Two weeks ago, the Catholic Church’s Amazon Synod ended with a report summarising its discussions. This is the first time that the Church has brought together the bishops from the Amazon region, religious and lay advisors, specialists and indigenous peoples for a focused analysis and discussion of the region and the Church’s role within it. The report seems to reflect a rethinking of the historical and traditional practices of the Church and of its relationship with the region, especially its indigenous peoples and natural environment.
In its diagnosis of the problems, the document highlights a daunting list of issues: the privatisation of natural goods, predatory models of production, deforestation, pollution from extractive industries, climate change, drug trafficking, alcoholism, human trafficking, the criminalisation of leaders and defenders of territory, the presence of illegal armed groups, and the forced displacement of indigenous peoples.
The Church, it claims, has the “historic opportunity to distance herself” from “the new colonialising powers by listening to the Amazonian peoples and transparently exercising her prophetic activity”. To carry out this mission the document emphasises the importance of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and the need for an indigenous pastoral ministry. It stresses the need too to use social media to help young indigenous people achieve a healthy interculturality and to defend the rights of all on the basis of the principles of sustainability, democracy and social justice. All this in an alliance with the indigenous population.
The defense of land and territorial rights is given a central role, respecting the rights of self-determination, delimiting indigenous territories and implementing prior consultation regarding their use.
“Colonial-style evangelisation” and “proselytism” are rejected in favor of tolerance towards indigenous theology and popular piety. National and local Church authorities are charged with studying and collecting the traditions, languages, beliefs and aspirations of indigenous peoples, encouraging an education based on their own identity and culture.
The document promotes what it calls an integral ecology and an ecological conversion, linking the pastoral care of nature to justice for the poorest and most disadvantaged people of the world, taking into account the central role of the Amazon biome for the equilibrium of the planet and the need to strengthen the framework convention on climate.
On the environment, the document calls for campaigns to withdraw investment from extractive companies that cause social and ecological damage to the Amazon, a radical energy transition and the search for alternatives, the development of educational programmes for the care of the “common home”, and a socially-inclusive “new paradigm of sustainable development” that combines scientific and traditional medicine.
The document proposes the concept of “ecological sin”, which it defines as “an action or an omission against God, against one’s neighbour, the community, the environment” and future generations. To repay the ecological debt generated by accumulated sins, the document proposes a smorgasbord of concrete measures. These include a global fund to protect indigenous communities from predatory national and multinational companies, the development of energy policies that drastically reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases related to climate change, the promotion of clean energies, access to potable water, re-use and recycling, cuts in the use of fossil fuels and plastic, modification of eating habits to reduce meat consumption, adoption of a sober lifestyle, and the planting trees.
With regard to more ecclesiastical issues, the document urges the strengthening and expansion of lay participation, both in consultation and in decision making in the life and mission of the Church, and suggests that bishops “entrust, for a specific period of time, in the absence of priests, the exercise of pastoral care of the communities to a person not invested with the priestly character, who is a member of the community”. Women also should be consulted and participate in a more direct way in decision making, exercising more forcefully leadership within the Church, in pastoral councils and “even in areas of government”.
In the face of the severe shortage of ordained and celibate priests, the document suggests the ordination to the priesthood of suitable men (no mention of women) who have already legitimately constituted a stable family, are held in esteem by the community, who live their permanent deaconate fruitfully and who have received some training for the priesthood. Finally, the document proposes the establishment of a commission to develop an Amazonian rite which would be in addition to the 23 distinct rites already present in the Church.
This final document represents the beginning of a process to redefine the Church’s role in the Amazon, promoting dialogue, mutual respect and interculturality in place of the civilising and evangelising mission historically associated with colonialism. It also begins to redefine the relationship between humans and their natural environment, moving from a vision of human domination of the environment to one of ecological integration.
These propositions do not reflect a consensus shared by all sectors of the Church but rather an emerging vision amongst those working and living in the Amazon. The reader should be warned that this is not yet the official view of the Church: these ideas and recommendations will be analysed and reworked by Pope Francis and his advisors and should eventually result in a pronouncement by the Pope which will be binding on the faithful.