A three-week conference that prioritized the environment highlights a culture war in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis has helped open the door to allowing married men to become priests, albeit in just one region of the Amazon for now. He has made environmentalism a major focus of his papacy. Yesterday he gave a shout-out to Greta Thunberg and thanked journalists for doing their jobs, rather than calling them enemies of the people. He’s decried income inequality and nationalism and spoken out on behalf of gay people, Muslims, immigrants, and the poor.
This pastoral approach has made him one of the clearest and most humane voices crying out in the wilderness today. Has it also made him a revolutionary?
Yesterday, Francis wrapped up a month-long synod, or meeting of bishops, at the Vatican dedicated to the Amazon, a region the bishops called “a wounded and deformed beauty, a place of suffering and violence.” Their list of recommendations to the pope is nothing less than an environmentalist manifesto, in which they recommended that destroying the environment should be considered a sin. (Their requests are nonbinding but set a tone; Francis said he will try to respond to them before the end of the year.)
The bishops also asked Francis to lift the 1,000-year-old ban on priestly celibacy to allow married men who are already ordained as deacons to become priests in some areas of the Amazon. There, a priest shortage means the faithful can go for long stretches without receiving Communion and other sacraments that only priests can deliver. This could very well revolutionize the Church worldwide. If a door opens in one country, it might open in another. (Or it could be limited to the Amazon.)
Francis’s method, and the method of the synod, is one of listening and reflection, then some consensus, and charting a path forward through discernment. The path Francis has been taking, though, leads directly into a larger culture war, one that pits progressives against traditionalists.
And so the synod offered ample opportunity for Francis’s many vocal critics—including conservative Catholics in the United States, who are intertwined with the political right—to accuse the pope of breaking orthodoxy and watering down Church doctrine, such as the bishops’ recommendations to allow more room for indigenous traditions in Catholic ritual. These critics also see Francis’s papacy as flirting dangerously with paganism, pantheism, and even Marxism, because they view the pope’s emphasis on attending to the poor as often at odds with the exigencies of global capitalism.
The environment was the central focus of the meeting. In their final document, the bishops warned of the risks of deforestation, which they said now put almost 17 percent of the Amazon forest in danger, and also of the displacement of indigenous groups because of the deforestation. “Attacks on nature have consequences for the lives of peoples,” they wrote.
They defined what they called “ecological sins of commission or omission against God, against one’s neighbor, the community and the environment.” They called these “sins against future generations … manifest in acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment, transgressions against the principles of interdependence and the ripping of network of solidarity among creatures and against the virtue of justice.”
In practical terms that means better coordination in the region for advocacy against environmental catastrophes, such as toxic spills related to mining, Bishop David M. De Aguirre Guinea, one of two special secretaries overseeing the synod, said at a news conference yesterday. “This has become part of the social doctrine of the Church, taking care of our common home,” he said.
Francis set the Amazon as the theme for the meeting three years ago, long before the devastating fires that swept through the region in August, the result of targeted deforestation to clear farmland. “The fires brought the thing home to us in a way that graphs or other visuals didn’t,” Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit and the other special secretary behind the synod, said. “If we insist on tearing up the trees and digging up the land because we can’t live without the metals and the gold and the wood for our fancy furniture, you can fill out the rest.”
Czerny is one of 13 new cardinals whom Francis appointed this month and who will one day elect his successor, the clearest way any pope shapes the future of the Church. Czerny, for instance, runs a Vatican office dedicated to migrants and refugees at the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and his promotion is a clear sign of the importance Francis places on migration.
The pope also appointed other cardinals from the global South, making the College of Cardinals less white and less Italian. (One of the constant tensions of the Catholic Church is that it’s a global community of a billion souls governed at the top by an Italian village.)
Francis isn’t the first pope to open the door to some married priests. A decade ago, his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, created a special structure to allow married Anglican priests to join the Catholic Church. It was aimed at attracting Anglicans distressed by that Church’s ordination of women and gay priests, and it infuriated the then–Archbishop of Canterbury.
For the synod, Francis and the bishops framed the issue of married priests as stemming from a ground-up desire from some communities in the Amazon, not a top-down rule imposed by Rome, Alberto Melloni, the director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, told me. “It’s not a revolution,” he said. “It’s a late remedy to an evident call.”
The bishops didn’t vote to allow women to be ordained as deacons, but Francis, in his concluding remarks yesterday, said the Vatican would study the role of women in the early Church. “Women put out a sign that says, ‘Please listen to us, may we be heard,’ and I pick up that gauntlet,” the pope said to applause.
Francis also gave a special mention to Greta Thunberg, who has already become a kind of Joan of Arc for her time, and drawn no shortage of hatred—this month, police removed an effigy of Thunberg that had been hung from a bridge in Rome. In his concluding remarks yesterday, the pope spoke about the recent climate strikes by students around the world. “We’ve seen the demonstrations of young people, Greta and others, and they walk around saying ‘The future is ours, you can’t gamble with our future.’”
In one of the stranger sideshows of the synod, a handheld video circulated on a traditionalist Catholic website showing unidentified men removing several wooden figurines representing an Amazonian fertility figure from a Roman church and tossing the statuettes into the Tiber from the Ponte Sant’Angelo, lined with statues of angels and saints, against a perfect Roman sunrise. Some of Francis’s critics, such as Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, seized on the video, and called the statuettes tantamount to idolatry. “The great mistake was to bring the idols into the church, not to put them out,” Müller said in an interview with an American conservative-Catholic TV channel, EWTN.
Francis, as bishop of Rome, apologized to his fellow bishops for the vandalism, and one of the statuettes was on view in the synod hall during the pope’s concluding remarks. A Mass today ending the synod included indigenous peoples from the Amazon. Francis’s approach to indigenous rites is “a very profound characteristic of the Jesuit missionary attitude,” Melloni told me, in which the Jesuits would try to convert native populations to Catholicism while also respecting the native traditions. “These rites express a culture and not a religion,” Melloni said.
But for Francis’s many critics, the statuettes, and the pope’s posing for photos in a feathered headdress, were further signs that the pope was watering down Church doctrine. These critics tend to be defenders of Benedict, a brainy disciplinarian who advocated a smaller, more doctrinally pure Church, rather than a more flexible and inclusive one.
“This synod is truly the most politically correct meeting of all time. It’s a relief that Greta Thunberg has not yet been chosen to be a cardinal,” Bishop Robert Mutsaerts of the Netherlands wrote in a blog post translated by LifeSite News, a conservative Catholic website that has been fiercely critical of Francis. “Is there anyone left who is actually worried about saving souls? But isn’t that why Christ died on the cross?”
“The bishops and cardinals are discussing the environment, the rise of the sea level; they are saying that above all, we should listen. They speak like politicians, using the same slogans, the same cheap rhetoric,” Mutsaerts wrote. Why? he asked. “It is not the specialty of the Church, it is not our core business and it is not our perspective.”
In the culture war between traditionalists and progressives over the future of the Church, the pope may be on the progressive, inclusive side, but his traditionalist critics have access to social media, which has an outsize influence in shaping perceptions. “We have a small, noisy minority and a large silent majority,” Melloni told me. “The noisy minority is struggling, with a certain success, to represent themselves as half of the Church, and they are not. They’re not even half the College of Cardinals, not even half the episcopate.”
In short, the Catholic Church on Twitter may not be the same as the Catholic Church writ large. Francis seems confident that he has the latter on his side, but will his efforts—on married priests, on environmentalism—spread beyond the Amazon?
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