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.
The big question is what happens next. Is this document the end of the line for the Synod’s final document? Or is it just a pause in the process? As an Italian colleague said to me: “Roma locuta, causa infinita”—Rome has spoken, the discussion is never-ending. The synodal process is by definition open and never-ending. Fr. Antonio Spadaro, writing in Civiltà Cattolica, emphasized the spaces for the reception of the Synod opened by Querida Amazonia. In the introduction of the exhortation, paragraph 4 is important in inviting the local churches to take initiative. In paragraph 97, it invites the creation of what could be an “ecclesial supranational” organ for implementing new ministries and rites. The new ministries for women (paragraph 103) will be created under the “institutional” criteria of “stability, public recognition and stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.”
Certainly, synodality is not only about papal documents, but also about the impact of the synodal events themselves. And there is no way to muzzle the synodal expectations in today’s Church. A parallel question emerges about what this means for local synodal processes in churches around the world, especially for the “synodal way” in Germany and the “plenary council” in Australia. What kind of message does an atypical exhortation like this send to church and lay leaders active in these processes?
Future church historians may well be interested in knowing just who wrote Chapter 4 of Querida Amazonia. There were clearly different hands at work here—and different from those who worked at the Synod. It also would be interesting to know what happened after the Synod, between November and January, that necessitated so rapid a papal response. This is the shortest time gap between the conclusion of a synod and the publication of the post-synodal exhortation. What we can say now is that the Amazon Synod and Querida Amazonia represent a watershed because they reveal the complexity of the transition from a papal-episcopal Catholic Church to a synodal Catholic Church. We now have clearer insight into the unresolved problems between papal primacy and synodality. And what we see with Querida Amazonia might suggest a betrayal of the Amazon Synod at least in terms of what it means for institutional Church reforms. Francis did not approve the final document, and so it did not enter the magisterium (according to Episcopalis Communio). By the traditional hierarchy of sources, only Querida Amazonia is part of the ordinary magisterium of the pope. And yet even this isn’t the whole story, since Francis himself says that Querida Amazonia does not substitute the final document of the Synod.
The hope that Querida Amazonia would open a process similar to that with Amoris Laetitia could amount to wishful thinking—not because of the opposition of local episcopates, but, this time, because of Francis’s own opposition, not to mention the resistance he continues to face in Rome and elsewhere. Moreover, Francis’s positions on the issues of the 2014-2015 Synods aligned with those of the synodal majorities. This time, they don’t, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising: since 2013, Francis has repeatedly made clear his thinking on celibacy and married priests, deacons and women deacons, and women in ministry.
Francis’s one major institutional reform—the Bishops’ Synod and synodality—now shows a systemic weakness: Catholic synodality still revolves institutionally and canonically around the Bishops’ Synod, which was conceived in 1965 as an instrument of papal primacy to co-opt elements of episcopal collegiality. In 2020, fifty-five years after the foundation of the Bishops’ Synod by Paul VI, the proposals of the bishops still depend on papal fiat, even when there is a large consensus as with the Amazon Synod. Secondly, the institutional arm of Catholic synodality still doesn’t know how to receive the participation of the people of God, or in what form: How can el pueblo fiel de Dios be represented and heard and contribute to decision-making? But there’s no way to go back. Papal teaching has acknowledged the need to take the sensus ecclesiae into account.
Querida Amazonia is not like Humanae Vitae. Yet somehow the space between Querida Amazonia and the synod’s final document needs to be filled. Francis likes to say that “time is greater than space.” Time is also greater in Rome than in the global Church, where the sense of many Catholics is that this might be the last best chance for institutional reform—and that this also might be the last generation of Catholics willing to believe it’s possible. The moment is a crossroads for the Francis pontificate.