Since Pope Francis announced a meeting of bishops on the Amazon two years ago, talk in the media and among some of the key organizers, such as Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, has been dominated by the possibility of ordaining married men as priests to serve isolated rural communities.
Seeing the working document of the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, the product of the consultation of some 80,000 people from the region, mostly indigenous persons and laity, it would seem there’s little space for debate: Without putting into question the importance of celibacy, the ordination of married men in the Amazon is on the table.
Yet there are dissenting voices, and the pope himself has avoided giving an opinion. He’s also repeatedly insisted that the ordination of what’s known as the viri probati, or men of proven virtue, is far from being a key issue in the synod.
The daily Vatican press briefings don’t supply numbers of who’s on which side of anything, though one retired Brazilian bishop claimed Wednesday that two-thirds of the 184 bishops in the hall are in favor of married priests. On the other hand, Cardinal Marc Ouellet reportedly got an ovation when he defended celibacy, so it’s a bit hard to tell quite yet precisely where people stand.
Father Martin Lasarte from Uruguay, a Salesian who served for 25 years as a missionary in Angola, has spent the past four years visiting much of the Amazon as coordinator of the missionary efforts of the order in Latin America and Africa, and he says he’s tired of the conversation about the viri probati already.
“It’s a valid issue to study, above all, considering the challenges of the contemporary world,” Lasarte told Crux. “But I believe it’s not pertinent to this synod. Not because it’s taboo, but because celibacy is a very rich issue for the whole Church, and it cannot be decided by only one region.”
“We’re talking about the importance of a synodal conversion,” he added. “Well, if we’re going to discuss this issue, let’s ask our brothers from Congo what they think about it, those from Mexico, from Vietnam, from Argentina, from the Far East.”
According to Lasarte, a “papal appointee” for the synod, it’s “not honest, synodal or in communion” to make a decision about celibacy in this setting. He gives the example of the Anglican Communion, in which Anglicans from Europe and North America adopted changes such as female priests and bishops that were against the will of Anglicans in Africa, and a schism ensued.
Given globalization and the universality of the Church, combined with modern day communications, Lasarte argued, one cannot believe that the result of changing the celibacy norm for only “in the rainforest” situations would actually stop at the rainforest.
The question of the viri probati, he said, has become the “beautiful girl” of the synod, while he believes the core issues should be evangelization and care for the earth as humanity’s common home.
Celibacy, he argued, “is not untouchable,” but it’s important to take into consideration, he said, that while it was being discussed during the Second Vatican Council, members of Orthodox churches who took part insisted it’s a “wealth of the Church.”
In addition, Lasarte noted, there are already Catholic priests who are married, mostly members of Eastern rite churches, such as the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church, and it would be a greater “synodal spirit” to consult those who actually have experience before pulling the trigger.
Speaking about the Church’s missionary efforts in the Amazon region, Lasarte said there are many missionaries whom he called “left-wing conservatives,” meaning holding onto solutions or ideas proposed 40 years ago without taking into consideration the possibility that they might have been appropriate at the time, but not now.
“It’s not a pre-conciliar conservatism, though we have that one too,” he said. “But there’s a sector of the local church that is still in the 1970s, with class struggle, a church that goes to the poor. These are valid elements,” he said, “but that cannot be all.”
A church focused on the poor in Latin America, partly as a response to the Communist revolution in Cuba in 1959, was “prophetic” at the time, according to Lasarte. Today, he says, there are bigger fish to fry.
“The fundamental thing is missing: the first proclamation [of the Gospel],” he said.
“The love for the poor and a social commitment are consequences of the faith,” he said. “But the most important thing, the transmission of the faith, has been interrupted. We live in a different world than the 1970s, and we cannot continue to have the proposals of 1970.”
Many in the Church, Lasarte argued, have reduced the reality of Latin America to “rich and poor,” when real life is more complex: “There are rich and poor, yes, but also men and women, indigenous peoples who live in the Andes, those who live in the Amazon, and there’s an important Afro-descendant culture.”
The Church’s ‘Three Alzheimer’s’
According to Lasarte, the Catholic Church in the Amazon, and more widely in Latin America, suffers from three forms of ‘Alzheimer’s disease’: Anthropological radicalization, social moralism, and secularization.
The anthropological radicalization, he said, is partially the result of the Barbados Declaration of 1971, which basically stated that religious evangelization is bad for the indigenous populations of Latin America.
“They declared that evangelization destroys cultures and that it’s anthropologically negative,” Lasarte said. “It was a great provocation, but it also led to a constructive dialogue between missionaries and anthropology.”
Yet the Barbados’ Declaration, according to the priest, also led to many within the Catholic Church giving up evangelization completely, convinced that “giving witness is enough.”
“Pope Paul VI says in Evangelii Nuntandi that evangelization requires the explicit announcement of the Word, the doctrine, Christ,” he said. “Witness and service are central, but so is proclamation.”
“Some woke up 30 years later, seeing [the success of] Pentecostal proselytism … it’s about time!” Lasarte said.
The second Alzheimer’s, he said, is social moralism, meaning to see only structures of oppression and social injustice, without noticing “the mother who only wants a blessing for her sick child.”
“The extremely social option the Church made in some places didn’t touch the soul of the people,” Lasarte said. “When people need services, they go to the Church, but when they need to make sense of their lives they go somewhere else, fulfilling the religious need with a shaman or the Pentecostal church.”
In his opinion, what has saved the Church in Latin America is popular religiosity.
The last Alzheimer’s, he said, is secularization, which is a “global reality” and not, in itself, something the Church should fear, Lasarte said. The problem, he said, comes when “the Church becomes secularized, and sometimes, it’s the missionaries who bring this secularization to the people.”
“We are afraid of speaking about Jesus Christ, in fear of offending others,” he said.
The synod, he said, can be a good opportunity to talk about synodal, ecological and pastoral conversions.
Evangelization without colonization
When Crux was in the Ecuadorian Amazon in late September, some indigenous leaders spoke about the Church’s “past mistakes” when it came to evangelization, identifying the introduction of Christianity on the continent with the missionaries forcing the indigenous people to their knees and imposing the crucifix and the Bible upon them.
Lasarte believes that a missionary who goes to the Amazon should do so not as a “tourist,” but actually “live with the people,” being a “guest and not a powerful person representing an institution.”
In the process of learning from the culture of those with whom a missionary lives, the priest said, the missionary can also share his or her own wealth, which is the Gospel.
“John Paul II, speaking about the evangelization of Eastern Europe, wrote about penetrating and fertilizing a culture,” Lasarte said. “We have to first believe in the beauty of these cultures, which, like every culture, has lights and shadows, virtues and sins, but God has planted a seed there too.”