by mvenner | Oct 2, 2019 | Blog
Amazonia and Pope Francis have shaken the papacy out of its complacency and provoked a synod on the theme “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology”.
Assuming an unchanged goal, making disciples and new paths will mean identifying obstacles that slow our progress and finding ways around or through them.
Francis teaches that the Church is part of the created world and its ways of pursuing its mission should be shaped by the physical, social and cultural environment it encounters; the ecology.
He understands Barry Commoner’s First Law of Conservation; Everything is connected to everything else. He also reads the signs of the times as recommended by Vatican II or, in more practical terms, likes to base decisions on an unprejudiced assessment of the situation and opportunities.
This implies a readiness to adapt to realities.
Thus, the Church is called to stand against rapacious extractive industries and other external enterprises or repressive governments that are indifferent to the damage they do to the environment and the poor. (Oscar Romero did not die in vain!)
It is also an extraordinary acknowledgement that the Church’s way of doing things can change and should change if it is to give proper priority to the two principle mandates it has received from Christ: “Make disciples (i.e. people who love one another) of all the nations” and “Do this in commemoration of me.”
The Instrumentum Laboris makes courageous proposals that clearly prioritize the mandates ahead of many rules, regulations and working traditions that Catholics have been led to believe are unchangeable.
A member of an unspecified Brazilian indigenous tribe pictured April 25, 2018 in Brasilia. (Photo by EPA/MAXPPP)
This is the first of a four-part series before the Synod of Bishops’ Oct. 6-27 special assembly on the Pan-Amazonian region that will discuss the theme “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”
Amazonia is a major source of the oxygen that drives physical life on the planet. It is possible that very soon we will be thanking Amazonia for spiritual refueling as well.
The survey in anticipation of the Synod on the Amazon has been going on for 18 months in ways facilitated by Francis’ preference for discernment over dogmatism and by his environmental encyclical, Laudato si’ and the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
The working document of the Synod, Instrumentum Laboris, issued June 17, is creative. It makes courageous proposals for Church policy and could have an enormous impact on the future of the Church worldwide.
It is not just a response to the shortage of clergy and the Eucharistic famine in the area. It is a recognition that the worship of the Creator demands care for his creation and unselfish concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of all his children.
It stresses the need, when evangelizing disparate indigenous groups, to adapt to the situation as it is and graft the faith into the existing culture and social system.
It acknowledges that “other groups” have been successful in building “communities” that somehow belong to the people who belong to them and “where the faithful can express themselves freely without censorship or dogmatism or ritual disciplines.”
It humbly and bravely asserts that the Church could learn from some of these groups, particularly the Pentecostals, and proposes that it should work with them.
In contrast with earlier synods where discussion of some relevant and important issues was forbidden, the Instrumentum Laboris of this synod conveys a readiness to grapple with any discipline or doctrine that seems to be impeding the mission.
The synod proposals do not affect any credal doctrine, but they envision adaptations of some long-standing traditions to accommodate the variations in cultures, social conventions, and ways of life.
They promote a more adaptable way of being missionary than has been customary in the past. In a church that calls itself “Catholic” this should not cause alarm. Christ’s instructions to his disciples can be followed in any age or environment; but this demands a readiness to adapt.
The Council of Trent had the courage to make remarkable changes in its time, legislating very effectively to meet the situation it faced. Doctrines and practices were being widely challenged and Europe was awash with priests, many of whom were very badly educated.
The Church today faces the same problem but the situation is reversed. We have an existential scarcity of priests and thousands of highly educated men and women among the faithful. Unfortunately, the legacy of Trent tends to be treated as irreformable, if not infallible.
Thus, rigidity has made an incongruity of Catholicism: a priestly people who are short of priests!
The Instrumentum Laboris is not lacking in courage. In addition to the reopening of discussion of the ordination of married men (which has dominated media coverage), it rejects the “monocultural, clericalist and colonial tradition that imposes itself”. In §106 it lays down the challenge:
“The new paths for pastoral ministry in the Amazon require ‘relaunching with fidelity and audacity’ the mission of the Church (DAp. 11) in the territory and deepening the ‘process of inculturation’ (EG 126) and inter-culturality (cf. LS 63, 143, 146). This demands ‘brave’ proposals of the Church in the Amazon, which in turn presupposes courage and passion, as Pope Francis asks of us. Evangelization in the Amazon is a set of tests for the Church and for society”.
The new pathways to be explored by the Church in the area could give appropriate priority to the basic mandates. There are several “brave” proposals among them:
There are, of course, many more suggestions for discussion. Some of the proposed adaptations would allow members of the faithful to lend their talents to mission in new and exciting ways.
If they are approved for the Amazon region and prove successful there, pressure to adopt and adapt them elsewhere will follow. The last sentence of §106 quoted above anticipates this.
This would inevitably impact on the power and status of existing ordained priests and make it harder for the Curia to exercise its current level of micro-control.
In summary, the Instrumentum Laboris recognizes that making disciples demands greater respect for the ecology than until now, and particularly for peripheral cultures, and a readiness to adapt traditions to better accomplish the mandates.
The need for adaptations will call for clear discernment of what is essential to the faith and what is venerable only for its age, familiarity or comfort. It is a moment of great opportunity for the Church. Can the Synod deliver?
Dr John O’Loughlin Kennedy is a retired economist and serial social entrepreneur. In 1968, he and his wife, Kay, founded the international relief and development organization CONCERN WORLDWIDE, which now employs about 3,800 indigenous personnel on development work in 28 of the world’s poorest countries.