February 04, 2020

Amazonian Synod, what if the key is not celibacy?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis led the opening procession of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region from St. Peter's Basilica to the Synod Hall where he led the opening prayer, Oct. 7, 2019. credit  Daniel Ibáñ
Pope Francis led the opening procession of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region from St. Peter's Basilica to the Synod Hall where he led the opening prayer, Oct. 7, 2019. credit Daniel Ibáñ

Recent reports claiming some basis in a leaked draft of the post-Amazonian synod exhortation raised fresh and further fears Pope Francis may  bow to some sort of "Amazonian exception" to the norm requiring that only men be ordained to the priesthood in the Latin Church.

If Francis does that, or anything like similar, it would be against his own publicly stated position regarding the norm. Breaking priestly celibacy requirement, however, might not be Pope Francis' real goal.

The "anticipation" of the text was launched by the Catholic traditionalist web site Corrispondenza Romana. The article said that the post-Synod exhortation included paragraph 111 of the final document of the Synod, in its entirety. These lines were particularly concerning.

We propose – the Synod fathers stressed – that criteria and dispositions be established by the competent authority, within the framework of Lumen Gentium 26, to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community with a legitimately constituted and stable family, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, in order to sustain the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region. 

In reality, no final draft of the post-synod exhortation is yet in circulation. Preparatory documents and early, partial drafts have been floating around, though they do not say a lot about the final document. The final document could be ready and refined by mid-February and sent out to the interested bishops only three days before its publication. All of this is still rumor and gossip. Nothing is certain. 

The final document is awaited with a certain anxiety, mainly because there the perceived risk it might break Catholic teaching. The ghosts of the past do not help.

An exemplary case is that of Humanae vitae, Paul VI's encyclical on the regulation of birth. 

Pius XII had created a commission on the regulation of birth, and John XXIII and Paul VII confirmed the approach. On October 29, 1964, Cardinal Leo Suenens took the floor during the discussion of Gaudium at Spes at the Second Vatican Council, and asked for an opening on birth regulation. 

The progressive wing behaved like a real lobby and brought significant pressure to bear, including media pressure. When the Pontifical Commission ended its work, Paul VI asked a small group of theologians to study the issue further. 

Media pressure increased. In April 1967, a document backing some artificial means of birth regulation was contemporarily published in the daily newspaper Le Monde, the British magazine The Tablet, and the US National Catholic Reporter.

According to the document, 70 members of the Pontifical Commission expressed themselves in favor of the contraceptive pill. The publication of the document was designed to show theologians as favorable to the possibility. Only years later, Bernardo Colombo, a member of the Commission, revealed that the paper "was only one out of 12 reports presented to the Holy See." 

Humanae vitae is  not the only case. The media pressure on the possible theological changes became so unbearable that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued in 1990 the instruction Donum Veritatis on the vocation of theologians.

The instruction stressed that, in case of difficulties in understanding the magisterium, the theologian had "the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented." The theologian had to do that in "an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties."

However, the instruction read, the "theologian should avoid turning to the 'mass media,' but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth."

The media pressure on Church issues never diminished. Benedict XVI faced the question in the letter he addressed to the bishops on the remission of the excommunication to four Lefevbrist bishops on March 12, 2009.

In his letter to Galatians, St. Paul wrote: "Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another."

Benedict XVI commented that he always thought of the St. Paul's words as a "rhetorical excess," but he came, in the end, to understand that "sad to say, this 'biting and devouring' also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom."

After Pope Francis' election, media pressure on several issues intensified. Part of the reason for this increased intensity of focus can be found in Pope Francis' very pragmatic approach. Pope Francis seems to have no intention to change the doctrine, but he is open to new solutions. This could be the case with celibacy — a discipline with strong theological underpinnings, rather than a doctrine properly understood — though Pope Francis has often said he does not like the idea of  changing the norm.

All of these precedents might justify the exaggerated attention conservative circles put on the outcomes of the Amazonian Synod. 

However, doctrinal issues seem not to be at the center of the Papal preoccupations for the post-Synod exhortation. 

Pope Francis mentioned the pan-Amazonian Synod in the traditional new year's speech to the diplomatic corps. This tends to suggest the document’s purpose will rather be that of making a political impact, rather than a doctrinal one. The effect would be comparable to that of Laudato si’. Not by chance, his “ecological” encyclical is the only Papal document Francis gives to non-Christian heads of State. 

This political impact must be read through the Latin American perspective.

Pope Francis is steeped in the notion of pueblo, "people." A 2014 paper by professor Loris Zanatta, "A populist Pope," underscored that Pope Francis' way of thinking and governing is an organic outgrowth of roots in Argentinian populism. 

Zanatta explained that "people, according to Pope Francis, are good and virtuous. Poverty bestows on them an inner moral superiority" and that Pope Francis thinks "that wisdom, solidarity, values of the Gospel are preserved in inner-city neighborhoods. It is there that Christian society is found, the deposit of faith." 

To Pope Francis – Zanatta then argues – "that pueblo is not a sum of individualism. It is rather a community that transcends individuals, a living body animated by an ancient and natural faith, in which individuals are completely diluted. Being this, the pueblo is the Chosen People that is keeping an identity in danger."

Zanatta goes on to explain that "it is not for nothing that identity" is the other pillar of [Pope Francis’]populism," and "every institution or human constitution must bow to this identity, in order not to lose the legitimacy which pueblo bestows."

The notion of people must be combined with the topic of the Latin American continentalism. The idea of continentalism was promoted by Methol Ferré, an Uruguayan philosopher who inspired Pope Francis' thought.

Continentalism re-launches Simon Bolivar's dream of a Latin American continent whose people together will give rise to a new protagonism of that land. 

The Pan-Amazonian Synod must be read together with the Pope's decision to celebrate the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama, where Simon Bolivar launched his project. The 2019 WYD was a WYD for Latin America, aimed at giving new inspiration to the youth of the continent. 

Following this rationale, Pope Francis wanted the pan-Amazonian Synod to solicit a collective response on a shared topic to put together the native Latin Americans and those who colonized the continent, according to the notion of miscegenation that Pope Francis often reminds. 

This is one set of reasons we might not do well to expect doctrinal changes from the post-Synod document, but rather a push to the Latin American continent to become a "theology source." This is the "Amazonian exception" that Pope Francis wants to promote as part of his promotion of the theologies of the outward bounds. 

There is a deeply anti-institutional thought behind this rationale, though Latin American theology has never been anti-Roman.

Pope Francis does not aim at questioning the foundations of the faith. On the other hand, there are people with a specific agenda who are attempting to do so, even merely proposing an ambiguous formula that can afterward be interpreted as theological opening. 

The issue is not the doctrine. The problem is the vision of the Church. Pope Francis provided his view in the four principles outlined in the Evangelii Gaudium: time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; the whole is greater than the part. 

Pope Francis bases his work toward the continental Latin American dream on these principles. It is an enormous task. Pope Francis aims at creating a unitary mixture that could take into consideration concrete situations and put together different people and countries to give life to the great dream of Simon Bolivar. 

 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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