As of now the Catholic Church seems to be one of the last things standing between Jair Bolsonaro and the survival of the Amazon region—and with it perhaps the planet. The Brazilian president’s rapacious drive to develop the tropical rainforest would be catastrophic even if the world wasn’t already literally burning, from California to Siberia to Australia. Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis’s exhortation on last fall’s Synod on the Amazon, amounts to a papal love letter, a valentine to the Amazon. Released on February 12, the anniversary of the murder of Sr. Dorothy Stang in 2005 in the Brazilian state of Parà in the Amazon Basin, it expresses Francis’s dream for the region—socially, culturally, ecologically, and ecclesially. In one hundred and eleven paragraphs, and in a poetic language full of literary references (Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, Vinicius de Moraes), Francis lays out his vision for a deep transformation of a part of the world facing no shortage of threats. The pope’s plea to protect the Amazon didn’t go unnoticed by Bolsonaro himself, who on February 13 lashed out in response: “Well, the pope may be Argentinian, but God is Brazilian.”
Querida Amazonia is a unique kind of post-synodal exhortation. Appropriately, since it follows a synod that itself differed significantly from others preceding it: dedicated to a particular region of the world and largely prepared by ecclesial and other groups from that area; strongly supported by lay Catholics and theologians who worked closely with their bishops before going to Rome; and touching directly on the neuralgic issues of married priests and of male and female deacons in positions of institutional leadership. Additionally, it was a major test after publication of a major reform of Paul VI’s Bishops Synod—2018’s Episcopalis Communio—which addressed issues of papal primacy and the preparation of final documents in an effort to shape a more synodal Church. Finally, it unfolded against a backdrop of intense anti-Francis sentiment and acts of racism directed against indigenous participants—one perpetrator of which was recently hailed by Rod Dreher as a “hero.”
Querida Amazonia is unique as well in that it doesn’t directly engage the final document voted on and approved by the Synod, including the paragraph calling on Francis to consider priestly ordination of married men (which passed with two-thirds of the vote). In previous cases, especially in Amoris Laetitia, Francis included parts of the final documents in his post-synodal exhortations. But not this time. In fact, he states explicitly and early on in Querida Amazonia that he will not do so. Yet he does not actually contradict the final document; he simply offers his own conclusions, and opts not to adopt the decisions concerning married priests. So we are left with two different documents, both fruits of the synodal process. It’s the ultimate application to the magisterium, in these extraordinary times, of the Catholic principle of et et: “both and,” not “either or.”
Think of it in keeping with Francis’s reinterpretation of papal primacy for a synodal Church, but also his way to deal—for the first time—with his genuine disagreement with the Synod’s majority. His language on the priesthood, in Chapter 4, at times conveys more a pre-conciliar than conciliar or post-conciliar theology of the ordained ministry, with the focus on what is unique to the priest and his exclusive identity (par. 87-88). The most important sources of this section owe all to the John Paul II era; the great emphasis on what the laity can do works to preserve the clerical system just as it is. Rather than receive the synodal proposals on ordination of the viri probati to the priesthood, Francis’s solution is to pray for vocations and more efficient deployment of the clergy. There is a small opening on the possibility of an Amazonian rite—very small, however, compared to the proposal in the final document. And Francis’s language on women is typically and woefully inadequate, while his effusive praise of the “feminine” is counterproductive. What he says here fits the pattern of what he has always said on these issues. One wonders what will happen to the pontifical commission for the study of women diaconate—if it will be reconstituted or not, and on what basis.
Does his reluctance to accept the Synod’s conclusion reflect a fear splitting the Church in two? This has not stopped him before. And it’s worth noting just how much the concept of inculturation comes up (paragraph 82 includes an interesting self-critique on the Church’s lack of inculturated liturgies). There are also some interesting openings on ecclesial base communities, which is one of the great reversals of Francis’s pontificate when it comes to the life of the Church in Latin America. Synodality has become possible with the rehabilitation of inculturation by the papal teaching.