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What the Pope’s Amazon document actually says

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Pope Francis has a lot to say – but none of it on the subjects journalists were expecting

A good deal of the early reporting on Querida Amazonia focused on whether the door to “married priests” was open or shut. It’s understandable. Indeed it was inevitable after all the time and energy spent on the question — before, during, and after the Amazon synod — by observers and journalists, participants, and synod managers. Nevertheless, the ‘Door Open/Door Shut’ frame of the issue is unhelpful.

The door — so to speak — is one that opens and shuts with a fair degree of regularity. Even in the Latin Church, where there is a tradition of preference for celibate clerics of all ranks and states of life that goes back deep into the first millennium of Christianity. Celibacy for priests and bishops has been the universal discipline of that Church for a thousand years.

The point is: the door is one the Latin Church carefully guards. The Latin Church opens it only in very particular and exceptional circumstances. Some of the synod fathers wanted to ask Pope Francis to consider an expansion of the list of exceptional circumstances in which the door might be opened. Some other synod fathers were staunchly opposed to any such expansion. In the end, the synod fathers split the difference, noting in their final document that some of them had desired to pose the question to him.

In any case, Pope Francis’s post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation makes no mention of the specific disciplinary question. It does not even use the word “celibacy” or any of its cognates. Instead, Francis proposes a recovery of attitudes that were standard fare and staples of Catholic life until very recently: prayer for vocations from the laity and bishops who foster generosity of spirit and practice what they preach. 

CNA’s headline summed it up nicely: “[E]xhortation calls for holiness, not married priests.”

That is of a piece with Pope Francis’s stated purpose in the exhortation: “[T]o propose a brief framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region a synthesis of some of the larger concerns that I have expressed in earlier documents, and that can help guide us to a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process.” That’s an invitation to pray and to think together with the mind of the Church, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not being on board when it’s put just like that.

Presenting the document at the Holy See’s press office on Wednesday, the undersecretary in charge of the migrants and refugees section at the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, Cardinal Michael Czerny, stressed that the exhortation, “is a magisterial document.” He went on to say, “It belongs to the Pope’s authentic magisterium.” 

Asked what that means more specifically, Cardinal Czerny offered: “It belongs to the ordinary magisterium.” Pressed further, specifically regarding the way in which the document is to inform our understanding of mutable matters, some of which  may not be proper objects of faith — such as sociological circumstance or scientific consensus — Cardinal Czerny said, “The proper object is, finally, to the following of Jesus Christ, and the living out of the Gospel — and obviously, in our living out of the Gospel, we adapt to the changing circumstances of our world — so, I think the authority of Querida Amazonia is, as I’ve said, as part of the ordinary magisterium of the successor of Peter, and we are happy to embrace it as such.”

Cardinal Czerny went on to say: “[W]e are applying it to our changing and troubled world, and we are doing that with all the gifts that God gave us — including our intelligence, our emotions, our will, our commitment — and I think that therefore we are not doubtful about the gift that we have received from Pope Francis in this document.”

Querida Amazonia is brief — at 32 pages, it is roughly one eighth the size of Amoris laetitia — but is also dense: more than a summary, it is a distillation of thoughts that have been with Pope Francis for a good long while. 

They are thoughts at once regarding an area of the world with which he is familiar — the Amazon — and an institution he knows and loves deeply — the Church — offered, Francis says in the document’s introduction, in order “that the entire Church be enriched and challenged by the work of the synodal assembly.” Pope Francis has offered these thoughts to participants in the synod and to the whole Church, in hope that, “the pastors, consecrated men and women and lay faithful of the Amazon region strive to apply it,” and that “it inspire in some way every person of good will.”

After the press conference, the Catholic Herald asked Cardinal Czerny why he broached the subject of the exhortation’s authority and magisterial status. “I raised these things because I thought that people like yourself would be interested.” Asked about the spirit in which he hopes people approach Querida Amazonia, Czerny said: “prayerfully and openly, and intelligently, and spiritually — like we do all documents.”

In his prepared remarks during the press conference, Cardinal Czerny had also spoken of the synod fathers’ final document. “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” he said, “is the final document of a special assembly of the synod of bishops. Like every other such synodal document, it consists of proposals, which the synod fathers have voted to approve, and have entrusted to the Holy Father.” 

Czerny went on to say, “[Pope Francis], in turn, immediately authorised its publication, with the votes cast. Now, at the beginning of Querida Amazonia, he says: ‘I would like to officially present the Final Document, which sets forth the conclusions of the Synod,’ and encourages everyone to read it in full.”

Then, Cardinal Czerny said, “Such official presentation and encouragement confer a certain moral authority on the final document: to ignore it would be a lack of obedience to the Holy Father’s legitimate authority, while to find one or [an]other point difficult, could not be considered a lack of faith.”

Theologians of both the armchair and professional academic varieties will continue to debate precisely what the magisterial weight of an apostolic exhortation is. A curial official’s opinion of a final synod document’s moral authority will always have rather less. That is one reason why, from a strict messaging point-of-view, his statement is perplexing: why did he bother saying it, at all?

There is so much food for thought in the exhortation — best engaged in a spirit of critical docility — that one wonders why the Vatican’s message man risked rabbit-holing the discussion right out of the gate.

In any case, here are three issues the exhortation raises, which are already garnering attention, and are almost guaranteed to occupy more.

Women: In the middle of five dense paragraphs devoted to “the strength and gift of women” Pope Francis says, “The Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary.” He went on to write, “Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother.” 

The practical upshot, according to Pope Francis, is that we ought not to limit ourselves to a “functional approach.” We ought rather, “[to] enter instead into the inmost structure of the Church.” Pope Francis went on to offer a description of the service women have rendered to the Church in the Amazon that is — whatever else it is — functional: “In this way,” he says, “we will fundamentally realize why, without women, the Church breaks down, and how many communities in the Amazon would have collapsed, had women not been there to sustain them, keep them together and care for them.

“This shows the kind of power that is typically theirs,” Pope Francis wrote.

Right or wrong, that understanding of things has serious implications for ecclesiology and ecclesiastical governance, which need to be hashed out. Francis called for just that sort of discussion, when he wrote, “In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.”

Whether an Order of Deaconesses could be restored, which would be within the taxis of kleros / clerusand at the same time unambiguously created outside the one Sacrament of Holy Orders, is a reasonable question, and one that Francis’s summary statement does not absolutely exclude, even though it strongly suggests any such restoration in the Amazon or elsewhere is not going to happen on Francis’s watch.

Another is his treatment of the way in which compact societies organised according to cosmological myth actually work. “Compact societies organised according to cosmological myth” is technical language borrowed from 20thcentury political philosopher Eric Voegelin. It describes societies that find and express the common idea of order that binds them together in the stories they tell to illuminate the world with meaning.  It takes some doing to break the compactness of myth, and what happens to societies when their organising principles are broken is inevitably traumatic. The social structures of indigenous peoples in the Amazon have experienced enormous strain over the past five centuries, and have seen significant fragmentation. So, the work that Francis is proposing is at once one of recovery and transformation.

Expect this to be a bigger issue for academics in a range of fields from philosophy to anthropology to sociology to linguistics, as well as for missiologists.

If they hear Francis’s call to “esteem the indigenous mysticism that sees the interconnection and interdependence of the whole of creation, the mysticism of gratuitousness that loves life as a gift, the mysticism of a sacred wonder before nature and all its forms of life,” while at the same time, “turn[ing] this relationship with God present in the cosmos into an increasingly personal relationship with a ‘Thou’ who sustains our lives and wants to give them a meaning, a ‘Thou’ who knows us and loves us,” then they should all be in conversation with each other, with actual missionaries, and with the peoples of the Amazon. It’s a tall order: more easily said than done, but worth every effort to do right.

A third issue is how people outside the Amazon can help.

“The Church,” wrote Pope Francis in the conclusion of his third chapter on ecology, “with her broad spiritual experience, her renewed appreciation of the value of creation, her concern for justice, her option for the poor, her educational tradition and her history of becoming incarnate in so many different cultures throughout the world, also desires to contribute to the protection and growth of the Amazon region.”

Pope Francis has a lot to say about specific areas of endeavour, from education to law and politics, all of which deserve attention and consideration, with a view to practical address characterised by what has been called “hard-nosed idealism”.

It would be a mistake to claim Pope Francis’s endorsement for any specific policy. His purpose in the exhortation is to focus attention and articulate a way of thinking about complex problems that are not going away any time soon, the window of opportunity for effective address of which is not getting any wider.

It can’t hurt to give him a hearing, or to give his framework for reflection a real try.