Critics missing the global importance of Amazon synod

Peter Hünermann, one of the world’s leading Catholic theologians and an expert on the Second Vatican Council, says the “Amazon Synod” is an integral part of the process for Church reform that Pope Francis mapped out at the very start of his pontificate more than six years ago.

The 90-year-old German priest-professor recently told the Vienna-based Kathpress that the current Synod assembly’s struggle to reorient pastoral practice in the Amazon Region “is nothing else than the implementation of the reform Francis set out in the programmatic text Evangelii Gaudium” (Joy of the Gospel).

That apostolic exhortation, issued in November 2013, was the first major document of Francis’ pontificate and is considered a roadmap for global Church renewal and reform.

From the Amazon to the world: considering the local Church

Hünermann, who co-edited the five-volume Denzinger-Hünermann compendium of faith (Enchiridion Symbolorum) and a five-volume theological commentary Vatican II, said Evangelii gaudium pressed for a new concept of pastoral practice in light of local Churches’ concrete experiences.

“I therefore fully share the high hopes (people have) of the synod. It is an in-depth, painstakingly prepared global Church event – simply a huge undertaking – and I am deeply grateful to the pope for launching it,” he told Kathpress.

The elderly theologian, who taught at the prestigious universities of Münster (1971-82) and Tübingen (1982-97), rejected charges by the pope’s critics that the current Synod assembly is somehow part of a liberal theological agenda.

He said it is rather an attempt to shape the future of pastoral practice altogether. He noted that ecological, social and pastoral issues are interwoven in the sprawling Amazon. And this, he said, means they reach much further than those of a local Church and are of “world-church significance.”

“The Amazon region is a global hotspot for all those challenges we face as a world Church that humanity as a whole is facing,” he stressed.

Germany’s synodal procedure: an ‘acid test’ for Church relevancy

Professor Hünermann also weighed in on the “synodal procedure” for Church reform that Germany’s bishops have launched with the Central Committee of German (lay) Catholics. He said it would be the acid test “for the Church as a whole, which is struggling for relevance in society.”

He said critics of the procedure have failed to recognize how deeply the Church has been shattered by the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“They cannot see that all the reform projects under discussion – such as ordaining married men of proven virtue (viri probati), giving women more responsibility in the Church, rethinking the Church’s sexual morality and installing checks and balances – can only be understood against the background of the abuse scandal, which was truly traumatic,” he insisted.

Hünermann expressed confidence that the project would succeed despite inner-church opposition.

“The reform procedure must not end like the German Church’s last 5-year ‘dialogue process’ (2010-2015), since that would mean that the German Church has had it,” he warned.

Reading the messages coming from Rome

The theologian also said it’s important to distinguish between the two different letters concerning the “synodal procedure” that the German bishops’ conference received from the Vatican.

He said the text Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, sent to conference president Cardinal Reinhard Marx must be seen as a “classical example of certain members of the Roman Curia’s traditional thinking, which strictly keeps to canon law in an alarmist manner.”

On the other hand, Professor Hünermann said the pope’s “Letter to the People of God in Germany” has been wrongly interpreted.

“Pope Francis merely wanted to point out that Church reforms must not mean adapting to the zeitgeist (spirit of the times) and that a synodal procedure must always have a spiritual anchor. He also particularly cautioned against acting too rashly but he did not warn against general reform,” the professor stressed.

Hünermann did his initial theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome before returning to Germany for advanced studies. He taught in South America – including Argentina – for several years following Vatican Council II.

He first met the Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1969 and remained in contact with the future pope. The two men met most recently in May 2015 in Rome for private talks on Church matters.

The German theologian’s teaching is believed to have been influential in Pope Francis exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris laetitia.

  • Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is a correspondent writing for  The Guardian, La Croix, National Catholic Reporter, The Tablet.
  • First published in LaCroix International. Republished with permission.
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