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This week: Synod debates and declining numbers

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 18, 2019

The discussions of the Amazon Synod continue, with calls for the ordination of married men gaining support. The final votes on the Synod’s proposals are still a week away, and the daily press briefings do not convey the full story of what has happened inside the Synod hall, so it may be dangerous to predict the outcome of the gathering. Still, the general tenor of the discussions, and the tight control that Pope Francis and his aides have held over the proceedings, suggest that the final document produced by this Synod will resemble the working document with which the meeting began. There will be a strong call for protection of the Amazon basin’s environment, a plea for respect of the indigenous peoples and their culture, and an appeal for material help for the many natives in need. Will there also be approval for married priests? We’ll know soon.

Still, even as the Synod reached its halfway mark, the liveliest discussion outside the Synod hall swirled around the odd ceremony in the Vatican gardens before the meeting began, and the reverence still being paid to the Pachamama, the image of an Incan fertility goddess. Was that ceremony a form of idolatry? Vatican spokesmen dismissed such concerns—but also dismissed the suggestion that the Pachamama is a representation of the Virgin Mary. So I raised the question: if it isn’t an image of the Virgin, what is it? And why is the Vatican encouraging reverence for what is, at best, a vague symbol of a non-Christian culture, rather than, say, Our Lady of Guadalupe?

The appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe was, of course, the spark for the greatest surge of evangelical activity in the history of the Western hemisphere. And heaven knows the need for an evangelical surge in the Amazon region. Veteran Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso, working with figures from the Vatican press office, showed that Catholic percentage of the region’s population has plummeted: “fully 46 percent of the 34 million inhabitants of the region have in recent decades abandoned the Catholic Church to switch to other religious denominations.”


Sad to say, the United States has seen the same flight from the Catholic Church. But whereas in the Amazon many Protestant groups are flourishing, in the US the decline affects the entire Christian population. In the past decade, a Pew Forum study reported, the number of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped form 77% to 65%, with the number who call themselves atheists, agnostics, or “unaffiliated” growing steadily. The exodus from Christian churches is most visible among the youngest adults.

The Pew figures are particularly troublesome for Catholics, however. Twelve years ago, roughly one of every four American adults was Catholic; today it’s one in five—and falling. For the first time in American history, the majority of Hispanic Americans is not Catholic.


Another week brought another outcropping of scandal from the Vatican. The resignation of Domenica Giani, the veteran head of the Vatican’s police force, furnished the sound of the other shoe dropping—shortly after Giani’s men had carried out a raid on offices of the Secretariat of State and the Financial Information Authority. Giani’s departure was accompanied by reports of a major “turf war” within the offices of the Vatican, and by strong indications that more institutional corruption will be exposed as the investigation continues into some questionable financial transactions.


In one of the year’s more important public speeches, US Attorney General William Barr warned an audience in Notre Dame that the “soft despotism” of an increasingly powerful federal government is a threat to the traditionally strong role of religious belief in American life. Barr went on to say that secularists are increasingly aggressive in their campaign to purge the country of the Judeo-Christian tradition:

The secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the trappings of religion, including inquisitions and excommunication. Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake—social, educational and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn remarked that the reaction to Barr’s speech proved his point, with incensed critics accusing Barr of promoting “religious bigotry” and delivering a “pogrom-type speech” that was “vintage Goebbels” or perhaps “Torquemada in a business suit.”


On a much happier note we can rejoice in the fact that Cardinal John Henry Newman—who was no stranger to controversy himself, come to think of it— was canonized by Pope Francis, along with four other newly recognized saints, as this week began.


Finally, this weekly news summary wouldn’t be complete without mention of the new eRosary, “smart rosary,” endorsed by the Vatican. For just a bit over $100, this device, partnered with your smartphone, will help you pray the Rosary. Whether that, too, is good news, I leave for readers to decide.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Oct. 20, 2019 11:55 PM ET USA

    Several good Rosary apps for iOS have been available for years—and for free. It’s unclear to me what proportionate advantage the faithful will gain by plunking down €100 for yet another electronic gadget, and a single-purpose one at that.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 18, 2019 5:01 PM ET USA

    Barr's address can be found here: https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-william-p-barr-delivers-remarks-law-school-and-de-nicola-center-ethics. The transcript contains minor errors, but still intelligible. The audio is impactful. Dennis Prager on the radio today called it the most important speech by a member of a U.S. Administration in 25 years. It is the kind of address that used come out of the Vatican--and how I wish we would see a return to that. Catholic through and through.