Storm over the Amazon
The Amazon Synod
Days before the Amazon synod was due to get under way, the Vatican announced that the traditionalist Catholic association, the Heralds of the Gospel, was being placed under special measures. Pope Francis has appointed a commissioner, the Brazilian Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis, to oversee the controversial group whose problems are said to relate to governance, formation and fund-raising. That wording could be read as code for abuse of power in an organisation which offers teenage boys special retreats and internship programmes, and whose lay members practise celibacy and wear medieval-looking dark brown tunics with a large cross on their chest, and black riding boots.
This is more than the reining in of a traditionalist group (the Vatican is keen to stress it is not being punished). The Heralds are symbolic of a movement – with significant support in Rome and in parts of the Catholic media – seeking to undermine the synod by declaring it to be imbued with pagan, anti-Christian thought, and even suggesting that it is inspired by demonic forces.
It is no surprise that tensions are bubbling over. The organisers hope that the synod will take the Pope’s renewal of the Church to the next level, by responding boldly to both the environmental and pastoral emergency of a region ravaged by fires and deforestation. Preparations for the meeting included an unprecedented listening exercise involving 87,000 people across the nine countries in the Amazon basin. It refused to shirk the tough questions raised by the Church’s patchy but prophetic work in the region, including calls for the synod to discuss ordaining married elders and giving an official role to women. Meanwhile, Francis has invited a former United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and a number of climate-change specialists to take part in the synod’s discussions.
The Pope’s opponents are worried. What concerns them more than the specific reforms likely to be agreed over the next three weeks is that the synod of bishops is becoming the primary tool for working out the Church’s pastoral programme. Decision-making is being taken away from a small, tight-knit group of officials in Rome and put into the hands of local bishops, who are harder to control and difficult to predict. And they don’t like to see outside experts who haven’t passed the test of doctrinal purity brought into the room.
Resistance to the synod is not just internal. It also has Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro rattled. Bolsonaro – widely criticised for policies that have accelerated the unscrupulous destruction of the forest and a lethargic response to the recent wildfires – sent a delegation to Rome to lobby the synod organisers, and his security services have been monitoring the bishops who will be attending. He fears – not without reason – that the Church’s defence of the indigenous and the environment will become a thorn in the side of his populist nationalist agenda.
The Pope and his advisers appear unperturbed by the ferment. A synodal Church, where bishops, priests and laity “walk together”, is rooted in the theology of the Second Vatican Council. The bitter opposition to Francis’ reforms and to the Amazon synod is linked by a common thread: a deep scepticism, and sometimes even rejection, of Vatican II and the post-conciliar Church. The Heralds of the Gospel and some of the opponents of the synod share a common source in the form of the late Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a Brazilian politician who founded the “Tradition, Family and Property” network (TFP) as a bulwark against progressive politics and theology. Corrêa, who died in 1995, attended the Second Vatican Council and described it as “a point in history as sad as the death of Our Lord”.
The founder of the Heralds, Mgr João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, was a loyal disciple of Corrêa, working as his secretary for 40 years. Founded in 1999 and active in over 70 countries, the Heralds won praise from Benedict XVI for helping “a great Catholic rebirth” in Brazil. The group was placed under investigation by Rome in 2017, and Mgr Clá Dias suddenly resigned. A video emerged showing him claiming that Satan had told one of the group’s priests that Pope Francis was “stupid” and does “everything I want”; Mgr Clá Dias is seen explaining that this “revelation” took place during an exorcism and saying that Corrêa is in Heaven “incentivising the death of the Pope”. He adds: “The next Pope will be good.”
The TFP is now splintered, but groups devoted to Corrêa’s legacy established the www.panamazonsynodwatch.info website, which spearheads opposition to the synod. The Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute hosts a gathering in Rome’s Quirinale Hotel today (5 October) which will open with an address by Prince Bertrand of Orléans-Braganza, who claims to be heir to the defunct Brazilian throne. The 78-year-old will argue the Church is no longer preaching the Gospel in Brazil but is adapting to “tribal beliefs”. Several other groups of hard-line conservative or traditionalist Catholics are in Rome for the synod. On 4 October, Voice of the Family hosted a round table entitled “Our Church: reformed or deformed?” Speakers included Michael Voris of the Church Militant news platform, and John-Henry Westen of LifeSite News.
Fears over the Amazon synod represent something from the past – groups who consistently refuse to accept Vatican II – but also a younger generation who see the Church as a fortress of truth in a fight for survival against a hostile contemporary world. Francis rejects this “us versus them” narrative, and refuses to engage in a violent clash of cultures. In Rome, some high-ranking figures are joining the ranks of Amazon synod critics. They include Cardinals Raymond Burke, Gerhard Müller and Robert Sarah. Cardinal Burke describes the synod’s working document as “apostasy”, while Cardinal Müller, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says it is “false teaching”. They oppose any adaptation of the Church’s mission to the needs of the Amazon. It all has echoes of Roland Joffe’s film, The Mission, where Jesuits in South America battled with a powerful European cardinal who wanted to shut down their mission to the Guarani people. The difference today is there is a Jesuit Pope.
Those involved with the synod point out that the working document is just a guide to discussion. The final document approved by the synod fathers will be very different. And the synod, of course, is only advisory; Francis retains the power to say yes or no. What the synod says about the environment is unlikely to be a problem for the Roman Curia; but a change to mandatory clerical celibacy would meet resistance. Some powerful figures are opposed even to discussing the topic.
But the synod will be rooted in the reality of life on the ground in the Amazon. Many communities go for months on end without the Eucharist or the other sacraments. Their services are Liturgies of the Word led by married deacons, or by women, who have no official ministry. The desperate shortage of priests is weakening the Church’s presence, and evangelical groups are steadily gaining followers. Those resisting change say more celibate missionary priests should be sent to the region, but this is becoming increasingly difficult for more remote areas. Indigenous languages are very difficult to learn, and indigenous leaders – deacons, laypeople – from the communities are coming forward. Could an exception be made to ordain them, in the same way that one has been to ordain married former Anglican priests?
“The grandeur and reassuring stability of the Magisterium must not distract the Church from addressing unique needs in an appropriate manner,” Michael Czerny, a special secretary to the synod due to be created cardinal in Rome today, wrote last month in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. “One size does not fit all,” he says. “In this region at this time, the challenge is to be a Church with an Amazonian and indigenous face.”
Fr Auguste Zampini Davies, an official at the Vatican’s dicastery for human development, helped sift through the results of the consultation. “When you listen attentively, you may hear things that are outside your comfort zone,” he said. He will attend the synod, which he sees as an opportunity for the Church to become “a leading global player with regard to this unique global crisis.
The Amazon synod will focus on how the Church can become “prophetic and Samaritan” in a fragile, forgotten region. The organisers hope the Church will make the “joys, and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of the Amazon its own. October is not going to be an easy month for the Pope. He’s taking a risk. Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, an indigenous Amazon leader who coordinates a group of 4,500 people, says “brother Francis” is “risking his life” for them. He is, Díaz Mirabal told Crux news site last month, “taking our side, that of saving the planet”.