It was not to be expected: But when the pope and dozens of bishops from all over the world speak about the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people there in October in the Vatican, this turns into a political ie in many respects.
Most recently, the world political as well as internal church backdrop of the special synod for Amazonia had become even more significant.
Burning rainforests, a possible bursting of the world's largest trade agreement between Mercosur and the EU, diplomatic entanglements between Brazil and France to the question of whether there will soon be married priests in the Roman Catholic Church or pagan influences in the liturgy. In the months leading up to the special synod, all of this has repeatedly caused controversy – and therefore attention.
The fact that this is so widespread is also due to the synod's three-part spectrum of topics: the ecology of Amazonia, the culture and rights of indigenous peoples, and the pastoral care of the church. "New paths for the Church and for a holistic ecology" is the title of the meeting, under which many proposals and ideas can be gathered.
These should apply above all to the Amazon region, which covers some 7.5 million square kilometers and extends into nine states.
An indigenous population of about three million people, composed of about 390 different peoples and nationalities, lives there in very widely scattered settlements. In addition, there are migrant farm workers and projects of international business enterprises.
Pope Francis himself attaches great importance and urgency to the three-week bishops' meeting. The Amazon is a crucial region, not only because a large part of the world's oxygen comes from there, the head of the church said in a newspaper interview in early August. Deforestation of Amazonia means "killing humanity," says the pope.
In the meantime, international tensions have arisen because of the ongoing forest fires in several Amazonian countries. Statements by French President Emanuel Macron that the Amazon rainforest belongs to all humanity were indignantly rejected by Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. Critics, on the other hand, accuse the Brazilian of inciting farmers and farm workers to illegally obtain land by making statements about the fires.
Alternative development models
As a consequence, the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes already urgently demanded other development models. Until now, economic and private interests have prevailed in Amazonia, amounting to a "new edition of colonialism," he wrote in the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano. If this does not change, "the whole region will be destroyed, with all the devastating consequences that are already foreseeable".
The fact that the Catholic Church is showing such great interest in the rainforest worldwide is being observed with concern by the government in Brasilia. She sees her economic interests affected. Researchers have no doubt that further shrinkage of the South American rainforest will have a massive impact on the climate.
Meanwhile, the pope warned against misunderstanding the synod as a conference of ecological experts. Rather, it is about the mission of the church to better communicate the Christian message to people. As for "new paths for the church," the pope denied that the often-mentioned "viri probati" – older married men who would be ordained priests – were an important ie. This, he said, was "just a number" in the synod's working document. He has already made it clear on several occasions that under him there will be no general abolition of celibacy or a solution with the possibility of choice.
The "special synod for Amazonia" stressed also Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the episcopal synod, with the presentation of the approximately 140 sides strong working document in the middle of June in the Vatican. In no way is it a matter of giving the entire Catholic Church an "Amazonian look".
The working paper is based on a lengthy consultation process. For more than a year, the topics and concerns were explored at 260 local events in South America. According to the Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno, a total of 87 people participated in the formation of this opinion.000 people. The broader preparation is a result of a synod reform Francis introduced in 2018.
In addition to the possibility of possibly allowing older and respected family men to be ordained to the priesthood in remote areas, the paper mentions new spaces for church ministries, including for women. According to Fabene, this is not about the diaconate. But probably about valuing indigenous culture more and better translating the Christian message into each culture.
On the one hand, church representatives such as the former Amazon bishop Erwin Krautler of Xingu and the German Adveniat bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck are made into crown witnesses of major reform steps; on the other hand, other Amazon bishops and cardinals are written up as admonishing prophets and warnings.
Their actual statements weigh but usually yet stronger and formulate more differentiated.
Thus, although the former Cardinal of the Curia, Gerhard Ludwig Muller, considers the "theologia indigena" and the "ecotheology" behind the preparatory document to be a "brainchild of social romantics". A better inculturation of Christianity in Amazonia, while respecting traditional Catholic doctrine, is nevertheless necessary.
And in a letter launched from prison, Australian Cardinal George Pell called the synod preparations "disturbing". The so-called Instrumentum laboris is "not the first document of poor quality produced by the synod secretariat". People like Cardinal Robert Sarah of the Curia are already muttering about a schism in the church, but they don't put it solely on the synod.
Hope for a signal
On the other hand, the two church aid organizations Misereor and Adveniat are hoping for a "signal of departure. The synod should show "that change is possible in politics, business, technology and, not least, in the church," said chief executives Pirmin Spiegel and Michael Heinz in a foreword to the German translation of the working document.
On the other hand, the Jesuit Bernd Hagenkord, after a trip to Amazonia, warned against using the synod to address problems of the church in Europe and North America. "We cannot discuss in this discussion our European ies such as sexual morality, power and authority," he warned. In Amazonia, this would already be perceived as "new colonialism".
Incidentally, the day before the synod, Francis appoints ten new cardinal electors, half of whom speak Spanish or Portuguese. It will then become clear whether and how the Catholic Church in the North is capable of listening to the very complex voices from the South and recognizing their own competence.