THE secular media will tell you that the synod on the Amazon, now being held in Rome, is all about whether Pope Francis is about to shatter a thousand years of celibate Roman Catholic priesthood by ordaining married men in the Brazilian rainforest. But you should be watching out for something else.
Early in his papacy, Francis was approached privately by Edwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu, in the Brazilian rainforest, and told that 700,000 Catholics in 800 parishes in his diocese were served by only 27 priests. Some people heard mass only once a year, which is clearly a problem for a Church that, in the words of Pope St John Paul II, “draws her life from the eucharist”. Could married men be ordained, the Bishop asked. “You tell me,” Pope Francis characteristically replied.
In the run-up to the Synod, a two-year consultation process, involving 80,000 people, has taken place. As with previous synods, Pope Francis has focused as much on the process as on the substance. He is anxious, above all, to change the way in which his Church makes decisions. Papal fiat should no longer be the default. “You tell me.”
But the Pope has other Amazonian concerns. The current witless destruction of the rainforest by those intent on short-term profit is a classic example of how, as he said recently in Madagascar, care for the environment is inseparable from the fight against global injustice (News, 13 September). As the first Pope from Latin America, Francis sees what is happening as “the greed of new forms of colonialism”. For centuries, the church hierarchy has been on the side of the coloniser and the oppressor; now, it needs to listen to the voices of the exploited and oppressed.
The combination of all this has catalysed opposition among the small minority of noisy conservatives who oppose Francis. Ultra-traditionalist disloyalists, such as the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom Francis removed as the Vatican’s senior judge in 2014, have openly accused the Pope of “apostasy” in the synod’s preparatory document, alleging that its concern for the environment is pagan, not Christian. Burke is viscerally opposed to Francis’s attack on the “savage capitalism” that is killing both people and planet. An enthusiast for liturgical flummery and the pre-Vatican II Latin mass, he sees celibacy as a bulwark of the clericalism that Francis wants to abolish.
Cardinal Burke and his co-conspirators talked openly of the need to “correct” the Pope. They even raise the spectre of schism. Francis recently addressed this head on, saying that, although schism would be highly undesirable, he was not afraid of the prospect. “For me, it is an honour if the Americans attack me,” the first Third World Pope quipped. Schism grows from rigidity and a lack of compassion, he added, witheringly.
On the eve of the synod, Pope Francis created 13 new cardinals. That means that he has now appointed more than half of the conclave that will elect his successor. He has filled it with men who share his pastoral vision of the Church, champion social justice and the rights of the poor and migrants, and come from the margins of the Church previously unrepresented in Rome. The debate over coming weeks may reveal the extent of the change Francis has wrought.
Read more on the story in Andrew Brown’s press column