A senior prelate serving in the Amazon has hit back at critics of the forthcoming synod on the region, emphasising that it will help the Church stand with exploited indigenous communities and become an effective evangelising presence.
Cardinal Pedro Barreto, a Jesuit whose archdiocese of Huncayo covers the western Amazonian region of Peru, has challenged the assumption that the territory is a “backward space” urging “non-Amazonian societies” to learn from local cultures and their ability to protect the environment.
His intervention, contained in an article for “La Civilta Cattolica” magazine, comes amid intense criticism from Rome-based cardinals, and traditionalist groups of the Amazon synod’s working document, published last month.
It is the latest scene in a synod that has become a stage for a proxy battle over the reforms of the Francis pontificate, with well-organised European, US and Latin American groups leading the opposition, and supported by sections of the US-run Catholic media.
The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian region has been called by Pope Francis, and will take place from 6-27 October 2019 in the Vatican. It is the first Church gathering of its kind to focus on the needs of a vast area covering Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela and the overseas territory French Guyana.
Synod organisers say the aim is to build a prophetic, mission-centred Amazonian church, deeply rooted in the indigenous communities, and ecologically sensitive. Its working document includes whether to ordain married elders as priests given the scarcity of clergy, along with liturgies that take into account local customs, and rituals.
But the planned Amazon discussions have sparked fury among the Church's old guard, which is being spearheaded by former Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Müller. He says the synod’s strategy represents a “radical U-turn from the hermeneutics of Catholic theology”. In a recent interview, he also suggested the working document was heretical, echoing the criticism by a fellow German cardinal, Walter Brandmüller, who is now retired.
United States' Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most prominent Francis critics, has spoken out against the Amazon synod's plan to discuss the ordination of married men, while a network of groups coming under a “tradition, family and property” umbrella have set up a hostile website tracking synod developments.
Emphasising that he has spent two to three months each year in Peru over the last 15 years, and cannot be dismissed as judging from “a purely Eurocentric perspective”' Müller argues the synod preparation is based on an “obscure approach comprised of vague religiosity” and by erroneously “sacralising the cosmos, nature’s biodiversity and ecology”. In his analysis, the professor-cardinal scolds the document writers for preparing a document full of “tiresome redundancies”, alleging it was prepared by “groups of people with a similar mindset”.
But Cardinal Barreto, who has been involved in preparatory work for the synod and is Vice President of Repam (the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, established in 2014), says the working document is an “expression of the voice of the people of God”.
The process, he says, took into account the contributions of 87,000 people across nine countries in the Amazon basin who took part in consultations, debates, and assemblies.
“The document largely expresses the feelings and desires of multiple representatives of the Amazon people,” he explains in his article. “This is an unprecedented experience for a special Synod, and it is, therefore – without losing sight of the fact that it is an eminently ecclesial event – a good indicator of what is happening in this territory. We believe that the expression of this wealth can bring, beyond any suspicious position, elements for a better understanding of a reality that is crying out for attention.”
Born in Lima, the Cardinal Barreto has spent the vast majority of his priestly ministry in Peru, working tirelessly to defend the Amazonian region from exploitation while speaking up for marginalised communities.
“According to the social doctrine of the Church, the mission of every Christian includes a prophetic commitment to justice, peace, the dignity of every human being without distinction, and to the integrity of creation in response to a predominant model of society that leads to exclusion and inequality,” he writes in "La Civilta Cattolica", a Jesuit-run publication overseen by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
Barreto has witnessed how outside companies, such as United State’s mining companies, Doe Run, are eager to exploit the country’s natural resources. In 2005 he was involved in mediating a round table on the environment after a dispute between the government and miners in La Oroya, which has become one of the most polluted cities in the world.
The cardinal explains that “foreign companies and their countries of origin” are “taking advantage of the wealth of the land at the cost of a devastating impact on the Amazon environment and its inhabitants”.
But he adds: “most of the States in this territory have signed the main international conventions on human rights and related instruments associated with the rights of indigenous peoples and the care of the environment. We are therefore sure that they will commit themselves to observing them. The Church desires to be a bridge and collaborator in order to achieve this goal.”
On the environment, the cardinal says that all the nations of the Amazon basin “are signatories to the Paris [Climate] Agreement” on reducing carbon emissions and “we are convinced of their commitment with their respective contributions planned and determined at the national level. On the other hand, given the ‘climate emergency’ we are facing today, we must ask much more of them.”
Brazil, which is led by populist president Jair Bolsonaro, had indicated that he wants to pull out of the Paris accords, following in the footsteps of US President Donald Trump. That plan has recently been put on ice but Boslonaro, who many say mirrors Trump, has compared indigenous people to zoo animals, opened up the rainforest to developers and pulling away environmental protections.
**An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the cardinal was born in Spain. He was born in Lima.