High-noon for Pope Francis over the Amazon

For both admirers and critics, the personal authority and moral legacy of Pope Francis will be hanging in the balance this month.

On Monday (NZ time) he will invite a gathering of bishops, men and women from religious orders, indigenous people and secular experts to think boldly about a remote but ecologically sensitive corner of the Earth: the endangered rain-forests which cover swathes of Brazil and eight other countries.

For a vocal faction of traditionalists this spirit of boldness is already on the verge of heresy.

The pontiff himself sees the three-week Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon as a logical outcome of his passionate belief in giving centre stage to people and places that were hitherto considered marginal.

It also reflects his conviction, driven home relentlessly during an African tour last month, that environmental care is inseparable from the fight against global inequality.

As he said in Madagascar, “there can be no true ecological approach…without the attainment of social justice…not only for present generations but those yet to come.”

Some conservative Catholics, under the de facto leadership of Raymond Burke, an American cardinal, have been calling for the faithful to pray intensely during the Amazon synod: not for its success but for the avoidance of deadly theological and pastoral errors which they claim to see on the horizon.

The cardinal has called the instrumentum laboris, a working document prepared in advance of the synod, a “direct attack on the Lordship of Christ” by virtue of its openness to non-Christian forms of wisdom and religious practice.

“This is apostasy,” he told First Things, an American journal.

Both he and a fellow traditionalist, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a 90-year-old German, are especially concerned about a proposal which more liberal-minded figures find welcome and exciting: the idea that married men, who have raised families and won respect in the community, should be ordained as priests.

Although the proposal is specifically linked to the Amazon, conservatives see it as a precedent which would end a millennium-old tradition that most priests should be celibate.

The German prelate’s critique of the instrumentum laboris is especially sharp.

He claims to detect a “pantheistic idolatry of nature” similar in tone to an anthem penned in 1913 for a socialist workers’ movement and later adopted by the Hitler Youth.

As arguments between the pope and his hard-line critics grow louder, the forthcoming synod is emerging as a kind of high-noon moment.

The very design of the meeting, almost ignoring national boundaries, is disruptive.

It empowers progressive figures like Bishop Erwin Kräutler, an Austrian-born missionary who led a vast, forested Brazilian territory for over 30 years, at the expense of better-known clerics who wield power in big cities.

Brazil’s right-wing government has made clear its unhappiness over the synod, suspecting an assault on its national sovereignty.

It reacted in a similar way when this year’s spate of forest fires triggered calls for global action to save the trees.

Although the call for married clerics has been the most contentious proposal, it is presented in strikingly cautious terms.

The document suggests that there could be “priestly ordinations of older people, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by their communities, even if they have an established and stable family life, in order to ensure availability of the Sacraments.”

As well as excoriating that idea, critics have focused on bits of the document which in their view raise even deeper problems.

They allege that it verges on paganism in the way it idealises creation; that in urging Catholics to learn from indigenous traditions, healing practices and lore, it is abandoning the truths of Christianity; and that it downgrades the human species by presenting it as simply one more link in an ecological chain.

As for the Americans who have found a leader in Cardinal Burke, many are unhappy with the radical economic view that underpins the synod: one that blames greedy extractive industries and agri-businesses based in the northern hemisphere for the felling and burning of trees whose existence is crucial to the planet. Continue reading

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