What Does the Amazon Synod’s Working Document Really Say?


October 3, 2019

Much ink has been spilled debating the merits and even the orthodoxy of the Instrumentum Laboris (or working document) of the Amazon Synod, which begins on October 6. We’re now less than one week out from the main event and, curiously, there has been no close reading of the Instrumentum itself. So, let’s begin with the basics.

There are six main themes in the document: colonialism, ecology and environmentalism, the South American Church’s decades-long involvement in liberation theology, syncretism of Catholicism with indigenous religions, the possibility of married priests, and the role of women in the Church. The synod fathers’ declarations on any and each of these issues may have implications for the global Church.

The Instrumentum is long on advocacy and accusations but tells us almost nothing substantive. It’s uninformative in general about the Amazon and the local Church. Although the Amazon River itself is almost entirely in Brazil, the Amazon River Basin includes parts of nine of South America’s twelve countries, plus French Guiana. The Vatican’s website for the synod includes a minimal and mostly historical background report from each country; we’re told little about the status and conditions in and of dioceses, parishes, seminaries, schools, hospitals, or other Church institutions, nor are we told about the numbers of priests, brothers, and nuns. Some of these national reports list the name of tribes but omit anything significant or specific about the indigenous peoples of the religion.

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A superficial Internet search suggests that there are as many as 200 native tribes in the Amazon, with as many as half of those being “uncontacted.” Quite obviously, there are great variations in the religions (Catholic and otherwise) of the various tribes. What are those variations? In particular, the long report of Brazil—by far the largest county participating in the synod, and whose land contains about 90 percent of the Amazon territory—is notable for its recitation of the many meetings that the Brazilian Church has had with these indigenous peoples in recent decades. Curiously absent is any information on its efforts to evangelize them. It’s by no means clear, then, what are the real needs of the Church in the Amazon—let alone how the synod intends to redress them.

As for the main themes of the Instrumentum, first is the thorough condemnation of European colonization—not only of the Amazon, but of Latin America as a whole. The colonialism of “territorial, political, economic, and cultural domination,” including “an economy based exclusively on profit” has created the “current social-environmental crisis.” The Church itself was sometimes “complicit with the colonizers.” The Instrumentum gives this emphasis to colonialism despite the reality that the six largest countries participating in the synod (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Ecuador) all became independent in the 1810s and 1820s—that is, two centuries ago.

The second (and perhaps most important) theme of the Instrumentum is ecology and environmentalism. Reflecting the new teaching in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself,” the Instrumentum holds that the Amazon provides “an integral understanding of our relationships with others, with nature, and with God.” As the basis for this teaching, both Laudato Si’ and the Instrumentum cite Genesis, whereby the ground became “cursed” and had to be tended by “toil” because of the sin of Adam.

The Instrumentum calls for the “ecological conversion” previously proclaimed by Francis in Laudato Si’, based on what he calls an “ecological spirituality.” Neither document refers to any passage in the New Testament to establish this doctrinal foundation. With that accomplished, the Instrumentum goes on to criticize at length the ecological degradations of the Amazon. The region is threatened with “environmental destruction and exploitation… the invasion of huge, so-called ‘development’ projects… the pollution of rivers, the air, soils and forests.”

Third, the Instrumentum is grounded in the 50 years of liberation theology as professed by a number of South American theologians and bishops. The history of liberation theology begins in earnest with a 1968 meeting of the Latin American episcopal conferences in Medellin, Colombia. In the 1980s, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger—then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—clashed with its principal ideologists Gustavo Butierrez and Leonardo Boff.

The Instrumentum states that the Church in the Amazon has been seeking to “enculturate the Good News” in accordance with Medellin and the Second Vatican Council. The “impulses and inspirations” for “cultural diversity” come from Medellin and other Latin American bishops’ conferences. From that has emerged “a Latin American theology, especially Indian Theology.”

Fourth, the Instrumentum maintains that the Church must accept and recognize the “Amazon cosmovision,” including the integration of “indigenous theology and ecotheology” concerning the formation of “ordained ministers” and the “teaching of Pan-Amazonian indigenous theology in all [Catholic] educational institutions.” It goes on to declare that the Holy Spirit has taught Amazonian indigenous peoples “faith in the God Father-Mother Creator,” adding that the “Eucharistic ritual” must be adapted to indigenous “cultures,” and those cultures” must be thoroughly “integrated into liturgical and sacramental rituals.”

Fifth, the priesthood is mentioned in only three places. In the chapter concerning “an inculturated liturgy,” it states that “communities find it difficult to celebrate the Eucharist frequently because of the lack of priests.” In the only passage where the word “ordination” appears, the Instrumentum goes on to advocate the “possibility” of the “priestly ordination” of married “older people” (in the Spanish version, personas; in the French, personnes; the word “men” is not used in any language) “for the most remote areas.” Likewise, the synod’s Preparatory Document, which was released in June of 2018, only deals with the priesthood in a single paragraph—one that speaks in broad terms referring to “different pastoral agents,” including women. Both documents agree that, as the Instrumentum states, the alternative is “leaving communities without the Eucharist.”

Sixth, there is a great deal more detail about creating pastoral roles for women. It laments that a “patriarchal mentality still persists” in the Church, and “any kind of stereotype” of women “must be overcome.” “Women must assume a leadership role within the Church,” it insists. Their “leadership opportunity” must be “guaranteed” and have an “increasingly broad and relevant scope” in theology, liturgy, schools, and politics. The kind of “official ministry that can be conferred on women” should be identified. The Preparatory Document agrees about “official ministry.”

The Instrumentum has several passages denouncing violence and sex trafficking. One paragraph recites all the ills of families (for example, families headed by single women), offering the usual account of the status of the family in Western societies. That paragraph goes on to say that “one still finds women being subjugated within the family.” The Church is exhorted to “embrace more and more the feminine style of acting and of understanding events.”

Overall, unlike the Instrumentum’s assertion of the specific problem of a shortage of priests, the document’s advocacy of an increase in the role and power of women—almost all of it in the stereotypical language of Western feminism—does not seem to arise integrally or naturally from the whole text about the Amazon. And, indeed, we might have a tendency to wonder whether almost all of the Amazonian indigenous tribes—some of them very rural and remote and some still uncontacted—might have a “traditional” view of the role of women in society. It could even be said that applying Western feminism to them is a kind of neo-colonialism.

Incidentally, the Amazon Synod is scheduled to take place at the same time as the “synodal journey” of the German church—which, despite some criticism from the Vatican, is going ahead with its proposals regarding married priests, new ministries for women, and changes in sexual morality.

In fact, both synods have been scheduled as a consequence of the Instrumentum’s assertion—quoting Pope Francis in Evangelium Gaudium regarding “a sound decentralization” of the Church—that the Church’s “call” is “to be ever more synodal.” And the fact that the Amazon Synod is being held in Rome rather than the Amazon (where indigenous tribes could participate) is telling.

But what precisely is going to happen during the three weeks of the synod? All the goals, purposes, ideas, concepts, and declarations of the Instrumentum and Preparatory Document, as well as the previous statements of the South American bishops’ conference, have already been clearly and forcefully made. It’s inconceivable that the synod will produce just another document of the same kind. Surely they must be ready, at last, to act.

Photo credit: Catholic News Agency


  • Thomas Ascik

    Thomas Ascik is a retired federal prosecutor. He writes from North Carolina. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications including Catholic World Report, The Federalist, and The Imaginative Conservative.

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