Amazon synod: where we are after week one

(CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Priestly celibacy, the role of women, and Scalfari's latest claims: this has been an intense week at the Vatican

The working sessions at the synod assembly broke for lunch on Friday morning, with Synod Fathers still in the small groups into which they split the previous day.

It is in these groups that a lot of the “real work” gets done. Participants share ideas and stories in a more intimate and less formal setting. They speak with one another directly, and in languages in which they have faculty. Anyone who has ever been to an academic conference or a professional workshop knows that the two most productive venues are the “breakout” session rooms and the bar (though not necessarily in that order). The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon Region is not an academic conference, but it is a lot more similar to one than it is to a parliament or an estates general.

‘Integral ecology’

At the daily briefing on Friday, the dual valence of the gathering came into focus: Amazonian-local on one pole, and global on the other. The participants who spoke from the dais on Friday  — three senior clerics and one religious sister — all concentrated on specific political and social challenges facing the Amazon region and its peoples, while each also at least mentioned the broader scope of those problems, especially as they relate to the implementation of an “integral ecology”.

“This integral ecology,” said Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, Archbishop of Mexico City, “is therefore not only for Amazonia.” He went on to say, “Amazonia is one of the planet’s great ‘lungs’, but it is not the only one.” It is, he said, “among the most dramatic expressions of that, which we must take to heart: that we must care for our common home, in the whole world.” Aguiar was also a member of the pre-Synodal steering committee.

The other speakers were Sr Birgit Weiler, Archbishop Pedro Brito Guimarâes of Palmas in Brazil, and Bishop Joaquín Pertíñez Fernández OAR of Rio Branco, also in Brazil. In short, the turn was toward the practical and social challenges that the Amazon region dramatically illustrates. The Church has something to say about these challenges — plenty to contribute to the discussion — but here in Rome it seeks primarily to provide the world with a window on the situation in the Amazon and a forum for sharing experiences and best practices among Catholic leaders and others also already engaged in the work of stewardship and defense of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable.

Bishop Kräutler and celibacy

It was something of a pivot from the occasionally charged atmosphere of briefings earlier in the week.

On Wednesday, Bishop Erwin Kräutler — an Austrian native and retired missionary bishop who knew missionary Sr Dorothy Stang, who was slain for her work in behalf of indigenous peoples in the Amazon, and has faced threats against his own life because of his work in the region — spoke to the hot-button issue of the assembly: the relaxation of discipline with respect to mandatory celibacy for secular clerics, to allow for married men to be ordained to the presbyterate. The region is drastically and chronically underserved by priests, and indigenous peoples of the Amazon are underrepresented in the hierarchical leadership of the Church there.

“There is no other option,” Bishop Kräutler said in response to a question at the presser following morning sessions on Wednesday. “The indigenous people,” he continued, “do not understand celibacy.” The remark startled observers for its warmth and frankness, and drew particular attention also because of Kräutler’s long-standing support for admitting married men to priestly Orders and his role in preparing the assembly’s working document. Kräutler also claimed that 2/3 of the bishops participating are in favor of changing the rule.

More startling, for many of the same reasons, was Bishop Kräutler’s remark to the effect that indigenous peoples are flummoxed when he or another celibate missionary tells them “that he does not have a woman taking care of the house, of the home.” Bishop Krautler also told of how indigenous leaders pity him when he tells them he has no wife. As JD Flynn and Ed Condon noted in their “Editor’s Desk” podcast conversation this week, that is a sign that indigenous peoples do understand celibacy: it is, after all, a sacrifice some men make for the sake of the Kingdom.

One may be forgiven for detecting a soupçon of something very like chauvinism in the sentiment as Bishop Kräutler expressed it. It is possible to be heroically courageous and singly devoted to one’s mission and adopted people, and still have ideas fairly described as chauvinistic. When it comes to courage and devotion to his mission and his adopted people, Kräutler has exactly nothing to prove. Nor does a single unfortunate expression, warmly delivered at that, make one a chauvinist. The question is whether he helped or hurt the cause for which he is apparently here in Rome to advocate this month.

The Scalfari debacle

On Thursday, the briefing was somewhat overshadowed by the forceful rejection of a report from a senior Italian journalist, who has several times put words in Pope Francis’s mouth. One could write a book about the dysfunction in Vatican communications. On Francis’s watch, the principal’s willingness to speak his mind on the spur of the moment, coupled with comms staff’s reticence to clarify or inability to push effectively for clarification from the top, have conspired to create a situation in which it became necessary to issue a statement saying — in words — that the Pope of Rome did not deny Our Lord’s divinity, and that he does, in fact, believe Jesus is God.

It only took the comms outfit two tries over a day and a half to get the statement right. This is major improvement on earlier merry-go-round with Scalfari. Here’s hoping we’ve heard the last from that fellow, and seen the beginning of a trend.


The bottom of Friday’s briefing included questions from journalists regarding several sensitive issues, among them the increasing presence of evangelical Christian missionaries who have been highly successful in gaining adherents among formerly Catholic indigenous populations. Cardinal Aguiar fielded the question, His Eminence noted that the fraternal delegate — a non-Catholic auditor — in his own small groupspoke to the underlying issue: “[I]n my group,” he said, “the[fraternal] delegate himself told us that we need to take into consideration that, first and foremost, people want the Word of God.”

Votes for women?

Sr Weiler also addressed a topic that has generated a good deal of talk over several recent synod gatherings: the role and the rights of women in the Church’s life and in her counsels. “I am very grateful to Pope Francis for all the steps that have led to the presence of 35 women at the Synod,” Weiler said. “We hope and wish that we might reach the point where our Superiors [of women religious] can vote, like male Superiors,” she added. She noted the topic had come up in her small group. “Already the last Synod established that ordination to priesthood is not necessary to vote,” she said. “If one participates in the entire synodal process, one also assumes responsibility for the decisions taken.”

The conclusion may or may not follow necessarily from the premises, and enlarging the synodal franchise may not be the way to achieve the end. Nevertheless, there has to be a better answer than that, which the Synod of Bishops’ outgoing General Secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, has offered: in essence that women can’t vote in synods because existing legislation says women can’t vote in synods. We’ve seen how easily legislation can change. No matter where one stands on the question, there has to be a better answer than that.

To the extent there is controversy within the synod hall and among the synod fathers, it seems to be over the how and the why, rather than over the what. That goes for the more practical social engagement of the Church in the region, where the poor and the weak and the vulnerable are desperately done by the wealthy and powerful, and the Church helps them as the Church can, because the Church is there. It seems to go for the practical and disciplinary questions before the synod fathers, as well. As we head out of Week One and into the turn into Week Two — punctuated by the canonization of Cardinal Newman on Sunday — we’ll be watching to see whether the wheels stay on the bus.