On February 12, 2020, Pope Francis’s exhortation, which follows the Synod on the Amazon held in Rome from October 6 to 27, 2019, was published. Entitled Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), the document consists of four chapters, divided into 111 paragraphs. In an often lyrical style—with many poetic quotes—the pope exposes four dreams inspired by the Amazon: a “social dream,” a “cultural dream,” an “ecological dream,” and an “ecclesial dream.” According to Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication, this exhortation which begins with “Beloved Amazonia” is like a “love letter.” The rhetorical use of the “dream” brings to mind the anaphora “I have a dream,” used by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech of August 28, 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Not a Word on Priestly Celibacy
On the question of the ordination of married men—called for in §111 of the Final Document on the Synod—Pope Francis remains silent. The word “celibacy” is not used a single time throughout the document. Meanwhile, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, general relator of the synod and active supporter of the ordination of married men, on January 13 sent a confidential letter to the bishops asking them to prepare their dioceses for the reception of this long-awaited exhortation. To do this, he invited them to read the synod’s final document, the pope’s speech to the Amazon peoples, the introductory report given at the synod (of which he is the author), and the Francis’ final speech at the synod on October 26, as well as the encyclical Laudato si’. The high Brazilian prelate added very precisely: “You could also start planning a press conference or other event as soon as possible… For example, it may be appropriate to present the exhortation in your area with an indigenous representative, whenever feasible, a responsible pastoral expert (ordained or religious, layman or laywoman), an expert on environmental issues, and a young person engaged in youth ministry.” And he announced that the bishops would soon be receiving “a second letter with other suggestions.” In fact, they received a letter dated January 29.
Such meticulous agitation suggested that the apostolic exhortation would welcome the proposals of the final document of this synod, about which the progressive bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck said that after it “nothing would be the same as before.” However, the exhortation was published and it says nothing about the ordination of married men, nor about ministries entrusted to women, also demanded by the final document on the synod.
How to explain this silence? Sandro Magister, in Settimo Cielo on February 12, highlights the book by Cardinal Robert Sarah, written in collaboration with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, From the Depths of Our Hearts (Fayard), where the Guinean prelate asked the Pope “to protect us from such a possibility by vetoing any weakening of the law of priestly celibacy, even limited to one or the other region,” seeing in the possibility of ordaining married men “a pastoral catastrophe, an ecclesiological confusion and a clouding of the understanding of the priesthood.”
Roberto de Mattei in Corrispondenza Romana on February 12, considers that Pope Francis, who found himself subjected to two opposite pressures—that of the German-Amazonian progressives and that of the book by Cardinal Sarah and Benedict XVI,—followed the second. In the eyes of the Italian historian, the absence of Cardinal Hummes at the press conference presenting the exhortation is significant. Just as the announcement, on February 11, by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Conference of Bishops and principal architect of the “synodal path,” that he would not run again at the end of his mandate in March next, could show that the progressive clan feels less supported.
Querida Amazonia a Faithful Echo of Laudato Si’
A reading of the entire exhortation, and not just of the paragraphs in which the priestly ministry is mentioned, shows that Pope Francis does not repudiate what was said or done during the synod on the Amazon. On the contrary, we see that this document is in line with the synod, itself a faithful echo of the encyclical Laudato Si’ “On Care for Our Common Home” (24 May 2015).
The idea that “everything is connected” between man, nature, and God comes up several times:
§41. “In a cultural reality like the Amazon region, where there is such a close relationship between human beings and nature, daily existence is always cosmic… This insistence that ‘everything is connected’ is particularly true of a territory like the Amazon region.”
§42. “If the care of people and the care of ecosystems are inseparable, this becomes especially important in places where ‘the forest is not a resource to be exploited; it is a being, or various beings, with which we have to relate’… The harm done to nature affects those peoples in a very direct and verifiable way, since, in their [the natives] words, ‘we are water, air, earth and life of the environment created by God. For this reason, we demand an end to the mistreatment and destruction of mother Earth. The land has blood, and it is bleeding; the multinationals have cut the veins of our mother Earth.’”
§56. “If we enter into communion with the forest, our voices will easily blend with its own and become a prayer: ‘as we rest in the shade of an ancient eucalyptus, our prayer for light joins in the song of the eternal foliage’ [Sic!]. This interior conversion will enable us to weep for the Amazon region and to join in its cry to the Lord.”
On the use of the expression “theological locus” which was criticized by the authors of the Working Document for the Synod, here is the justification that §57 attempts to give: “If we respond to this heartrending plea, it will become clear that the creatures of the Amazon region are not forgotten by our heavenly Father. For Christians, Jesus himself cries out to us from their midst, ‘because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end. The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence.’ For all these reasons, we believers encounter in the Amazon region a theological locus, a space where God himself reveals himself and summons his sons and daughters.”
§73 strives to Christianize Amazonian pantheism: “Certainly, 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, the mysticism of a sacred wonder before nature and all its forms of life. At the same time, though, we are called to turn this relationship with God present in the cosmos into an increasingly personal relationship with a ‘Thou’ who sustains our lives and wants to give them a meaning, a ‘Thou’ who knows us and loves us.”
§79 indirectly responds to the sharp criticisms aroused by the pagan worship rendered to the Pachamama during the synod: “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.”
For a theological refutation of this diffuse immanentism throughout the exhortation, we will fruitfully refer to the conference by Fr. Davide Pagliarani, at Courrier de Rome’s latest congress, fully transcribed in Nouvelles de Chrétienté, no. 181, January-February 2020.
Has The Threat Been Averted?
In his fourth chapter, “an ecclesial dream,” Pope Francis deals with social, spiritual, liturgical, and ministerial inculturation. The word “inculturation” is used twenty times in this chapter alone.
In §87, the pope recalls that only the ordained priest can offer the sacrifice of the Mass, but if there is no mention of the possible ordination of married men, neither is there any mention of consecrated celibacy. And as Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, remarked in cath.ch of February 12: “The ordination of married men or the creation of a female deaconate are questions that have not been ‘resolved’ by Pope Francis. There is no ‘closure’ by the Church on these points: all these questions remain in fact ‘open’ and can still be the subject of ‘discussions’ and ‘prayers’ to lead, later, to ‘fully developed decisions’ made at the top of the Catholic hierarchy.
In fact, in §95, Francis writes: “The consecrated life, as capable of dialogue, synthesis, incarnation, and prophecy, has a special place in this diverse and harmonious configuration of the Church in the Amazon region. But it needs a new impetus to inculturation, one that would combine creativity, missionary boldness, sensitivity and the strength typical of community life.”
How far should this “new impetus to inculturation” go, creative and bold? He did not say so, but in §96 he praises the work of the “base communities,” whose role in liberation theology in South America is known: “when able to combine the defense of social rights with missionary proclamation and spirituality, [they] have been authentic experiences of synodality in the Church’s journey of evangelization in the Amazon region.”
In §104, Francis quotes his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013)—he quotes himself a lot in Querida Amazonia: Laudato Si’ 29 times, Evangelii Gaudium, 21 times—to remind us of his way of “overcoming” conflicts, failing purely and simply to bring up the Catholic doctrine on ecclesiastical celibacy. According to him, “the real response to the challenges of evangelization lies in transcending the two [opposite] approaches and finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined. Conflict is overcome at a higher level, where each group can join the other in a new reality, while remaining faithful to itself. Everything is resolved ‘on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.’ Otherwise, conflict traps us; ‘we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart.’”—In other words, above the conflict, we no longer oppose, we complement each other. But does this not presuppose that we are beyond the principle of non-contradiction? In an oxymoron.
In §105, the pope returns to this idea: “solutions are found by ‘overflow,’ that is, by transcending the contraposition that limits our vision and recognizing a greater gift that God is offering. From that new gift, accepted with boldness and generosity, from that unexpected gift which awakens a new and greater creativity, there will pour forth as from an overflowing fountain the answers that contraposition did not allow us to see.” And to draw an immediate application from it to “the Amazon region [which] challenges us to transcend limited perspectives and ‘pragmatic’ solutions mired in partial approaches, in order to seek paths of inculturation that are broader and bolder.”
From this perspective, it is feared that the question of the ordination of married men will not be settled but simply postponed, and more than ever opened to “paths of inculturation that are broader and broader.” Especially since Francis prayed that “the entire Church be enriched and challenged” by the Final Document on the Synod [with its §111 on viri probati?], in which participated “many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region, since they live there, they experience its suffering and they love it passionately”(§§3 & 4). This means that these people are able to realize the pope’s fourth dream, the “ecclesial dream”: “I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.”
The Church dreamed by the Pope, following the synod, must be adorned with an Amazonian face, there where only the adorable Face of Christ, her divine Spouse, should shine.