Amazon synod set to raise the temperature on indigenous rights

10 August 2019

The Catholic Church is organising a synod of bishops on the theme ‘Amazonia, New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology’ to take place in Rome on 16-27 October 2019.

The key issues for the synod are outlined in a working document (references to which are prefaced here with ‘WD’). The main concerns include rights and culture (in indigenous culture, land is more than a commodity and has a spiritual meaning and represents life itself); poverty among all marginalised communities; the impacts of climate change and extractives; and the role of the Church. The Peruvian Church is part of REPAM which is a network of the nine national churches that cover the Amazon region (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Surinam, Peru and Venezuela). REPAM is playing a significant role in the synod (see for example, the 'popular version' in English of the preparatory document).

The main issue featured in much of the western press appears to be that of the possibility of creating married priests from among elders of well-established families in indigenous communities. This issue of married priests, which has been alluded to by Pope Francis for several years, has stirred both admiration and rebellion in the Church. This conflict is illustrated in comments in a fairly recent Tablet article. While the issue of married clergy is important for the world-wide church, it hardly features in the working document, only being implicitly mentioned in WD126c.

The importance of the synod is for “promoting justice and the defence of the dignity of the people most affected” says Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus Barreto of Huancayo, and on this the Church has been involved for years. For example, Bishop Alfredo Vizcarra of the diocese of Jaen, Cajamarca, is the president of the Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica, an NGO founded in the 1970 by nine bishops of the Amazon region.

Indigenous peoples are among those particularly affected (WD45-46). The people in the Amazon are becoming destabilised through intense migration (both inward and outward) (WD63-64) and by the growth of cities. About 75% of the total population (WD71) now live in cities.

And the Amazon is a source of extractives of all types: agricultural (primitive forest, secondary forest, cleared land for small and large-scale farming including oil palm), minerals (oil & gas and gold).

There is potential and actual conflict everywhere: between the different peoples in the area, between the different agriculture factions, between mineral extractives and agriculture, between legal and illegal operations both in agriculture and mineral extractives (WD14-16, 23, 31, 52, 80-81). The problems in the cities are particularly acute (WD73).

So, the Church needs to “become indignant, but not in a violent way” (WD41).

The Catholic Church is perhaps the most important organisation with widespread representation in the Amazon and at all levels of society. Its position on the Amazon is therefore important. The extensive consultation that the local Peruvian Church is undertaking among indigenous populations is thus crucial for what needs to be heard in Rome (via the REPAM processes).

For many years the Church in Latin American has been beset by internal division. The Peruvian-based Liberation Theology (‘the option for the poor’) has vied with ‘hierarchical church’ with the latter seeking to suppress that form of theology, including its key exponent the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez.

But the advent of Pope Francis has changed all that. ‘The option for the poor’ is now a guiding light in many places. Further, the Church hierarchy, at least in increasing numbers of Latin American countries, is no longer in bed with state, but now engages more often with the opposition. In Europe, for example, witness the increasing tension in Italy on migration policy. In Latin America it is increasingly vocal in its support for the underprivileged, not least in the Amazon.

In Peru, since the retirement of Cardinal Luis Cipriani as archbishop of Lima, the Church has an increasingly liberal face at the top in the shape of the new archbishop, Carlos Castillo Mattasoglio, until recently a lecturer in theology at the Catholic University. Another leading progressive is Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos of Trujillo who chairs the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM). On the whole the more conservative Peruvian bishops have remained silent on the working document, though there has been theological criticism from others such as the Cardinal Muller, who was very senior in the Vatican in the Pope Benedict era but is now in Germany.

So, what happens next? In Brazil, from the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration, the Church and the new Brazilian government have been at odds on Amazon policy. It remains to be seen how relations between Church and state will evolve in Peru, both on environmental and human issues and particularly in the Amazon. As in Brazil, they may find themselves increasingly at odds. Currently the state seems more in conflict with itself, as we have been reporting for months. But if and when politics returns to ‘normal’, then tensions with the Church may become more evident.

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