First, The “Good”
Nowhere in the pope’s new apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, does the pope explicitly endorse the admission of married men to the priesthood or women to holy orders. The big fear was that the pope would accede to the desires of the Amazon synod, as they were expressed in the synod’s final document, and rubber-stamp these two proposals in his own apostolic exhortation.
As other commentators have already pointed out, the pope actually seems to disfavor such suggestions. But others see an opening to these proposals in the early paragraphs of Querida. The issue was hashed out rather well on Raymond Arroyo’s show when Robert Royal of the “papal posse” raised the question of those first paragraphs.
We find in those opening paragraphs a focus on the synod’s final document, The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology. It was in that document that both female ordination and a married clergy were proposed as solutions to priest shortages in the Amazon. Here’s what the pope said in Querida Amazonia:
3 . At the same time, I would like to officially present the Final Document, which sets forth the conclusions of the Synod, which profited from the participation of many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region, since they live there, they experience its suffering and they love it passionately. I have preferred not to cite the Final Document in this Exhortation, because I would encourage everyone to read it in full.
4 . May God grant that the entire Church be enriched and challenged by the work of the synodal assembly. May the pastors, consecrated men and women and lay faithful of the Amazon region strive to apply it, and may it inspire in some way every person of good will.
So, in “presenting” the final document, the pope tells us that it was the result of input from people who are better informed than he is on Church issues pertaining to the Amazon. It makes sense, then, to recommend to people to read and apply the final document—a document that includes suggestions to lift the celibacy requirement and to admit women to holy orders.
The idea that local people are best suited to solving their own problems is a major theme of the exhortation. He tells us that the Amazon is not only a vast expanse of biological diversity, but equally important, of cultural diversity (QA 30, 31, 32*, 33). And this unique cultural heritage possesses its own irreplaceable treasure of wisdom, which, like the Amazon Rainforest itself, must be preserved against the danger of extinction. Thus, the Amazon serves as an icon both for ecological and cultural conservation (of a certain flavor, which I shall expand upon below).
It is this unique local wisdom that qualifies the Amazon people as experts on all things Amazonian, including, apparently, even Church issues. Here is a longish excerpt to give you some context:
26 . The Amazon region ought to be a place of social dialogue, especially between the various original peoples, for the sake of developing forms of fellowship and joint struggle. The rest of us are called to participate as “guests”and to seek out with great respect paths of encounter that can enrich the Amazon region. If we wish to dialogue, we should do this in the first place with the poor. They are not just another party to be won over, or merely another individual seated at a table of equals. They are our principal dialogue partners, those from whom we have the most to learn, to whom we need to listen out of a duty of justice, and from whom we must ask permission before presenting our proposals. Their words, their hopes and their fears should be the most authoritative voice at any table of dialogue on the Amazon region. And the great question is: “What is their idea of ‘good living’for themselves and for those who will come after them?”QA 26
The big idea in this excerpt comes down to these lines:
Their words, their hopes and their fears should be the most authoritative voice at any table of dialogue on the Amazon region. And the great question is: “What is their idea of ‘good living’ for themselves and for those who will come after them?”Source: (QA 26)
Thus, a principal motive, and, perhaps, the real purpose, of the pope’s exhortation—and of the Amazon synod—was to develop the pope’s ideas about the importance of local decision-making in the life of the Church. There is a special term for that in Francis-speak. It’s called synodality. And let me suggest, based on the foregoing excerpts and analysis, that it is precisely this synodality that is the pope’s “larger concern” that he speaks of in the opening of his exhortation:
I wish merely to propose a brief framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region a synthesis of some of the larger concerns that I have expressed in earlier documents, and that can help guide us to a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process.Querida Amazonia, par. 2
“… some of the larger concerns … that can … guide us to a … creative … reception of the entire synodal process”?
What is Francis teaching us about synodality, or, local decision-making?
- Every cultural group possesses its own unique wisdom and insight (QA 30–33).
- This unique wisdom empowers each group with a superior knowledge concerning matters that pertain to the cultural group (QA 3).
- On account of this superior wisdom, the cultural group possesses superior authority on local matters (QA 26).
- And here comes the Ugly. This authority is superior even to papal authority (QA 3, 26).
Certainly the last point is the most controversial. But it explains his deferential posture in those opening paragraphs. One could argue that there is an uncontroversial reading of the last bullet point related to the concept of subsidiarity: All people possess a natural freedom and autonomy which allows them to make decisions for themselves and their families and over which the pope exercises no authority. The pope doesn’t get to decide where I live, or whether I put Parmesan cheese on my shellfish or not, or whether I go to a Durham Bulls game or to the symphony. I get to make those decisions.
But what about whether my wife and I use contraception? Doesn’t the pope have a say on that? Surely it defies Church law, as well as commonsense, to suggest that local jurisdictions possess superior authority even on doctrinal matters? Enter the Ugly.
The Ugly—Implications for the German Synod
The pope doesn’t address the issue directly about the question of Church doctrine and its relationship to synodality in Querida Amazonia, as far as I can tell. Certainly the question needs to be addressed squarely because of all the fireworks going off at the German synod, which I discussed elsewhere, and which is summed up nicely in this tweet:
One could make the argument that the pope implicitly answers the question by seemingly deferring to the Amazonian final document in those early paragraphs of Querida and then going on about how the Amazonians are “the most authoritative voice” (QA 26). But the final document waded into doctrinal matters by its proposal for a female diaconate, and the pope knew that. Thus, one could argue that the pope’s deferential posture signals a preference for an expansive interpretation of synodality that grants at least some doctrinal control to local bishops and synods. (What a mess!)
But is there anything more solid to go on than that? The pope hints that there is. Let’s have another look at Querida Amazonia.
” … some of the larger concerns that I have expressed in earlier documents … that can … guide us to a … creative … reception of the entire synodal process”QA 2
The pope is referring us to other documents that take up the question of synodality and cultural diversity, and I can think of no better document than Amoris Laetitia:
“3. Since “time is greater than space,” I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle…needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.”3
In light of the new papal document on the Amazon, the meaning of Amoris 3, above, becomes frighteningly clear. With regard to “doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues,” the magisterium is not essential. What is essential, we learn at the end of the paragraph, is the inculturation of these doctrinal issues. And who is the expert on this inculturation? Querida Amazonia tells us that it isn’t the pope. It’s the members of the local culture—who, apparently, are not bound by the magisterium! AL3 provides the strongest textual evidence that I’m aware of that Francis is extending synodal autonomy even to matters of doctrine.
Thus, the implications for the German synod are clear. Francis appears to be using synodality to green-light the doctrinal changes sought after by the Germans, which, by the way, explains the German presence at an Amazonian synod that ostensibly had nothing to do with them.
To those who would claim that the Vatican has already intervened against the German synod, I would refer them, again, to QA 3, above, which appears to undercut Vatican authority.
To those who see some sort of victory in the pope’s decision not to come out and explicitly endorse heretical change to holy orders, I would say that the pope’s concept of synodality is just as bad or worse, for it effectively destroys papal primacy and apostolic authority. It is a blank check to heretical bishops who would like to recreate the church in their own image. It is a church with an Amazonian face, to be sure. Or a lesbian face if you prefer. Or gay. Or bisexual. Or transgender. It is a spectacular, multifaceted polyhedron of perversion.
What it most certainly is not, however, is a Church with the face of Christ and His Apostles.