What’s new Amazonia?

It’s fascinating to observe the hype around the current Amazon Synod. The battle lines are already drawn. The progressives and conservatives (to use terms that obscure as much as describe) have staked out positions – and the ‘professional haters’ of Francis have already filled the media with customary venom. Yet the issues so far are in fact nothing new.

Take the environmental crisis. The Amazonian ecosystem has been at risk for fifty years. Ecology groups and Native Amazonians have been struggling courageously against habitat destruction for decades. They have even produced martyrs like Chico Mendes, assassinated in December 1988. There are scores of scientific reports warning of the global effects of deforestation on climate, plant and animal species, and on first peoples.

If anything the confession of ecological sins was a long time coming. Knowingly or not, this is a response to a charge made by historian Lyn White Jr. back in the 1960s: that Christianity has contributed to the ecological crisis. (White, by the way, was a Christian).

Similarly the problem of drug production and trafficking. This is a common feature across Latin America, particularly where peasants’ ability to subsist has been squeezed out of existence by displacement from their land and the destruction of an ecosystem that had sustained them for millennia.

Nor is the proposal supporting community-based married priests – the viri probati [approved men] – anything new. It was mooted (and rejected) at other synods, like the first African Synod, back in the 1990s. It was first advocated in the 1980s by theologians like South African Bishop Fritz Lobinger. The wider proposal to allow diocesan priests to marry was introduced at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), taken off the agenda by papal decree – and then nixed by Paul VI in 1967. Never, however, was it considered a doctrine of faith.

As to women’s ordination – here generally framed in terms of deacons – this too has been a point of conversation in theological circles for decades – despite demands that conversations cease. Some historians trace the debate before Vatican II.

Uneasiness about inculturation of Catholic practices is odd, particularly for those of us outside Europe and North America. The question isn’t whether to inculturate but how far. When someone starts suggesting the inclusion of the name Pachamama [the name of the Amerindian earth goddess] in liturgies it might be worth sitting up and taking note!

Why is all this generating such heat (if you’ll pardon my climatic metaphor)? I believe it is because, in the last few years, decades of silence caused by a mood that stifled debate and surreptitiously centralised control has been challenged. Bishops and theologians are rediscovering their voice – and their calling to lead and teach the local church. And conservatives have discovered that they can criticise the Pope and still consider themselves Catholic. For those of us who see tradition as ongoing renewal, this is a sign of hope. For those who see it as the collapse of a ‘fixed’ order, it is terrifying.

Time will tell whose voice will prevail.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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