We’re still three months away, and already the chatter around the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region has reached fever pitch. Prominent theological and pastoral voices in the Church have been very direct in their criticism of the instrumentum laboris – working document – that the synod’s general secretariat put together, ostensibly to guide discussions at the assembly.
Most of the hubbub is over perceived designs to use the gathering as a back door for a more general relaxation of clerical discipline when it comes to the requirement of celibacy in the Latin Church. Those concerns are not groundless. Relaxing the discipline is on the agenda. If organisers are intent on using the meeting to change Church discipline, it will only be a first step. Others, such as applications for the same exception to the general rule as would be granted to Amazonian bishops, might not be too long in coming.
The working document is long: 22,000 words (in the Spanish translation of the Portuguese original, footnotes included), spread over 149 paragraphs, divided into three main sections. In the English version of the working document, the principal divisions are given as “The Voice of the Amazon”, “Integral Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and of the Poor” and “A Prophetic Church in the Amazon: Challenges and Hope”. The text is impenetrably dense in places, and otherwise unwieldy, even by the abysmal literary standards of ecclesiastical bureaucracies. There’s a reason for that, one that is hardly nefarious: the synod’s managers want to be sure to include every notion and proposal – no matter how outlandish – so that they don’t have to deal with bishops complaining that their pet idea got short shrift. Part of the explanation for the fuss may be in the strong Teutonic influence over the event, scheduled for October 6-27 at the Vatican.
One much-discussed meeting of Church leaders in June reportedly enjoyed the participation of prominent German-speaking figures, among them the theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper. Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck and Bishop Erwin Kräutler, an advocate of ending the discipline of mandatory celibacy for clerics in the Amazon region, were also among the invitees, as was Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, according to reports. Cardinal Schönborn told LifeSite he did not attend because of ill health.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary of the Synod of Bishops, and the Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the synod’s general rapporteur, also reportedly took part in last month’s gathering.
On the other side, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller and Cardinal Gerhard Müller have both levelled remarkably frank criticism against the working document, as have other significant theologians. Cardinal Brandmüller – a highly regarded historian who received his red hat from Benedict XVI in 2010, at the age of 81 – has gone so far as to say the working document contains propositions that betray the faith.
According to the organisers, the purpose of the meeting is twofold: to highlight the peculiar challenges facing the Amazon region and the people who live there; and to provide a venue for the Church in the Amazon to speak in her own voice.
“It’s not that we want to make the face of the whole universal Church Amazonian,” explained synod undersecretary Bishop Fabio Fabene during the presentation of the working document on June 17, “but only the face of the Amazonian Church.” Alright, but observers will be forgiven for noting the German influence on the rendering.
Still, “It could be that [the synod] might have some implications from a pastoral point of view also for the [wider] Church,” Bishop Fabene added, “especially, I believe, in the field of ecology, because there are territories … like the Congo, that are similar to the Amazon.”
It may not quite be a case of the Rhine flowing into the Amazon, but it is closer to that than is comfortable for many observers. The people and the land of the Amazon region have suffered horrendous abuse for five centuries, and the Church has a duty to offer them solidarity. If there is anything untoward in this business, it is the willingness of powerful European clerics to use the assembly as a stalking horse to further their disciplinary experiment.
Meanwhile, the noise over the working document’s alleged dogmatic deficiencies could play into the hands of both the synod organisers and Pope Francis. The organisers don’t have to work to create cover for their plans. All the chatter about things that never have a chance of passing provides plenty of that. For his part, Pope Francis has only to ignore the outlandish statements and proposals, and he will instantly appear not only reasonable, but also doctrinally cautious, even as he accomplishes a major disciplinary revolution.
In any case, Pope Francis has said he would be willing to entertain a proposal to relax the discipline to allow for married men to be given Holy Orders in remote areas where there is a real pastoral necessity, even though he remains personally opposed to making celibacy optional for all secular priests. Granting such a request for the Amazon region would, among other things, give Francis a chance to prove – not only to the Church he governs, but to himself – how “synodal” he is in his governance.