Maike Hickson

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José Luiz Azcona Hermoso, bishop emeritus of Marajó, Brazil. Portal A12 / YouTube

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Amazon Synod working document earns strong criticism from Amazon experts

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September 9, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — In recent weeks, unexpected clergymen and laymen have raised their voices against the Amazon Synod. These individuals come from the Amazon region or have worked there and thus have deep knowledge of the larger situation of the Amazon. Based on their own experience, they have come to criticize the Amazon Synod’s working document that is to be the foundation for the October 6–27, 2019 event.

Only recently, LifeSiteNews reported about the words of retired bishop José Luiz Azcona Hermoso, who has lived in Brazil for thirty years and who pointed out that the Amazon Synod’s working document (instrumentum laboris) omits important parts of the life of the Amazonian people. He pointed out that the majority of these people are not even Catholic anymore — Pentecostalism is on the rise — and that there exists a significant amount of child abuse, most prominently pedophilia, in these regions. Both facts are not mentioned in the Amazon Synod’s working document.

In an additional interview with the German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost, Bishop Azcona argues that the authors of the instrumentum laboris neglect altogether to mention portions of the population of the Amazon — for example, the Afro-Americans, as well as the “absolute majority” of the Amazon, the “Ribeirinhos.” “The ‘face of the Amazon’ of the IL [instrumentum laboris],” he explains, “is not Amazonian. The indigenous peoples that are a very small minority in the Amazon region are dominating the largest part of the ‘Amazonian face.’” He considers it a new “form of colonialization,” as if “now the indigenous culture would be imposed upon the entire Church.”

Azcona also criticizes certain forms of “indigenous theology” — the ones that dominate the synod’s working document — that are “clearly pagan.” The indigenous theology as it is used in the instrumentum laboris, he states, “is in no way legitimate.” It “would be a perversion of the notion of ‘evangelization,’ an indigenous messianism, a watering down of the redemption of Christ, a pagan doctrine on the Last Things and a dialogue without roots in the Gospel.”

“This kind of indigenous theology does not belong to the deposit of the Faith,” Azcona forcefully concludes.

The bishop is also opposed to the idea of introducing married priests in the Amazon region, saying the region most needs “a personal conversion.” But in the synod’s working document, “it is not the Gospel, which — as the unique divine power — can save, liberate, and build up those people who believe, as well as the family, society, culture, and identity.” In conclusion, the prelate states that the synod document is “theologically and therefore pastorally weak and dangerous, because it bans the Crucified and Resurrected Christ from the center, thus also running the danger of causing a schism.”

Without this concentration on an evangelization and this conversion to Christ, the prelate goes on to say, “the Catholic Church has no future. Then the synod would altogether turn into a gigantic propagation of important topics such as ecology, cultures, and dialogue.” Here, Azcona speaks of “pastoral naïveté,” and “a betrayal of the Gospel, of mankind, and of the indigenous people in the Amazon region.”

Other voices can now be added to this critique. First, there is a German missionary priest in Brazil, Herbert Douteil, who in an interview with the German Catholic journal Vatican Magazin speaks about the animist religion of many indigenous people. He stresses that, unlike the idealistic depictions in the Amazon Synod document, the indigenous people are “afraid” of the forest and its spirits. For them, there are “good and bad spirits in the jungle, in the plants, trees, animals, rivers, and in the weather,” Fr. Douteil explains. “The indigenous personn always lives in fear, to get in trouble with the evil spirits and not sufficiently to honor the good spirits. Each trip into the jungle is a renewed encounter with the threatening unknown.”

When these people hear from Fr. Douteil that Jesus Christ Himself has the power to drive out demons, and that the demons even needed permission from Him to drive themselves into pigs, “it was a liberation for them,” the priest states. “When we have Christ in our hearts,” they told him, “then we do not need to have fear of any kinds of evil spirits!”

This missionary priest thereby debunks the Amazon Synod’s document and its idea that somehow we Catholics have to learn from the religions of these indigenous people. They, too, are in need of God’s redemption and Christ’s liberating truth.

Douteil, who is very much aware of the social injustices of that region and who has also worked for the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Amazonian peoples, skeptically says about the so-called Indian theology itself that “I am not aware of it. Perhaps it exists at some universities, as there supposedly exists also a specific ‘feminist theology’ at European universities.”

Being involved in charitable work for victims of drug abuse in the Amazon region, Douteil does not shy away from criticizing the synod document’s false use of mercy. Asked about the lack of priests in the region, he states that to him, the instrumentum laboris “demands here too much and builds a new Trojan horse, as it was already once the case with the document Amoris Laetitia with regard to the notion of mercy, with the help of which one wanted to revamp the sexual morality.”

For this priest, the idea of introducing married priests in the Amazon region is merely a “functionalism” and “not a true solution.” His idea is rather to promote morally proven men as lay catechists who, in the case of need, could also distribute Holy Communion.

Further asked about the question of inculturation, Fr. Douteil points out that he himself is a liturgy scholar and that, according to his expertise and experience, “I could not name one single liturgical element that is not also accessible to the indigenous people, and, on the other hand, that there is none that should or could be introduced into our liturgy.”

“Again and again,” he continues, “we have to be careful not to dissolve the liturgy into a social ritual that is oriented toward man and misses the Mysterium Tremendum, that is to say, where one wants to make everything naturally understandable.”

A third source of critiques, once more by way of an interview with Die Tagespost, is a German missionary, Reinhold Nann, who worked for a long time in the Peruvian Amazon region and has been the bishop of Caravelí, Peru, for the last two years. While is has great sympathy for the Amazon Synod’s purposes and puts great hope in the synod and Pope Francis, he nevertheless warns against unrealistic expectations at the synod and reveals some stunning facts about the Amazon region.

Due to the vast regions that a priest has to cover in the Amazon region, due to the poverty of the population, and due to the lack of priests, the Church has not yet been able to present herself in her hierarchical structure and with her moral teaching. “The people live their own morality, not the Church’s morality, which is very much due to the Church's absence in their lives,” Nann explains.

This fact has consequences for the plans to allow married priests in the region: how can one have married priests if the couples in the region seldom marry? Nann says he would first like to work with catechists and married deacons, “but also there exists a problem: there are only a few married laymen.”

In addition to this fundamental fact, Bishop Nann also points out that the people in the Amazon region are so poor that even if a priest could be found, they could not support him financially. “If I had more priests,” he explains, “they could barely live from the meager income of these villages.”

Due to the lack of evangelization in the region and its weak faith, Bishop Nann also does not see that the local parishioners have much yearning for the Eucharist. He sees that the people in the Amazon region “do not really ask for the Eucharist. A Liturgy of the Word is for most of them as good as a Mass.”

Last but not least, there comes to us a lay voice, a social anthropologist from South America who wishes to remain anonymous, who is an expert with regard to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region. In a lengthy critique of the synod’s working document, this author points to its numerous inaccuracies. Most importantly, he insists that this document presents an “abstract and invented ‘world of the indigenous,’” using “stereotypes and clichés.” The description of the indigenous, as they are found in the Vatican document, often does not correspond to reality.

For example, the anthropologist states that the indigenous peoples have a type of family “which is alien to the Catholic understanding of family,” inasmuch as the children are often raised by the community and inasmuch as the people often have sleeping arrangements in groups (“Maloca”).

Therefore, the anthropologist calls it a “myth” when the synod document speaks of the “good life” of the indigenous. He points to the “extreme poverty,” as well as to “alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and abuse of women and children.” In addition, he finds in certain regions even a “high inclination to suicide” among the indigenous, due to malnutrition, high mortality rates among children, and a life expectancy of about 20 years of age.

Another “myth” of the instrumentum laboris is to be found with regard to the purported closeness of the indigenous peoples to nature, according to this expert. He speaks of a “myth of the harmony between the indigenous and the environment” and proceeds to describe “the reality” that the “ecological practices of the indigenous peoples of the tropical American rain forest often are in conflict with the ideas of the synod specialists.” Here, the anthropologist shows how many indigenous communities still use the traditional agricultural method of “slash and burn,” by which trees are felled and then burned, so there can be some harvest before the soil is soon exhausted.

At the end of this lengthy analysis of the instrumentum laboris, this anthropologist says that what would be of help to these indigenous people would be “scientific knowledge, not magic” — not the traditional practices, but “agriculture and a sustainable economy” would help them in their poverty and needs. “Modern medicine, not the traditional ethnobotany” will be of help in order “to get rid of the endemic suffering of these groups of the population,” the anthropologist explains.

“Literacy and higher education, not shamans, will be able to free the indigenous from their historic submission, from the marginalization” in which they find themselves, the expert states. And this submission is present also due to those people “who still pretend today to speak for them, to tell them what to think, what they desire, and, most of all, what they are supposed to be.”

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.