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An excellent apostolic exhortation

| Monday, February 17, 2020

Just a few months ago, I became concerned that Pope Francis was slowly embracing a new vision of the Church that is beholden to liberal German wealth and does not submit itself to the abiding witness of the Holy Spirit. The recent Amazon synod seemed to have all the markings of a subterfuge whereby liberal-minded bishops would manipulate the legitimate joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of poor Amazonians in an ecologically fragile region to advance their own ideological agendas on married priests and female deacons. This past week, however, my worst fears were proven wrong, as Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation “Querida Amazonia,” reaffirming that his Church will always concern itself first and foremost with human beings over doctrinal civil wars.

Considering that Catholic commentators of both liberal and conservative bents have mostly focused on the twin issues of clerical celibacy and the role of women in the Church, it would be helpful to consider what Francis actually says about real-life Amazonian communities in his apostolic exhortation. The Holy Father subdivides “Querida Amazonia” into four major chapters or “dreams” (social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial) which I will consider one by one.

Recalling his own encyclical “Laudato Si,’” Francis begins his first chapter on social issues by affirming that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Recently, increased exploitation of the Amazon region by “colonizing interests,” such as the timber and mining industries, has forced indigenous peoples out of their homes and communities and into cities where they experience “enslavement, subjection and poverty . . . xenophobia, sexual exploitation and human trafficking.” In sum, they are treated “as if they did not exist.” This systematic exploitation is the epitome of “injustice and crime” that must be met with “networks of solidarity and development” that empower Amazonian peoples with education and employment opportunities (especially in sustainable agriculture) that enable them to preserve their way of life rather than force them into the chaos and confusion of city life.

In his second chapter on cultural issues, Francis (again citing ‘Laudato Si’) focuses upon the “leveling effect” with which consumerist mentalities threaten contemporary world cultures, especially indigenous Amazonian cultures. He urges young people in particular to hold fast to their cultural roots in these troubled times so that the “artistic, literary, musical and cultural inspiration” of the Amazon will flourish for generations to come. Furthermore, Francis emphasizes the need for a “dialogue” between Western urban cultures and indigenous Amazonian cultures, since Westerners “can hardly demand that the groups from the interior forest be uncritically open to ‘civilization’” without a reciprocal concern for preserving the “richness” of the Amazonian cultural heritage. Admittedly, I tend to disfavor calls for “dialogue” that often carry relativistic implications. However, I strongly sense that the dialogue Francis seeks here is not intended to relativize the truths of the Catholic faith. Rather, he is simply emphasizing that Western-minded Catholics can only effectively evangelize foreign cultures by speaking to them in and through their cultural presuppositions, just as the witness of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been responsible for converting countless indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere to the Catholic faith over the past few centuries.

Given the special reverence that Amazonians express toward nature (water in particular), Francis proposes in his third chapter on ecological issues that this “ancestral wisdom” must be combined with “contemporary technical knowledge” and “sustainable management” practices that still take this reverence into account. This approach runs counter to the “acquired habits typical of the larger cities, where consumerism and the culture of waste are already deeply rooted” and which far too many city-dwelling Amazonian migrants have embraced, ironically as a consequence of the very exploitative practices that drove them into cities in the first place! A proper integral ecology in any region, especially the Amazon, must reject this acquisitive mindset and embrace the Church’s “appreciation of the value of creation” as a sign of God’s abiding presence in the world.

Granting the inherent importance of the social, cultural and ecological issues that Amazonians face today, Francis nevertheless argues in his fourth chapter on ecclesiology that none of these issues can be properly understood without considering the “call to faith that we have received from the Gospel.” Citing his 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” Francis contends the Church must proclaim the “kerygma,” the original, essential message of Christ expressed personally to the hearer, above all else. Indeed, Francis seems to be responding to conservative-minded critics who claim that the Vatican has developed a self-limiting NGO (non-government organization) mentality when he states that “without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO.” He then turns to the idea of inculturation which, though I have been critical of this concept in the past, he clarifies with reference to John Paul II’s writings on the reciprocal relationship that must exist between the autonomy of culture and the one true Catholic faith. This inculturation process instantiates itself through social, cultural, liturgical and ministerial dimensions.

Even though this ministerial dimension plays a minor role in “Querida Amazonia” as a whole, it has nonetheless been the point of focus for most commentators. Although Francis does not specifically discuss the hot topic of clerical celibacy, he does reaffirm that “the exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies the priest alone to preside at the Eucharist.” Furthermore, this function does not render him “superior” in status but (again citing John Paul II) totally orders him toward “the holiness of Christ’s members.” Likewise, Francis criticizes the “reductionism [that] would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders.” Rather than trapping ourselves within “partial conceptions of power in the Church” that equate women priests with “progress,” Francis exhorts the faithful to reflect upon the role of women in the Church as an imitation of “the tender strength of Mary, the Mother,” whose witness cannot be reduced to a mere functional role because it reflects the “inmost structure of the Church.”

Doubtlessly, “Querida Amazonia” is just the beginning of a continuing conversation on Amazonia and the (perhaps unfortunately) related issues of clerical celibacy and the role of women in the Church. With this in mind, bishops and cardinals across the world ought to consider this excellent apostolic exhortation carefully and in continuity with the legacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, thereby dispelling with the fiction that Francis is a revolutionary liberal Rahnerian. In truth, Francis is neither a liberal nor a conservative, but a personalist.

Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, New York who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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