Analysis: The Amazon synod and the English language

Peru gateway to Amazon Vatican media CNA Pope Francis in the gateway to Peru's Madre de Dios region in the Amazon January 19, 2018. | Vatican Media/CNA

Three months from now, the bishops of the Amazonian region will meet for a regional synod that has already garnered international attention. The synod is controversial because it has become to some theologians and Churchmen a kind of "proving ground" for theological and canonical agendas that are not directly connected to the Amazon.
The recent history of Church synods suggests that the results of the meeting will likely not match the intensity of the rhetoric preceding it. But the rhetoric- and what it can teach us about the state of the Church - matters.

The needs of Catholics in the Amazonian region are abundant. The region is poor: indigenous persons face discrimination and cultural disintegration, deforestation and strip mining threaten ancient ways of life. Between far-flung villages and sometimes negligible infrastructure, priests face the challenge of ministry across very broad territories. Catholics in some places have very little catechesis and few opportunities for Mass and confession, and they face temptations to abandon the faith. A meeting to discuss these realities, and to develop pastoral plans, could do real good.

But the meeting has garnered interest from some German theologians and ecclesiastics who seem to see it as an opportunity to reinvigorate support for an ecclesiology that takes a sort-of "federal" approach to Church doctrine and discipline, with tolerance for a considerable degree of regional variability on moral and disciplinary issues.

Such an approach, some have said, is the approach of "synodality."

Pope Francis has said frequently there are limits to synodality, and even while debate smolders about his controversial footnotes in the 2015 exhortation Amoris laetitia, the pope has said on several recent occasions that neither doctrine nor significant disciplinary matters can or should be subject to regional preferences.

Last week, the pope reemphasized to the bishops of Germany that he will not abide an approach that prioritizes the judgment of a "national" Church over the teachings or norms of the universal Church.  

But throughout his papacy, a cadre of mostly European clerics and intellectuals, taking up the sort of "federated" ecclesiological approach advanced by Cardinal Walter Kasper, have attempted to curry favor or support for their position from Pope Francis. It seems clear to most observers that the Amazon synod will be another front in that campaign.

In fact, one synod issue that has generated a great deal of controversy- the possible ordination of married men to the priesthood - is likely best seen through the lens of that controversy.

There may be genuine interest among some Amazonian bishops in ordaining older, married men to the priesthood to accommodate pastoral realities. But much support for the "viri probati" proposal comes from those who perceive that decentralizing universal rules about clerical celibacy will be a precedent for the decentralization of other governance and doctrinal matters, especially those concerning how the Church engages with a secular sexual ethos.

In short, the issue of clerical celibacy in the Amazon could be mostly a stalking horse for the debate about decentralization.

But will the pan-Amazonian synod produce the kind of results its interested observers hope for? Will the synod lead to a new way of thinking about the Church itself? That seems unlikely.

On June 30, Vatican Media published a commentary on the upcoming synod by Mauricio Lopez Oropeza, a layman who oversees a Church-sponsored advocacy network for Catholics in the Amazon. He was recently president of the World Christian Life Community, a lay movement of Ignatian spirituality associated with the Jesuits.

Oropeza wrote that the upcoming meeting "is increasingly becoming a Synod which goes far beyond the territory upon which it is based," adding that the synod "can, and should, contribute enlightenment in a universal overview."

The rest of Oropeza's commentary gives indication of what kind of contribution the pan-Amazonian synod might be intended to make to any such "enlightenment."

Noting the issues defining the synod, Oropeza discussed a tension "between the Kairos of the 'new paths for the Church' and the cronos of the urgency to respond to the socio-environmental crisis through an 'integral ecology.'"

"Will a Synod be able to interpret this 'Kairos' moment to embrace the revelation of God who demands a progressive but inevitable pastoral conversion and at the same time, able to make a prophetic and effective call for a conversion at a material level and in relationships, in the face of the enormous planetary socio-environmental crisis in a 'cronos?' One without the other will be insufficient, and incomplete," Oropeza wrote.

Even those who have read a great deal of theology could be forgiven for not understanding what any of that means. Indeed, much of the commentary, published by the Vatican's official media outlet, is stilted, jargon-laden, and difficult to understand. The official synod preparatory document, by most estimates, is much the same.

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In 1946, George Orwell wrote that modern English prose, especially when produced by politicians or bureaucracies, "consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."

"The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness," Orwell wrote, adding that "modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

Modern ecclesial prose, especially when it is written by committee, fits some of that description.

Observers have long lamented the tendency of contemporary Vatican documents to read more like text produced in Brussels committee rooms or Washington, DC think tanks than like the clear, prophetic, and direct language that might be expected from religious leaders. There are notable exceptions, but finding the point in Vatican prose can sometimes seem a Herculean labor.

Synodal documents are especially susceptible to the modern tendency toward vagueness and imprecision, because they are designed to accommodate, or at least give nod to, the particular agendas of all those who have spoken into their creation. 

As a result, Vatican synods are often very long meetings, sometimes quite controversial during their proceedings, leading to final documents soon shelved. It is infrequent that a document produced by a synod becomes a major point of reference for the Church.

When that does happen, it is because of the decisions of the pope, not the deliberations of they synod. Francis, like Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II before him, has on some occasions used the opportunity of a post-synodal apostolic exhortation to say something with significant impact on the life of the Church. But a post-synodal apostolic exhortation that generates as much conversation as did Amoris laetitia, or, less controversially, Christifidelis laici, is the exception, rather than the rule.

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Synods are meant to be conversations. They have no power to effect policy, or proclaim doctrine. The outcome of the conversation does not bind the pope. Their documents, even if taken up as official texts of the Church, bind neither will nor intellect. The synod is not an ecumenical council.

And when the language of a synod - even before it has begun - is laden with slogans, maxims, and ambiguity, it is all the more likely that the outcome of the meeting will be similar. For those wishing to usher in major changes to the Church, a synod is likely the wrong place to expend energy. The effort required is significant, and the return on that effort is not.

The Amazonian synod will be a matter of controversy. During the meeting, journalists, myself included, will raise issues and concerns, especially if procedural law seems to be shaded in order to produce a predetermined outcome. Given the terms of the debate, the final synod document may well contain serious theological issues. But, after the synod, if history is a reliable guide, very little is likely to happen that is not already - right now - likely to happen.

The synod's best value, perhaps, is as a kind of barometer. During the meeting, there is a great deal to be learned about the state of the Church. The debate around the synod is worth watching. The politics may well become fierce. But the practical stakes of a synod - which has neither power nor authority - remain, by design, exceedingly low.

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