent global climate crisis, which the document opens by affirming, logically requires a complete restructuring of the Catholic Church along similar lines, sooner rather than later.

A self-hatred of the West runs throughout the document.  “Self-hatred,” because the document’s architects are from the West, such as Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who presents himself as identified with the indigenous peoples – in many ways he is – and yet he takes a jet to return to his native Austria every year. He cannot expunge from his mind his education at elite Austrian institutions, nor does he want to; and he enjoys a visibility that no one ever could who followed solely the ancient customs of an Amazon tribe.

Thus, the document says that “In the present moment, the Church has the historic opportunity to distance itself from the new colonizing powers by listening to the Amazonian peoples” (n. 15), that is, those “communities not yet affected by the influence of Western civilization.” (14)   After all, European settlers were motivated solely by “greed and ambition.” (15) They brought with them “the logic of greed, typical of the dominant technocratic paradigm.” (67)

But one must utterly reject “the dominant current of Western thought that tends to fragment in order to understand reality, but fails to articulate again the set of relations between the various fields of knowledge.”  In contrast, “the thinking of indigenous peoples offers an integrated vision of reality, capable of understanding the multiple connections existing between all creation.” (44)

Of course, that science and technology (hardly Western now) by analyzing reality divide it up is an old and valid point (see, e.g., C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, lecture 3).  The Catholic solution has always been to emphasize classical theology and metaphysics as integrative disciplines.

Here would be an opportunity, then, to cite St. Pope John Paul II and Ex Corde Ecclesiae?  But no, the instinct of the document is not to supplement but to replace and reject.  Hence, the new seminaries of the Amazon will teach not St. Thomas but rather integral ecology, ecological spirituality, and Indian theologies. (108)  Entire courses will be developed on the wisdom of Amazonian peoples, incorporating their “belief and rites regarding the spirits of divinity, named in innumerable ways, active with and in the territory, and in relation to nature.” (14)


Evangelization in the usual and traditional sense gets interpreted as colonization. “Colonialism is the imposition of some people’s ways of life on others, whether economically, culturally, or” – nota bene – “religiously. We reject a colonial style of evangelization.” (55)

Instead, to evangelize is nothing other than to recognize the “seeds of the Word” already present in Amazonian cultures and to affirm these.  To preach the Gospel is to listen to the indigenous peoples and accompany them.  Since “The ancestral wisdom of the peoples affirms that mother earth has a feminine face” (101), presumably to reject religious colonialism means to affirm the particular spirit of Mother Earth.

We are told somewhat surprisingly that “In the indigenous world . . . [women] are consulted and participate in decision-making,” which bizarre assertion then becomes, not surprisingly, the basis for the call for woman deacons. (103)

Celibacy, the other media-high-profile theme of the Synod, can be dispensed with because the only reason for it anyway was efficiency, as it “enables the missionary disciple, ordained to the priesthood, to dedicate himself fully to the service of the Holy People of God.” (111)

The Eucharist is appealed to as a kind of bludgeon: the faithful have a right to priests; only priests can provide the Eucharist; thus it turns out to be the very right of indigenous peoples to be served by married priests.

When priests and deacons get presented as essentially mini-Kräutlers, mere activists who oppose development projects stemming from Western greed, such as the notorious Belo Monte dam,  even celibacy looks to be merely incidental.

Perhaps the one hope stemming from the document is that it subverts itself.  It views the Amazonians as “others” rather than “other selves,” which is fundamentally un-Christian.  Who cares that their customs are thousands of years old?   They are not museum pieces, which must be preserved as is for future generations.

Would you want to live like them, or as you do – or as Bishop Kräutler does, enjoying as convenient the benefits of the Western “technocratic paradigm”?   Amazonians too display “humanity’s strong tendency to concentrate in cities,” as the document laments; but there, it turns out family breakdown is the greatest problem. (34)

At this, the Synod prelates just threw up their hands. They have nothing to say. While Protestantism, as they acknowledge, offers people the help they actually want. (24)


*Image: A Tembe chief has the tank of his motorcycle filled. He wears a traditional bone bracelet on his wrist next to a Casio digital watch. “We have a different culture,” he says, “and that culture must be respected.” [2016 Photo by Rodrigo Abd/AP via The Guardian [2]]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book, on the Gospel of Mark, The Memoirs of St Peter. His next book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway.