Roman Catholic bishops from the Amazon meet in Rome to discuss the environment, falling congregations and ordination of married men.
By Rosie Dawson
As the Amazon rainforest burns, bishops from nine Latin American countries are gathering in Rome for a synod from 6 to 27 October to discuss the environment, evangelisation, and the future of the Roman Catholic Church in the region.
Faced with a shortage of priests, the synod will consider ordaining married men and the role of women in ministry.
Preparations for the Pan-Amazon Synod have taken two years. Pope Francis has called it the “Son of Laudato Si”, his 2015 encyclical on the environment. But in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa he said: “The important themes will be the ministries of evangelisation and the different ways of evangelising.”
The Amazon rain forest covers more than 2 million square miles in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana, French Guyana and Suriname; 60% of it in Brazil. The BBC reported that 87,000 fires have broken out in the Amazon this year, many of them started deliberately to make way for cattle ranches.
Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, but, according to the 2010 census, it is in steep decline, dropping from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million.
The story is similar throughout Latin America. A 2014 report said that while 84% of respondents said they were born into the Catholic faith, only 69% now identified as Catholic. Conversely, 19% called themselves Protestants although only 9% of them came from Protestant families.
The Catholic Church faces a worldwide shortage of priests, which is particularly acute in South America. According to Vatican statistics the global ratio of people to priest at the end of 2016 was 3,130 to 1. However in Latin America, the ratio was 7,203 to 1. The shortage is even more acute in the Amazon region where there was one priest for every 7,976 people in Brazil and one for every 9,828 in Venezuela.
A consultation document (Instrumentum Laboris) to be considered at the synod identified three dominant themes: the voice of the Amazon; the cry of the earth and of the poor; and the prophetic role of the Church. The document calls on the synod to consider the possibility of ordaining married men, especially in remote areas where the shortage of priests makes it difficult for communities to celebrate the eucharist. It also asks it to take into account the central role played by women in the Church in the Amazon and consider the official ministries that they might be authorised to do.
Objections to the working document have, however, come from the highest level. In August, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller wrote to his fellow cardinals saying that it was contrary to the Church’s authentic teaching.
Professor Mario Aguilar, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics, University of St Andrews:
“This synod is an important moment for the Church and indeed for Pope Francis’s legacy. As an Argentinian, Pope Francis had little experience of the Amazonian world, but he has come to realise that the Amazon plays an important role within the life of the Church and the care for the planet.
“Pope Francis has expressed a theological understanding of nature which recognises that creation is part of God’s revelation and he has stressed the value of indigenous traditions that in the past were erased by missionaries.
“Although he says he does not fear it, Francis has spoken about a possible schism in the Catholic Church because of US traditionalists, and other bishops and theologians, who oppose the Pope’s stand on social issues, climate change, and developments regarding the ordination of married men or women to address the problem of a lack of priests in the Amazon. “
Dr Maya Mayblin, senior lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, Edinburgh University:
“The sheer distances to be covered where the Amazon is concerned has always presented a huge obstacle for the Church when it comes to providing sacraments. The Church recognises that without the sacraments there is little meaning to being a Catholic. So the question really being asked by this synod is how to get the eucharist out there, which is not necessarily the same question as how to get fully formed seminary-trained priests out there.
“If the criteria for selecting and training ministers authorised to celebrate the eucharist is reconfigured, it could allow respected lay leaders within the Amazonian church to be ordained by bishops, even if they are already married and have a family. The model being floated would be a somewhat reduced version of ordination: it would confer only the power to sanctify (munus santificandi), not the powers to govern (regendi) or teach (docendi).
Margaret Hebblethwaite, Catholic writer living in Paraguay and Britain:
“In Latin America we feel a long way away from Rome. The distance gives a certain freedom and we don’t feel things are as rigid as they are in Europe. The proposal that mature married men might be ordained is a very old proposal that doesn’t cause the slightest stir here. Where I live people even talk of the profession of vows made by religious sisters as their ‘ordination’.”
Professor Andrew Dawson, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University:
“The Instrumentum Laboris for any synod is a standard document used to fly kites, so it’s no surprise that the working document ahead of the Pan-Amazon synod contains elements that have ruffled a few feathers. While it may appear that suggestions such as ordaining married men are local solutions to local problems, they will be seen by some traditionalists as the thin end of the wedge which, if approved, will make it easier to argue for such accommodations more widely.
“The argument that the Catholic faith should respect and be open to indigenous religiosity has been part of theological debate since medieval times and revolves around the question of whether the Catholic Church is the sole repository of the true faith, or whether God’s revelation is to be found in other religious and spiritual traditions.”