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The Catholic Church Risks Losing Its Way in the Amazon

Indigenous peoples, some with their faces painted and wearing feathered headdresses, stand by Pope Francis as he celebrates an opening Mass for the Amazon synod, in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. (Photo by Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last weekend, a synod of Catholic bishops released a controversial report addressing how the Catholic Church ought to evangelize the pan-Amazonian region, which comprises most of the northern half of South America.

In the final document from the Amazon Synod, bishops requested that the Vatican create a new rite for the Amazonian region, which would allow for married men to enter the priesthood and for the ordination of women deacons. These measures are aimed at resolving the priest shortage and respecting the customs of the region’s indigenous people.

But before it authorizes such fundamental changes, the Vatican should stop and consider its own traditions.

The synod calls for recognizing the truth present in the myths and spiritual expressions of the Amazonian indigenous, while advocating that they be strengthened by being brought in to Christ.

The document says the Amazonians have a special relationship with “the forest” and “mother earth.” To show solidarity with them, Catholic churches there began displaying statues of Pachamama, a pagan deity from the Andes.

Although Pope Francis said in a statement that the statues are not intended to be used for idolatry, placing a pagan earth deity in a Catholic Church blurs the lines between the two religions and could be misinterpreted as approval of Earth worship. While one can recognize the truths in pagan faiths, invoking their deities is not the right way to do this.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that natural law, which he defines as a rational creature’s participation in God’s eternal law, is common to all nations. This natural law, he said, is the way by which all men are inclined to act based on their search for the good. Because everyone can reason, all cultures can comprehend and teach some elements of virtue, which allows them to participate in God’s eternal law.

Because every culture will have some participation in the eternal law, Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio that no culture is at odds with the Gospel, but rather that the Gospel “is a genuine liberation from all the disorders caused by sin” and is “a call to the fullness of truth.” He makes clear that this truth is not understood through dialogue between different cultures, but through the conversion that originates in “the depths of the human soul” when it hears about Christ.

However, this dialogue must always have the intention of conversion, and never religious pluralism. In a 1928 encyclical titled Mortalium Animos, Pope Pius XI prohibited Catholics from engaging in dialogue whose purpose was to bring different faiths together on points of agreement, since only belief in the true faith can establish genuine unity. He warned that such meetings rested on a false premise: that every religion is good and expresses God in different forms, which he said was an abandonment of revelation. His encyclical also upheld the condemnation of Catholics who participate in non-Catholic religious assemblies.

An Amazonian rite can thus highlight the truth found in indigenous cultures, but it can’t show respect to erroneous views or false deities.

The synod document also calls for a stronger role for women in the ecclesial community, including consideration of women deacons in the Amazon region. It calls for women to exercise stronger leadership in Church matters and for lay men and women to have equitable roles in ministry.

The bishops further requested that the pope re-open the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, which Francis has agreed to do.

Although the early Church had deaconesses, their position was different from that of male deacons, and severely limited. Book VIII, Section XXVIII of the Apostolic Constitutions tells us that a deaconess is only permitted to keep the doors and assist with the baptizing of women.

If the Church were to re-establish this position, it would need to demonstrate again the distinction between the roles.

Many deacons go on to become priests, which is why the discussion of women deacons has naturally led to a conversation over ordaining female priests. In a news release, the Women’s Ordination Conference praised Francis for considering female deacons and encouraged him to take the next logical step.

Yet the Church has always maintained that the office of priest is for men only, and that this is a binding tradition. In an Apostolic Letter titled Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II invoked his papal authority, settling the question: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

The bishops additionally requested that the pope consider allowing married men to become priests in the Amazon because of the vocation shortage. Although the Vatican permits Eastern Catholic rites to ordain married men, the West has a longstanding tradition against the practice because celibacy is considered a higher calling than married life.

In 1 Corinthians 7, St. Paul writes that the married man has divided interests because he is focused on both heavenly and worldly affairs; if one is to maintain a complete focus on the Lord, Paul recommends celibacy. Although married priests would not violate Church teaching, priestly celibacy as a tradition ought not be ignored.

In his 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos, Pope Gregory XVI commanded the faithful to defend celibacy. “They have forgotten their person and office, and have been carried away by the enticements of pleasure,” he said. “They have even dared to make repeated public demands to the princes for the abolition of that most holy discipline.”

These are long-standing traditions, affirmed across papacies and throughout Church documents. When considering the synod and the testimony of the Amazonian people, the Vatican must not forget its own history.

Tyler Arnold is a writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. His work can be seen in the Associated Press, Business Insider, National Review, and other outlets.

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