In a recent interview granted to La Stampa, Pope Francis spoke about the Synod for the Amazon, which will take place in October. The Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris (IL) was released in June and has been subject to withering criticism since, in particular from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
While most attention has been given to the proposed discussion of ordaining mature married men to the priesthood in remote areas, the IL has also been found wanting on theological grounds: Cardinal Müller and others believe it calls into question the universal mission of the Church and leans toward a pantheistic eco-spirituality.
It seems the IL even caused alarm in the Melbourne prison where Cardinal George Pell is being held pending his appeal. In a recent letter to his supporters, Cardinal Pell wrote that there is “reason to be disturbed” by the IL.
“This is not the first low-quality document the Synod secretariat has produced,” Pell tartly noted.
This remark helps to explain the context: the concerns about the IL are framed against the experience of the previous synods, especially the twin synods on the family in 2014 and 2015.
Therefore the big news from the La Stampa interview is not that big. Pope Francis said that the ordination of married men is “absolutely not” among the main topics, it is simply one point among others.
True enough, but a topic does not have to be the main topic in order to be of great consequence. Officially, the 2014-15 family synod was not “mainly” about Communion, divorce and the Church’s moral teachings as expressed in Veritatis Splendor. But those subjects dominated the response to the synod and to Amoris Laetitia – by both supporters and critics. A stain on a shirt does not mean that the entire fabric is soiled, but it does properly garner the most attention.
And the history here suggests that married priests may indeed be the main point, after all. The National Catholic Register has reported that, during the preparations for last year’s synod, Pope Francis proposed a synod on priestly celibacy. The synod council voted that idea down, and so the topic of youth was selected.
In calling the Amazon synod – which the synod council did not have to approve – the topic has returned. It’s possible to read the IL for the Amazon as a back-door way to advocating for married priests after the collegial processes of the synod nixed the idea.
Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal Claudio Hummes, former prefect for clergy, to be the relator general for the Amazon synod. Given that Hummes is 85 years old, it is an unusual choice.
It will be recalled that when Hummes was appointed prefect in 2006 he gave an interview musing about relaxing the requirement of celibacy for Latin priests. The Vatican forced a retraction upon him, but that was then. This is now. Has Pope Francis empowered Hummes to do in retirement what Benedict XVI would not permit him to do when in office?
But if married priests is not the main topic, what is?
“The important themes will be the ministries of evangelisation and the different ways of evangelising,” Pope Francis told La Stampa.
If so, the IL does not reflect the Holy Father’s intentions. Evangelisation – in the sense that the evangelium, the gospel, is not only good news but essential for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon – is, at best, underplayed in the IL.
The rhetorical emphasis of the IL is more that the Church needs to learn from indigenous pagan spiritualities than that the indigenous peoples need to know Jesus Christ. If evangelisation and mission are really the main themes of the synod, the Holy Father will have to set aside the IL as the basis for discussion.
In the interview, Pope Francis calls the Amazon synod the “son of Laudato Si’”, which he describes as “not a green encyclical, it is a social encyclical, which is based on a ‘green’ reality, the care of creation”.
That can be seen in the IL. The problem is that the Amazon synod is very clearly not the “son” of Evangelii Gaudium, which called for a Church wholly committed to evangelisation and mission in all of its activities. The Amazon IL also marks the end of Aparicida, the conference of Latin American bishops which called for a great “continental mission” in 2007. Pope Francis was its principal drafter.
The IL makes clear what the synod managers want – discussion of married priests in the foreground, evangelisation very much in the background. According to the La Stampa interview, the Holy Father wants just the opposite. Who will prevail?
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca