The Rise of the “Amazonian” Elites

In his treatise The Rise and Fall of Elites, Vilfredo Pareto proffers the thesis that “the history of man is the history of the continuous replacement of elites: as one ascends, another declines.” Unduly reductive as this contention is, Pareto attunes us to the persistent presence of elites in even the most revolutionary and populist movements. Elite, here, is not uttered with ressentiment or contempt; rather, for Pareto, the term names any group that possesses consolidated influence and power. It would seem that a so-called “synodal Church” would offer an egalitarian, decentralized correction to Pareto’s premise. However, in presenting its theologies, ideas, and implementations as “homegrown” in South America, the Amazon Synod’s Instrumentum laboris advances a misguiding ruse that obfuscates the elites who have authored it.

An expert on theological trends in the Amazon, Julio Loredo has demonstrated that the Synod is “nothing else than the culmination of liberation theology.” The Synod’s Instrumentum laboris gives credence to his claim; we read that “a Church called to be even more synodal begins by listening to the peoples and to the earth by coming into contact with the abundant reality of an Amazon full of life and wisdom.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains that for liberation theologians, the “conciliar emphasis on the people of God is transformed into a Marxist myth.” Just as for Marxists the experiences of the proletariat elucidate history, here in the Instrumentum laboris the “experiences of the ‘people’ elucidate Scripture.” Yet, by themselves Amazonians have not sought to illuminate Revelation through their experiences in a universalizing manner. If the fauna and flora of liberation theology have grown more readily in the climate of South America, the Marxist reinterpretation of Christianity which replaces “redemption” from sin with political “liberation” is not native to the region. As Ratzinger elucidates, liberation theology is “part of that export to the Third World of myths and utopias which have been worked out in the developed West.” Moreover, “ideologies that have been invented in the laboratory by European theoreticians” are as it were tested in the “concrete scenario[s]” of Central and South America. Ratzinger’s judgment is ringing: “In a certain respect, therefore, it is a kind of cultural imperialism, even if it is portrayed as the spontaneous creation of the disenfranchised masses.”

“We must,” Ratzinger concludes, uncover “what real influence is in fact exercised over the people by those theologians who maintain that they represent them as their spokesmen.” Asked whether indigenous people are being exploited to carry out an ecclesial revolution, Julio Loredo indicated that the Synod is staffed and prepared by a “well-organized network of ‘indigenist’ associations and movements” whose mentors are mainstays of the liberation theology movement which has in recent years “evolved” its commitments toward an “integral ecology.” Chilean author José Antonio Ureta affirms this contention, explaining that “after the collapse of the USSR and the failure of ‘real socialism,’ the advocates of Liberation Theology … attributed the historic role of revolutionary force to indigenous peoples and to nature.” Still, although the Synod’s arrangers include “some highly-motivated Amazonian Indians, like Cayapó Chief Raoni,” Loredo is wary: “knowing the Amazonian reality quite well, I would say that the vast majority want to integrate themselves into modern society.”

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How is it, then, that in “listening to the peoples and to the earth,” the authors of Instrumentum laboris have concocted an exotic dish that tastes strongly of progressive theologies propagated by Western elites? It is true that the working document contains some distinctively “Amazonian” theologies: among other things we might cite are faith in “Father-Mother-Creator … the relationship with nature and Mother Earth … the celebration and festivity and the sacred sense of the land.” However, William Kilpatrick seems justified in asking whether “a group of aging German bishops … have hatched a plot to carry the spiritual DNA of Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Cardinal Carlo Martini, and other New Age prelates to the Amazon with the hope that in the warm moist jungle climate their ideas will germinate and spread throughout the planet, eventually causing all of us to evolve into the Cosmic Christ?” What we do know, from praise bestowed upon Bishop Fritz Lobinger by Pope Francis and his synodal collaborator Bishop Erwin Kräutler, is that Lobinger is a major member and muse of the elite; they are his own enlightened theological reflections, and not those of the Amazonian people, that have found their way into the Instrumentum laboris.

Pareto shows us that, especially in a democratic age, a “new elite which seeks to supersede the old one” will not admit its intention openly or frankly. Instead, “it assumes the leadership of all the oppressed, declares that it will pursue not its own good but the good of the many” so that “the rise of the new elite appears as the vindication of the humble and weak against the powerful and strong.” It is disingenuous, then, for the authors of the Instrumentum laboris to mask the profound influence of imported liberation theologies, disseminated by elites, behind the following lyrical lines: “the life of the Amazonian community has not yet been influenced by Western civilization.”

We should be worried when Bishop Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, says that though the synod is dedicated solely to the Amazon, “from a pastoral point of view” there could be repercussions for the whole Church. After all, the catch word “pastoral” has long been code for rupture—on a practical level—from Church doctrine. “A Church with an Amazonian face in its multiple nuances, seeks to be an ‘outward-bound’ Church,” the working document exclaims. In a Church marked, of late, by Synods of Surprises, we can reasonably anticipate a future wherein synod organizers impose their “discoveries” across the Universal Church, heedless of the hypocrisy inherent in the formula: to implement the supposed Amazonian repudiation of a “colonial mono-cultural, clerical and domineering tradition” in favor of one that “knows how to discern and adopt without fear the diverse cultural expressions of the peoples.”  “After victory, the elite becomes more rigid and more exclusive,” writes Pareto. His warning, corroborated by revolutionary movements everywhere, raises a chilling question: will the elites domineer those accused of being domineeringly “mono-cultural”?

Before he resigned, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lamented the way in which the media translated and interpreted the Second Vatican Council. When newsmakers, journalists, and pundits took as their object the Catholic Church, they naturally treated the Council from “within the categories of media today, that is, outside of the faith, with different hermeneutics. It was a hermeneutics of politics.” Through the political hermeneutic of liberation theology, the virtue of hope is subordinated to the class struggle; hope becomes the working and struggling for the future welfare of the people of God. Given that the elites drafting the documents for the Amazon synod share this politicized optimism, we the powerless laypeople have only one hope: as the Church is not simply one more man-made political institution among so many others, the Spirit may “intercede for us with inexpressible groanings” (Rom. 8:26-27).

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Pope Francis, wearing gifts, meets with representatives of indigenous communities of the Amazon basin from Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia in the Peruvian city of Puerto Maldonado, on January 19, 2018. (Photo credit: CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)


  • Joshua Hren

    Dr. Joshua Hren is co-founder and assistant director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books. His first collection of short stories, This Our Exile, was published by Angelico Press in 2018. His first academic book, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy came out through Cascade Books in the same year.

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