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Pope Francis gives a speech on October 31, 2016 in Malmo, Sweden.Michael Campanella / Getty Images

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February 12, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Francis released his official text on the Amazon Synod today at noon Rome time, bringing with it what is sure to be a strong debate and controversy over its meaning for the life of the worldwide Church.

While it seems the pope’s apostolic exhortation, titled Querida Amazonia, fails to accept the progressives’ most high-profile proposals for a married priesthood and female diaconate, many are sure to argue that it nevertheless leaves ample room for them to advance a revolutionary agenda for the Church. (The full text of the exhortation is here on the Vatican website.)

The Synod of Bishops for the Amazonian Region took place in Rome between October 6 and 27, 2019. Controversy ahead of the Synod reached full force with the release of the Instrumentum Laboris, or “working document,” which earned strong public criticism from cardinals and bishops. Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Gerhard Müller, and Raymond Burke took issue with its radical departures from perennial doctrine. Brandmüller condemned it as heretical and even apostate. 

The Synod itself was then plunged into controversy almost as soon as delegates arrived in Rome, thanks to an apparently syncretic ceremony that took place in the Vatican Gardens on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Concerns about a central totem of the Synod, a representation of the fertility goddess Pachamama, dominated reports about the gathering.

Consistent with the Synod’s themes, the Pope’s exhortation decries social injustices against the poor in the Amazon, and the ecological crisis, while emphasizing forcefully that the Church must preach the Gospel of Christ to the people of the region.

In the midst of these themes, however, the exhortation includes a number of controversial passages, and changes to Church practice, that, while framed here for the Amazon, could have far-reaching application:

  • He advocates an “inculturated liturgy” incorporating Amazonian dance and rituals, and mentions in a footnote the idea of establishing an Amazonian liturgical rite.
  • He recommends granting lay people formal authority of Amazonian parishes, and mentions their ability to “celebrate certain sacraments” (excluding specifically the Eucharist and Confession).
  • He says women should be given formal positions in the community that include a “commission from the bishop”.
  • He applies the Amoris Laetitia approach to sacraments in the Amazon context, saying there is no “room … for a discipline that excludes and turns people away.”
  • And he seems to defend the veneration of the Pachamama statue at the Synod.

The concern that proposals for the Amazon could have worldwide import have been voiced since the moment the Synod was called. It became clear as the Synod process developed that Church progressives – and most especially the large liberal wing of bishops in Germany – were latching onto it to advance their cause through the challenging pastoral situation of the Amazon region.

And the pope’s exhortation does indeed seem to open the door to that possibility. In his introduction, Pope Francis describes the 40-page document as a “brief framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region,” but at the same time he highlights that he intends the exhortation to have worldwide significance: “I am addressing the present Exhortation to the whole world. … the Church’s concern for the problems of this area obliges us to discuss, however briefly, a number of other important issues that can assist other areas of our world in confronting their own challenges.”

While the exhortation does not explicitly support the idea of ordaining married men to the priesthood or of establishing some sort of female ministry, only the ensuing discussions will show whether these issues are in fact off the table. The reason for caution is that right in the introduction of the exhortation, Pope Francis endorses the final document of the Amazon Synod. He declares that he is “officially present[ing] the Final Document.” Then he adds: “I have preferred not to cite the Final Document in this Exhortation, because I would encourage everyone to read it in full.” (Read the full text of the Amazon Synod’s final document here.) And as he says, he indeed does not quote from the final document in the text.

As some sources told LifeSiteNews, these words as chosen by Pope Francis could open the door to many debates as to whether or not the conclusions of the Synod's final document – with its approval of the idea of ordaining married men to the priesthood and of establishing some new forms of ministry for women – might still be applicable and valid for the reform plans in the Catholic Church of the Amazon region.

In particular, in 2018, Pope Francis issued an apostolic constitution that stipulated the final document of a Synod of Bishops would become part of the papal magisterium should the Pope approve it. Titled Episcopalis Communio, it reads:

If it is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter.

At the same time, the fact that Pope Francis personally does not explicitly endorse the reform plans of the Amazon Synod's final document can be seen as something that might very well discourage and even anger the progressivist camp within the Catholic Church.

We here highlight now some of the most important aspects of the text that are sure to be a source of heated discussion.

Laity running parishes

Perhaps the key pastoral challenge identified for the Amazon region has been the drastic shortage of priests, and in the exhortation the Pope is clear about the importance of priests and the need for an increase in vocations. He calls for prayers for vocations and urges bishops of the world to send missionary priests to the Amazon. He does not take up the proposal of the viri probati, “proven” married men who could be ordained where priests are lacking, but he does urge an increase in permanent deacons, and he calls for laity to be given formal authority for parishes.

When dealing with the question of the lack of priests in the Amazon region, the Pope asks what aspects of the priest's ministry “cannot be delegated,” and he points to the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confession, as well as that of Extreme Unction since this Sacrament often includes Confession. He writes:

In the specific circumstances of the Amazon region, particularly in its forests and more remote places, a way must be found to ensure this priestly ministry.  The laity can proclaim God’s word, teach, organize communities, celebrate certain sacraments, seek different ways to express popular devotion and develop the multitude of gifts that the Spirit pours out in their midst.  But they need the celebration of the Eucharist because it “makes the Church”.

He then insists that the Amazonian Church needs an “ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay”:

A Church of Amazonian features requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority and familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life in the different places, but also open to the multiplicity of gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on every one.  For wherever there is a particular need, he has already poured out the charisms that can meet it.  This requires the Church to be open to the Spirit’s boldness, to trust in, and concretely to permit, the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.  The challenges in the Amazon region demand of the Church a special effort to be present at every level, and this can only be possible through the vigorous, broad and active involvement of the laity.

A footnote on this paragraph states: “It is possible that, due to a lack of priests, a bishop can entrust ‘participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish… to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons’ (Code of Canon Law, 517 §2).”

Official ecclesial positions for women

Pope Francis rejects the “reductionism” that “women should be granted a greater status and participation in the Church today only if they were admitted to Holy Orders.” He warns against “clericalizing” women, thus undermining their unique and special “contribution.” Thus he encourages “the emergence of other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women” and fit to the needs of the Amazon.

However, he then calls for women to be given official positions that would include “public recognition” and “a commission from the bishop”:

In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.  Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.  This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood. 

Such an idea had been recently laid out by Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of the key advisors of the Pope.  In July of 2019, Cardinal Kasper told LifeSiteNews with regard to the female deacon issue that new forms of ministries for women might not be necessary since the Church is “free” to bestow on women a “non-sacramental, liturgical blessing” that would not be a “sacramental ordination” but which would confirm women in Church ministries in which they already function, such as extraordinary Eucharistic ministers, lectors, and aiding in the Church's charitable works and administration.

Inculturated liturgy

To advance the Church’s missionary purpose in the Amazon, Pope Francis encourages “a necessary process of inculturation,” and he even calls for an “inculturated liturgy.” For the Pontiff, the sacraments “unite the divine and the cosmic, grace and creation.” In the Amazon region, he explains, “the sacraments should not be viewed in discontinuity with creation.” Therefore, he sees that “we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols.”

Here the Pope refers to a possible “Amazonian rite” – albeit only in a footnote (120) after the sentence: “The Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy among indigenous peoples; over fifty years have passed and we still have far to go along these lines.” The footnote then says that “During the Synod, there was a proposal to develop an 'Amazonian rite.'”

Further speaking about inculturation, the Pope says: “For the Church to achieve a renewed inculturation of the Gospel in the Amazon region, she needs to listen to its ancestral wisdom” and to the “rich stories of its peoples.”

Furthermore, the Pope also tells us we “should esteem the indigenous mysticism that sees the interconnection and interdependence of the whole of creation, the mysticism of gratuitousness that loves life as a gift,” as well as the “sacred wonder before nature.”

Applying Amoris Laetitia in the missionary context

The Pope also insists that in its missionary work in the region, the Church should not exclude people from the sacraments by “imposing straightaway a set of rules,” quoting Amoris Laetitia. He writes in paragraph 84:

The sacraments reveal and communicate the God who is close and who comes with mercy to heal and strengthen his children.  Consequently, they should be accessible, especially for the poor, and must never be refused for financial reasons.  Nor is there room, in the presence of the poor and forgotten of the Amazon region, for a discipline that excludes and turns people away, for in that way they end up being discarded by a Church that has become a toll-house.  Rather, “in such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy”.  For the Church, mercy can become a mere sentimental catchword unless it finds concrete expression in her pastoral outreach.

Defense of Pachamama ritual?

In his last chapter on the Church, Pope Francis also seems to make an explicit defense of the use of the controversial “Pachamama” statues during the Amazon Synod in Rome. The Pope writes in paragraphs 78-79:

Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. … It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.  A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error.  Some religious festivals have a sacred meaning and are occasions for gathering and fraternity, albeit in need of a gradual process of purification or maturation.  A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality.

‘The message that needs to be heard in the Amazon’: Christ

In four strong paragraphs (62-65), the Pope honors the missionary activity of the Catholic Church in the Amazon region and insists that we as Christians “cannot set aside the call to faith that we have received from the Gospel.” He writes:

…we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ.  Those who have encountered him, those who live as his friendsand identify with his message, must inevitably speak of him and bring to others his offer of new life: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).

An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them.  … If we devote our lives to their service, to working for the justice and dignity that they deserve, we cannot conceal the fact that we do so because we see Christ in them and because we acknowledge the immense dignity that they have received from God, the Father who loves them with boundless love.

The poor, he adds, “have a right to hear the Gospel”:

Without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO and we would not follow the command given us by Christ: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).

Amazon as ‘theological locus’

The Pope returns to some of the cosmic language that appeared in the Amazon Synod's working document. He speaks, for example, about “entering” into “communion with the forest,” about the “Amazon region” becoming “like a mother to us,” and even repeats an expression of the Synod's preparatory document, calling the Amazon region a “theological locus, a space where God reveals himself and summons his sons and daughters.”

Dorothy Cummings McLean contributed to this report.