The word “revolutionary” has been overused since the election of Pope Francis in 2013. But it might apply to the Amazon Synod which concluded last Sunday. The gathering of bishops endorsed three proposals which may prove to be turning points in the long story of the Catholic Church. The 181 synod fathers called for the introduction of married priests in Amazonia, further study of women deacons, and a distinctive Amazonian liturgical rite.
To some, these may not sound like dramatic developments. But the Vatican-watcher Rocco Palmo put it well when he noted that if these proposals had been made just a decade earlier they might have attracted the attention of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
“It wouldn’t seem a stretch,” he wrote on his blog Whispers in the Loggia, “to say that, had this text been presented before [the era of] Francis, its authors – and anyone who voted for it – likely would’ve risked being removed from office (or placed under CDF investigation).”
The Amazon synod has made clear beyond all doubt that the conclave of 2013 marked a sea change in the Catholic Church. Those who once faced the threat of doctrinal investigation are now charting the path for Catholicism in the new millennium.
That is remarkable, but it is easy to get carried away with talk of revolution. If we look more closely at the synod fathers’ votes, we see they were hardly unanimous.
The final text proposed the ordination of “suitable and esteemed men of the community, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, having a legitimately constituted and stable family”. This was approved by 128 votes to 41 – the highest number of “no” votes for any section of the document.
John Allen, another perceptive Vaticanologist, argued that this proposal passed the necessary two-thirds majority partly because it contained a clause reading: “In this regard, some were in favour of a more universal approach to the subject.” That may have been enough to win over bishops who doubted whether a regional synod should make decisions with potentially far-reaching consequences for the whole Latin Church.
The section on women deacons attracted the next highest number of “no” votes. But, as Allen pointed out at cruxnow.com, the text was “certainly not a straight endorsement of the idea of women deacons, as some had anticipated”. In fact, it simply asked the Pope to reactivate his commission on the female diaconate in the early Church so that the synod fathers could “share our experiences and reflections” with its members.
The text endorsing an Amazonian rite was also tentative. “While that language is clearly favourable to the eventual idea of an Amazon rite,” Allen noted, “in the end all it calls for is some as yet inexistent body to study the idea, meaning that the language was hardly a straight up-or-down referendum. Even so, it still attracted 29 dissenting votes.”
Everything now depends – as it always has, despite all the talk of “synodality” – on Pope Francis. On Saturday he said he would aim to deliver the apostolic exhortation that typically follows a synod before Christmas. This suggests that he has already reached firm conclusions and is anxious not to lose the momentum generated by the synod.
At this point, it is worth stepping back from ecclesiastical politics and asking how we will know whether the Amazon synod was a success or failure. We would like to suggest one simple criterion. If 10 years from now the Church has been able to slow, or even halt, the erosion of Catholicism in Amazonia then we can judge it a success.
While trustworthy statistics are hard to come by in such a far-flung region, figures suggest that, since 1970, 46 per cent of its 34 million inhabitants have left the Catholic Church for other Christian groups, chiefly Pentecostal. This is the first time in more than 400 years that the Latin American Church has faced a serious competitor for souls – and it is receiving an absolute drubbing.
Only a vast, creative and relentless campaign of evangelisation can hope to reverse this trend. Will this be unleashed by the Amazon synod? Let’s pray that it will – and make a note to check the figures again in 2029.