So far Pope Francis has held three synods of bishops, two of which were high-octane affairs featuring major clashes, and one that produced a soothing era of good feelings. With his fourth synod poised to open in just seven months, the question of which kind of discussion this gathering will turn out to be can’t help but come to mind.
Titled “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” the gathering is on the Pan-Amazonian region of South America, which includes parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Suriname and will take place Oct. 6-27.
A preparatory document released in June 2018 indicated that key discussion points for the meeting will be the role of women in the Church, the rights and traditions of indigenous people, and possible suggestions for greater access to the Eucharist in a region with few priests.
Should this year’s discussion kick up any dust, it would almost certainly be over two key issues: climate change and the ordination of viri probati, meaning mature married men, to the priesthood.
In a recent interview with Crux, Jesuit Father Francisco Taborda, a professor of theology at the Jesuit-run university in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and an author of numerous books on the sacraments, said a priest shortage in the Amazon makes it impossible for many in the region to attend Mass more than a handful of times a year, especially for indigenous populations living in rural areas that are difficult to reach.
The shortage of priests, he said, has led “to a re-thinking” of how to ensure that every Amazonian community has access to Mass on a weekly basis. And this re-thinking, he said, includes the ordination of the viri probati.
“That’s what this is about,” Taborda said, adding that “in the final analysis, the solution that could be seen is this one,” which he said will be discussed in the synod hall.
Also likely to create at least a degree of stir is the issue of climate change and the environment, especially given fresh clashes between the Vatican and United States President Donald Trump as well as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
In June 2017 Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 COP21 Paris climate accord which has been a major agenda item for the Vatican and which holds that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by half of what is needed in order to prevent an increase in atmospheric temperatures of two degrees Celsius.
During his own campaign, Bolsonaro, who has only been in office since January, said he takes the same stance on the COP21 agreement, but he has yet to back out.
Although Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, Bolsonaro’s right-wing populist government has voiced criticism of the synod, saying it was called in order to promote a “leftist agenda.”
This synod will undoubtably also give voice in a significant way to the Church in Latin America, which tends to be at odds with their neighbors to the north.
Bishops from the north and south often have a much different analysis of pressing issues based on their geographical region. Particularly when it comes to social theory, bishops from the south tend to be strongly skeptical of free-market capitalism, a view Pope Francis himself has openly espoused on multiple occasions.
Based on past experience, it’s hard to know what to expect.
When two synods on the family took place in 2014 and 2015, tensions were so thick they could be cut with a knife. Those in more conservative camps claimed the discussion had been hijacked by issues such as access to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and a softening of the Church’s approach to the homosexual community, while the left was enthusiastic to see such matters apparently moving forward.
For good or for ill, those intense discussions produced defining results, the most notable of which is Francis’s 2016 post-synod exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Fallout from that document, which opened a cautious door to allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, continues to drive a great portion of ecclesial discussion even today.
Yet when the Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment was held in October 2018, what happened was the opposite. Rather than the boisterous debates heard in 2014 and 2015, the discussion seemed devoid of any thunderclaps.
During the discussion, things went so well that many young participants jested that, absent any fireworks, the event was actually sort of boring.
In terms of the upcoming synod for the Amazon, it’s impossible to know in advance whether its hot-button issues will cause much of a fuss, but it’s certainly a possibility - one for which many in the Church undoubtedly are already preparing.