While the world was waiting with bated breath for a historic decision on whether to ordain married men in Amazonia, Pope Francis was busy going in a very different direction. Some will see "Beloved Amazonia" as ducking an historic challenge, leaving the Church in limbo in order to avoid a contentious decision that would have deepened divisions. But right at the end of the document, Francis offers a revealing window onto his discernment: "Beloved Amazonia" is less about avoiding conflict than about seeing another path where the Holy Spirit is calling the Church.
In paragraph 104 the Pope observes that when pastoral workers propose “opposed forms of ecclesial organisation” in response to challenges, it is likely that the true answer lies in “transcending the two approaches and finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined.” In the following paragraph he says solutions often come in the form of a “greater gift” that God is offering from which “there will pour forth as from an overflowing fountain the answers that contraposition did not allow us to see.”
This is vintage Bergoglio: in a context of polarisation in the Church the mistake is to try to resolve it by allowing one side to defeat the other. Rather, by patiently and attentively holding together the polarity – positions that pull in a different direction – the leader allows for the possibility of a “third way” that the Holy Spirit offers.
Looking back at the synod last October, it was clear that positions over the so-called "viri probati" were becoming more, not less entrenched. Around two-thirds of the Amazonian bishops arriving in Rome favoured in principle a move to ordain married men to enable the Eucharist to reach far-flung communities, but many were cautious about the wider impact of the change.
Opposition from the curial cardinals, meanwhile, was intense. Some of it was hysterical – conservative cardinals such as Robert Sarah claiming the Amazon synod was a means of foisting a progressive German agenda onto the Church – but a lot of it also came from moderate, thoughtful curial cardinals closely aligned with the pontificate or appointed to the synod by Francis himself. They warned that the precious gift of clerical celibacy could not be suspended for the purpose of increasing access to the Eucharist without eroding the gift of celibacy in the whole Latin Church, and that therefore this had to be a worldwide decision of the bishops, not just of a region.
By the second week of the synod, people close to the pope were telling me he was deeply troubled by the deepening divide over the issue and couldn’t see an obvious way through. Although the synod final document’s paragraph 111 got over two-thirds (128) of the votes, it also attracted the largest number of negative votes (41). That, too, was a sign: in Jesuit “discernment in common”, one sign of the Spirit is a peaceful consensus that results from a changing understanding. In the family synod of October 2015, for example, the two-thirds majority reflected a conversion on the part of many synod fathers to seeing the Eucharist for the divorced as a matter of case-by-case discernment, not of law and doctrine. There was no such conversion in the October 2019 synod on the viri probati issue. As Francis recently told a visiting American bishop, he didn’t see the Holy Spirit at work in that issue. Without such a sign, Francis was never going to move decisively on a disputed question. Beloved Amazonia does not close off the possibility, but passes over the whole issue, putting the focus firmly on the bigger picture of how the Church and the world can see the region as God does, and act in response.
For Francis this was always the key challenge for the synod: to open up to new thinking in order to implement the vision of Laudato Si’, lifting his encyclical off the page and putting it into action. In a sign of his frustration with the media’s inability to grasp that bigger picture, Francis had urged reporters in that final speech not to focus on who appeared to have won out in “minor disciplinary matters” but to “take time to look at the diagnoses, which is the dense part, the part where the synod expressed itself best.” In a region that dramatically encapsulates the showdown between the technocratic paradigm and an alternative future, the Church was being invited to show the world how to respond to the plight of the land, its people and its creatures.
As Beloved Amazonia puts it, “we believers encounter in the Amazon region a theological locus, a space where God reveals himself and summons his sons and daughters”. The exhortation is all about rising to that challenge, and hearing that summons, which for Francis is evangelisation: how to achieve what he calls “a renewed inculturation of the Gospel in the Amazon region”. The sign of that inculturation will be a distinctive kind of holiness, that will in turn act as sign to the whole Church. Francis’s dream for the Amazon is that will be the place that the Gospel triumphs over technocracy. The exhortation is about the new mindset that the Church needs to embrace that challenge.
This is a new kind of exhortation, one that doesn’t subsume the synod’s final report in a papal document but responds respectfully to the local Church’s discernment with a discernment of his own. This was the first ever “territorial” synod, in which the bishops of nine countries were brought together to ponder the conclusions of a two-year consultation of more than 60,000 people across the region – one of the most extensive, and remarkable, soundings of the people of God ever undertaken. Despite differences over the ordination question, it wasn’t hard to hear the Spirit speaking through the gathering: in the appalling testimonies of suffering, in the urgency of the economic and ecological crisis, and in the hope that the native peoples were placing in the Church.
The Pope makes clear at the start that he has no intention of either replacing or duplicating that text; instead, he holds it up, formally recognising it, and urges everyone to read it. This has never been done before by a Pope in response to a synod, although it is in many respects similar to the way Benedict XVI received the 2007 Aparecida document, which the then Pope respected as the magisterium of the Latin-American church, saying there was no need to “respond” to it. (The main author of the Aparecida document, now Pope Francis, commented at the time on Benedict’s response, which deeply moved him.)
Francis has decided nothing: Beloved Amazonia has no new laws, or doctrines, statutes or structures. The synod final report remains in place, and the Amazonian bishops can continue to advance its proposals, most of which depend more on their own actions and decisions than on Rome’s say-so. Two of the structural proposals that would require the Pope to agree – an Amazonian bishops’ body, and an Amazonian liturgical rite – are noted favourably in the exhortation as suggestions of how to deepen collaboration and inculturation, but it is over to the Amazonian bishops to ask the Pope for these when they are ready to.
What is clear from Beloved Amazonia is that for the Church to be better present in this uniquely challenging environment it must look to and recognise what the Spirit is currently doing in the region. Almost all of the region’s Catholic communities are run by lay people, 60 per cent of them women; only a tiny proportion have resident clergy. In paragraph 94 Francis notes that “wherever there is a particular need, he has already poured out the charisms that can meet it.” Where are those charisms being poured out? A Church with Amazonian features requires “the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority”, he says, adding that such people are “familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life” of the region. A Church “open to the Spirit’s boldness” will allow “the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.”
This paragraph follows on from a call for greater access by people to the sacraments, and for the Church to foster vocations and send more missionaries to the region. But he is quick to add that facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers would be a “very narrow aim were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities.” In other words, sacraments alone are not sufficient to evangelise. The objective is to “promote an encounter with God’s word and growth in holiness” for which “various kinds of lay service” are necessary. This is in many respects the heart of Francis’s response to the question of ministries: rather than obsess about access to the Eucharist, important though that is, the Church needs to enable and empower the work the Spirit is already undertaking through lay people inculturating the Gospel in the region.
The really radical move, however, is in paragraphs 99 to 103, which best reflect Francis’s discernment of where God’s gift of creative new thinking is making itself felt. The synod final report had called for bishops to be be able to endow lay or religious men and women with authority “through a ritual act” on behalf of the Christian community, such that their authority would be recognised also “at the civil and local levels”. At the time, one of the synod’s organisers told me that this was “much bigger than the female diaconate”, given the number of women who lead Amazon communities; and also better reflected the desire of those women to have their authority recognised but without being clericalised.
In Beloved Amazonia Francis takes this idea and underpins it with his authority, but specifically for women. Women who play a central role in Amazonian communities should be given leadership roles than do not entail ordination, he says, adding that “these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.” This, he says, would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organisation, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, "while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood.”
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the Pope is not just following a path out of the debate over the viri probati, but looking to a whole new kind of female-specific leadership in the Church. No wonder that two paragraphs later he notes how “in this historical moment, the Amazon region challenges us to to transcend limited perspectives and ‘pragmatic’ solutions mired in partial approaches, in order to seek paths of inculturation that are broader and bolder.” Years from now, people may see this as the major fruit of the Amazonian synod.
To focus too much on internal church questions, however, is to miss the real point of the Pope’s remarkable exhortation. The mission comes before the Church, which is a means not an end. The mission is the inculturation of the Gospel. As the Gospel spreads, the hermeneutic (the way the world is seen) changes. For Francis, the battleground is between two hermeneutics. Thus far, the one that has dominated is the technocratic or colonialist hermeneutic, the idea that Amazonia is a “an enormous space to be filled, a source of raw resources to be developed, a wild expanse to be domesticated”, ignoring the rights and values of the people and their lands, exploiting and enslaving them. It is this hermeneutic that lies behind the appalling “injustice and crime” of international and national businesses in the area, as Francis calls it.
Using a classic Ignatian conversion method, the pope asks us to experience shock and shame at the resulting destruction, before offering us the possibility of an alternative future: other methods of herding and agriculture and sources of energy; other ways of earning a living that do not destroy people and the environment. This new future can only come about in partnership with the poor of the region, and with the native peoples whose ancestral connectedness with the natural world is where God’s summons can be heard.
During the synod there were many testimonies from native leaders about the hope they were placing in the Church to rescue them. Corrupt institutions and politicians took the side of the powerful; only the Church, they said, had the ability to listen and the global clout to speak with them and for them. Francis in Beloved Amazonia time and again places the Church alongside them, giving them voice, and pledging to stand not just with them, but with the birds and the trees and the fish. “If we respond to this heart-rending plea,” he says in paragraph 57, “it will become clear that that the creatures of the Amazon region are not forgotten by their heavenly Father … Jesus himself cries out to us from their midst.”
But for the Church to be the agent of the region’s transformation, it must be itself converted, learning to love the region and its peoples. In the second section, “a cultural dream”, Francis quotes from poets and songs from the area, urging the Church to help protect the roots of indigenous culture. In paragraph 79, he gently rebukes the hysterical Catholic commentary around the so-called “Pachamama” statuettes that dominated much of the media coverage of the synod. (The statuettes were simply carvings of a native pregnant woman brought from a market in Manaus that missionaries brought with them to Rome that were included in some of the liturgies. Indignant claims from some north American conservative Catholic media that they were “idols” led to a traditionalist throwing them into the Tiber, from which some were rescued by police.) “It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it idolatry,” the Pope notes, adding that “a myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error.”
For Francis, inculturating the Gospel means to perform the Incarnation. “Preaching must become incarnate, spirituality must become incarnate, ecclesial structures must become incarnate,” he notes right at the start. His entire text can be read as developing that proposition: identifying the obstacles and the temptations that impede inculturation. The Gospel can only transform the region, he suggests, when we learn to look on the region with the eyes of the Good Shepherd – with love for its people and their culture, feeling indignation for their sufferings, and with the urge to come alongside them. In this way, the Church will be able to “reject nothing of the goodness that already exists in Amazonian cultures, but brings it to fulfilment in the light of the Gospel.” The Church, in short, must hear the call to conversion from the heart of the rainforest, and be willing courageously to change.
Perhaps the greatest paradox of Beloved Amazonia is that, just at the moment when it rejects an anticipated change in the Church’s practice, it asks the Church to embrace another change – the one the Pope hears the Spirit calling for. Some will be frustrated, disappointed and perplexed. Others will be delighted. But one thing is clear: this is a Pope who takes seriously government of the Church by discernment. And who will follow the Spirit when it blows where it wills.
Austen Ivereigh is a Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis’s Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, published by Henry Holt.