Shredding the working text for the Pan-Amazon synod
The annual Synod of Bishops will meet from October 6 to October 27 this year to examine the problems of the Pan-Amazon region in South America. From the first, the Instrumentum Laboris (working document) for the Synod has been criticized as a destructive exercise in the religious and cultural relativism characteristic of the secular West. Initially a former Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, criticized the text in a two-part analysis:
- On the Concept of Revelation as presented in the Instrumentum Laboris for the Amazon Synod
- On the Synodal Process in Germany and the Synod for the Amazon
A little later, Cardinal George Pell—currently in prison on what most impartial commentators believe to be false charges of sexual abuse (see for example, Julia Yost’s op-ed in the New York Post)—deemed the document outrageous enough to merit intervention from his jail cell:
And today our Catholic World News service reported that Bishop José Luís Azcona Hermoso, who is a missionary to the Amazon region, has condemned the Instrumentum Laboris for two things: (1) Ignoring the main problems of the region, such as widespread sexual abuse of children and the rapid spread of Pentecostalism; and (as with Müller and Pell) (2) “Annulling the Gospel of salvation” in a document “ecclesiologically devoid of theological and pastoral foundations.”
- Here is our link to the full story: Amazon missionary bishop rips synod’s working document
To read Bishop Hermoso’s remarks is to know exactly what is wrong.
Same old, same old
What we have in the working document is the same old problem that has afflicted the Church in the West for more than fifty years now, and afflicted the pontificate of Pope Francis from the first. I mean the ascendancy of a secularizing trend which minimizes the content and demands of the Catholic Faith in favor of maintaining an institutional presence, a presence dubiously sustained by “baptizing” the dominant culture of the declining West. This has been damaging enough to serious Western issues such as the survival of marriage and the family. It is categorically absurd when applied to regions which do not see the world through decayed Western eyes at all.
In my statement of the problem above, I deliberately suggested two motives for the promotion of a Western secularized agenda through the Synod of Bishops. The first is that so many ecclesiastical leaders in the West really do not understand the Gospel. They confuse it with “niceness” as defined by the dominant culture, generally because they have been seduced by that culture into selling their birthright, perhaps even without realizing it, for a mess of pottage (cf. Gen 25:29-34). This is why the Amazon document sounds so much like it was drafted in modern Germany, where the Church is, at one and the same time, both remarkably rich and astonishingly irrelevant.
But such sellouts may also be motivated by the mistaken idea that if only the Church will accommodate herself to the native power structures in each region, she will consolidate an institutional power which will, in the long run, be a great force for good. Insofar as this motive is at work, it might produce fruits as diverse as the Concordat with China (where the Church is now rapidly undergoing an enforced Sinicization as the price for existing “above ground”) and a synodal working document which proposes the common ordination of women and tribal elders along with a bland gospel of human ecology, the better to cement the Church more thoroughly into the existing structures of power.
It is not always wrong to make cultural compromises in standard ecclesiastical practices. For example, certain forms of joint action in the nomination of bishops (but not their consecration), or some changes to liturgical norms in order to make the sacraments more accessible to a foreign culture, have been used effectively over the centuries in both East and West. The challenge is always to make adjustments in practices which are primarily cultural, without obscuring or abandoning what God Himself has ordained. Certainly it is well and good to change human forms in order to make the Divine dispensation clearer or more attractive to a new people or culture. The danger comes with the temptation to downplay or entirely conceal the revealed truths which are currently unrecognized or rejected by that people or culture.
Revelation is non-negotiable
The proper example in these matters is the example of Christ. He used many different types of stories and sayings and parables, and many different human gestures, to get people to understand and respond positively to his teachings. But when put to the test, if people found any of his teachings to be “a hard saying”, He let them turn away. And in the face of that defection, he even challenged His disciples with the only question that matters: “Will you too leave me?” (Jn 6:67). The Church at every level needs to ask—and indeed has already begun to ask—this very same question of those who drafted the working document for the 2019 Synod, and of those who share its faulty Christology and ecclesiology—or to use smaller words, its infidelity to the Gospel, its betrayal of Christ.
At the same time, it may well be that this question will be asked with increasing urgency now, as the corrupt West seeks to impose a secularist theology beyond its own borders, just as it has already been raised to some extent in the synods on the family and on youth. Pope Francis, by his own admission, likes to shake things up. At some point, whether the Pope intends it or not, such shaking will become a threshing and a winnowing. At some point, the wheat will remain—because the chaff will have been knocked away.
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