Those who dreaded the publication of the Holy Father’s response to the Amazon Synod will be able to breathe a sigh of relief, on one count at least. In the course of 40 pages His Holiness devotes his most incisive remarks to an explanation of why admitting women to Holy Orders would be a mistake.
On the question of celibacy the Pope is silent, ignoring the Synod’s proposal to ordain married men. However, he begins by saying that by means of this Apostolic exhortation he intends “to officially present” the Synod’s final document, and neither to “replace” nor “duplicate” it. It is unclear, then, whether his silence on viri probati is a tacit endorsement or rejection.
Indeed, a lack of clarity is a recurring problem with both the Synod document and the Apostolic exhortation. Furthermore, both texts rely on questionable assumptions about the nature of Amazonian societies, their spirituality and ecological relationships.
For example, his Holiness suggests that life for Amazonian peoples “is a communal journey” characterised by concern for “the common good.” Later on, among “the great riches” inherited from pre-Columbian cultures he mentions “the sacred character of human life” and “a sense of solidarity and shared responsibility in common work.” However, while some Amazonian societies are indeed markedly communitarian in certain respects, others are intrinsically fractious; while some are extremely conflict-averse, others were once among the most violent societies ever recorded until they came under the influence of Christian missionaries.
We should also be wary of misconstruing these societies’ ecological credentials. It is true that they have existed for a long time in sustainable interdependence with their environment. However, they have done so in a context of extremely low population density combined with resource abundance, and without having at their disposal the extractive potential of industrial technology. These societies, when confronted with the new situation of population growth, resource scarcity, and industrial technology do not necessarily respond in the ways Western environmentalists might imagine.
Given the serious flaws exhibited by both these documents, which his Holiness seems to intend us to receive as a pair, what is there in them which might be of help to the people of the Amazon? I’m afraid to say, not as much as there could be.
True, the documents give a persuasive portrait of the region’s social and economic problems. But it is a very general one, and these issues are highly complex. They fall beyond the usual expertise of bishops, and the solutions have to be worked out on the ground, case by case.
Nevertheless, they are the kinds of problems which often benefit from the effective combination of local knowledge with international financial, legal, and institutional support, the kind of endeavour, in fact, for which the Church’s international missionary congregations are ideally suited and which many of them are already pursuing.
The two most concrete and constructive recommendations of the Synod’s Final Document were directed towards the Church’s religious communities. Firstly, the document proposed that communities of itinerant priests and religious be developed specifically to serve in the Amazon. Secondly, it invited those existing religious congregations currently without a presence in Amazonia to establish themselves there. It is a shame that, in his response, his Holiness was unable to give greater impetus to these suggestions.
What Amazonia needs most from the Church is courageous and holy priests – devout, traditional, intelligent, well-educated, well supported by ecclesiastical structures – who are able to count on the assistance of religious men and women of a similar calibre. There are many such courageous and holy people already at work in the Amazon; but as we all know, more are needed.
On this point the Pope’s exhortation is admirable: he emphasises the indispensable importance of the Eucharist, and the unique function of the priest in relation to it, and he urges bishops to encourage prayer for vocations and to direct those exhibiting a missionary vocation towards service in Amazonia.
Such encouragement is to be welcomed. But attempts to introduce married priests in this context – which may continue despite the Pope’s reticence – should not be. In a region where social obligations are structured so strongly around kinship, such a move would be likely to cause more problems than it would solve.
Still less to be welcomed would be the development (presumably by committee) of an Amazonian rite of the Eucharist. The Synod document contains this recommendation, and in the Apostolic exhortation his Holiness gestures towards it in remarks urging liturgical inculturation. In a spiritual context dominated by the dangerous and double-edged figure of the shaman such a project would be reckless.
However, it is worth remembering that the long term future of the Church in the Amazon is more likely to be determined by who sends their sons and daughters to the seminary and the religious life, than by debating the pros and cons of married priests or liturgical inculturation. Let’s pray, as his Holiness urges us to do, for many holy vocations.