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Amazon synod: Will the faith get lost in the rainforest?

A member of an indigenous group from the Amazon greets the Pope in Peru (CNS)

In 'finding new ways' to evangelise, the synod risks forgetting the heart of the Gospel

For three weeks in October, 185 bishops, missionaries and scholars, mostly from South America and Europe, will meet in Rome at Amazon synod. Pope Francis has asked them “to find new ways for the evangelisation” of the Amazon region and to respond to “the crisis of the Amazonian forest”.

Although the synod could provide some helpful perspectives on ecological issues, its working document leads me to fear that the “new ways” of evangelisation envisioned by the synod fathers will weaken longstanding Catholic missionary practices and will ignore the relevant teaching of the Catholic Church.

The Amazon region is immense and immensely important. It contains the world’s largest rainforest and the largest reserves of unfrozen fresh water. It has flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. It is also home to 34 million people, about three million of them indigenous people who belong to almost 400 different ethnic groups. Most of Amazonia is in Brazil, but the region also includes parts of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana.

Since the announcement of the synod by Pope Francis in 2017, there have been questions and controversies raised about its purpose and agenda. A persistent rumour, eventually confirmed by the synod’s working document (prepared by the event’s organisers to guide discussion in October), is that the synod would consider the ordination of older married men to meet the shortage of priests in the region.

Another issue is the ministry of women, with some commentators hoping that the synod will appeal for the ordination of female deacons. Although the working document does not go that far, it does recommend that the synod should “identify the type of official ministry that can be conferred on women”. Cardinals Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller have expressed strong reservations about the working document, criticising what they regard as its fuzzy theology, faulty methodology and ambiguous language.

In line with the questions raised by the three cardinals is the issue of the Church’s mission ad gentes (“to the nations” or “peoples”), which is the Church’s longstanding commitment to the evangelisation of non-Christians around the world. It is based on the words of Christ to the Apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The Catholic Church has engaged in evangelisation of non-Christians in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas for the past 2,000 years. For example, in the interior of South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, in areas that are now part of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Jesuit missionaries brought the Gospel to many different indigenous groups. As portrayed in Roland Joffé’s 1986 film, The Mission, this evangelisation of peoples with no previous knowledge of Christianity often resulted in the deaths of the first missionaries, killed not just as strangers, but often explicitly for their introduction of the new religion. Despite these martyrdoms, the Jesuits persisted and often found that whole communities of indigenous people would accept the Gospel and receive baptism.

By the time of their expulsion (for political reasons) from Latin America in 1767, the Jesuits were operating dozens of missions that were home to tens of thousands of indigenous Catholics. They were educated in indigenous languages such as Guaraní and participated fully in the sacramental life of the Church.

It should be obvious, but it must be stated explicitly in light of the approach taken by the synod’s working document, that the Jesuits were trying to convert people from paganism to Catholicism, and that they believed Catholicism was so superior to indigenous religions that conversion was self-evidently a matter of eternal salvation.

This month’s synod is concerned with the evangelisation of the peoples of the Amazon, but the practices recommended by the working document fall far short of the sacrificial efforts of the Jesuits in the colonial period. In fact, if adopted, they would amount to a hollowing out of the terms “mission” and “evangelisation”.

The document is concerned about the imposition of Western culture on the Amazonian peoples and the foisting of “a unified message” and “a solution which has universal validity”. The writers of the document believe that “the complex, plural, conflictive and opaque sociocultural reality” of the region means that there is no room for the application of “a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no
room for nuance.”

In addition to being stilted social scientific language, these words are an example of seemingly intentional ambiguity. They avoid a direct statement that the perennial doctrines of the Catholic Church do not apply to the Amazonian peoples, but they imply that so much “nuance” should be applied that you or I might not recognise the new message. When the document recommends that missionaries “discard rigid positions that do not take sufficient account of the concrete life of people and the pastoral reality”, it is difficult not to see a call for doctrinal “flexibility”.

This impression is strengthened by the document’s use of the word “conversion”, which is often given a meaning opposite to the traditional one. For example, when the document says, “Given that a colonial and patriarchal mentality still persists, a deeper process of conversion and reconciliation is essential,” it seems that those who need to convert are the missionaries, not the peoples of the Amazon.

In another section this usage is more overt: “Listening to the voice of the Spirit in the cry of the Amazon peoples and in the magisterium of Pope Francis requires a process of pastoral and missionary conversion.”

The working document justifies this inversion of the traditional missionary dynamic by asserting that, while Westerners have a “colonial and patriarchal mentality”, the Amazonian peoples display various praiseworthy characteristics and practices: “faith in the God Father-Mother Creator”; “communion and harmony with the earth”; a “living relationship with nature and ‘Mother Earth’ ”; “rites and religious expressions”; “relationships with ancestors”; and respect for “the sacred meaning of the territory”.

The cultural disparity is apparently so extreme that Westerners should devote themselves to purging their cultural inheritance, while Amazonians can now assume the role of teachers and models for the West.

The document gives no indication that the indigenous Amazonian peoples have any need to convert, which is striking, given that the Amazonian religious practices and expressions to which it refers are not Christian. There is also no indication in the document that the indigenous people of the region are commonly known to practise infanticide and that the retired bishop of the Amazonian city of Pará, Brazil, recently denounced the scandalously high rates of child abuse in the region.

This is not to say that the people of the Amazon are any more in need of conversion than other peoples of the world; it is to say, however, that far from being a pristine society that has no need of repentance and conversion, the people of the Amazon, like the ancient Greeks, the medieval Germans, and the Aztecs of the 16th century are sinners whose greatest need is forgiveness. They might have many things to teach the people of the West, but first they need to repent and believe the Gospel.

For missionaries to reverse this order – to adopt Amazonians as teachers before giving them the greatest gift, the Gospel of Jesus Christ – might seem like humility but is really a disservice to people who need rescue.

This missionary inversion is not just a theoretical issue. In a 2018 interview, the Italian missionary Fr Corrado Dalmolego, who works with the Yanomami people in the Brazilian rainforest, admitted that he had not baptised a single person in his 11 years of ministry and that his fellow missionaries, during 50 years of ministry, also had not baptised anyone. Fr Dalmolego nevertheless seems to regard his ministry as successful, because what he is learning about the spirituality and culture of the Yanomami is enriching his own faith.

The working document twice cites the Second Vatican Council’s document on missions as an authority for its call for “encounter and dialogue between cultures” and “mutual enrichment of cultures in dialogue”. Vatican II did indeed call for such dialogue and mutual enrichment, but the Council, in the very passage cited by the working document, adds that, as missionaries discover the “treasures” and “seeds of the Word” distributed among the cultures of the world, they should “furbish [restore] these treasures, set them free, and bring them under the dominion of God their Saviour.”

The Council added that in mission areas there needs to be a concerted effort to scrutinise in what ways a people’s customs “can be reconciled with the manner of living taught by divine revelation”. In this way, “every appearance of syncretism [amalgamation] and of false particularism will be excluded”. In the traditional Catholic understanding of the Gospel’s encounter with a new culture, the Gospel judges the culture, but the culture can never judge the Gospel.

The synod seems to be heading in the direction of calling for a mission of dialogue and encounter that downplays proclamation and conversion. But as Vatican II – in continuity with the tradition of the Church – states clearly, the task of mission is first of all “preaching the Gospel and planting the Church among peoples or groups who do not yet believe in Christ”. The mission of the Church does include service and dialogue, but the Council specified that “the chief means of the planting referred to is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

As is often the case in contemporary Catholicism, the Amazon synod may well be another instance of the nebulous “spirit of Vatican II” prevailing over the actual texts of the Council.

Todd Hartch teaches Latin American history and World Christianity at Eastern Kentucky University. His latest book is Understanding World Christianity: Mexico (Fortress Press)