Catholic bishops have concluded a three-week synod in the Vatican with a focus on climate change and poverty in the Amazon. It has changed the Catholic Church for good, says Christoph Strack.
It was getting hard to believe that things could change, but something is on the move in the doctrinal system of the Catholic Church, which has long stood like a massive and oft-reinforced stone building with few windows.
At the Synod on the Amazon, which ended on Sunday, 185 bishops voted to allow older married men in the vast Amazon region to join the priesthood . The move is intended to allow Catholics living in remote communities to celebrate Holy Communion, the ritual central to their faith, more than just once or twice per year.
This decision is a historic one. Ten or 20 years ago, such a move would have been unthinkable. Now, it is up to Pope Francis to implement this decision and to kickstart a historic process. He has pledged to comment on the decision later this year. A little window is opening after all in that Roman building.
But what is even more important, from a theological perspective, is that the central authority of what is a centralist system is taking the problems of a remote region and the people suffering there seriously. That is the essence of Pope Francis.
It is important to say that the question of priesthood for married men was not the core issue dealt with at the Amazon synod or by its final document. Instead, the bishops examined the dire situation of the Amazon and of the people who live there. After all, as we all learned this summer, the Amazon region is in peril. "The Amazon today is a wounded and deformed beauty, a place of suffering and violence," as the final document put it.
The bishops are hearing "the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor." Their 30-page final communique is pervaded by the Jesuistic concept of conversion in its old sense of turning around. It is applicable to the people in the Amazon, but even more so to world affairs and all actors in it, including the European Commission and the German government, corporations and consumers in the US and Europe, as well as the Church itself and its business decisions. One cardinal said that "unless we turn around, humanity will lose the Amazon."
The final document makes for easy reading; its language is down to earth. Certain sections are reminiscent of the eloquent language that the Latin American church in the 1960s and early 1970s used in its documents when it drew attention to the plight of the poor. Under Pope Francis, this is not left or right in a political sense, but simply an expression of being in touch with ordinary people, in line with his theology of the people. Pope Francis takes people as they are, instead — as has been typical of the Church otherwise — of preaching how they ought to be. Pope Francis argues that the fate of the Amazon and its relentless exploitation and destruction concerns every Catholic and all the people of the world.
Likewise, all of humanity ought to be concerned about the situations on the Congo River or along the River Ganges — and these regions were also discussed at the Vatican synod. "We know that we face an unprecedented socio-ecological crisis and that we must act. We need an ecological turnaround to find a suitable response," the final document states.
Latin America remains the most important continent for the Catholic Church. Almost half of the world's Catholics live here; Brazil is the biggest Catholic country on the planet. This is why the Vatican is devoting its attention to this part of the world, remote to Europeans. And the issues of whether this region will have to change course to save the environment, whether celibacy rules are relaxed there or — as also occurred at the synod — whether there is discussion there about allowing women to take leadership roles in the church will always concern the Catholic Church as a world institution.
Not everyone approves of Pope Francis
But Pope Francis and such changes are not popular with everyone. In fact, a certain milieu regards him as a heretic who has betrayed the true faith. They essentially consider themselves at war with the pontiff.
Hours before the bishops convened for their final vote at the Vatican, German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller was being celebrated in Washington — after all, the 71-year-old was dismissed in 2017 as the head of the body responsible for defending Catholic doctrine and now has plenty of free time. The host, Catholic activist Gloria, Princess of von Thurn und Taxis, praised Müller as the "Trump of the Catholic Church." Müller then had much to say to the audience in criticism of Pope Francis. The US Catholic Church, after all, is not very fond of this pope from the south.
Admittedly, neither Gloria, who has now adopted a more staid persona after the scandals of her past, nor former Regensburg bishop Müller, can be taken completely seriously. But all the same, Gloria implied that a man like US President Donald Trump should be among the leaders of the Catholic Church. And Trump is the personified antithesis of Pope Francis with his concern for the "cry of the earth, the cry of poor."
Fierce criticism from the US
Footage of indigenous peoples welcoming the bishops on their to way the synod assembly hall has circulated in the media. Warmhearted, singing and dancing people from Brazil and Peru were seen at the gathering, some of them in traditional attire.
But maybe this painted an overly rosy picture. Several hundred meters further along, an exhibition commemorated the many people who lost their lives in the Amazon due to reckless exploitation over past decades. Martyrs, murdered priests, nuns and, above all, many nameless, ordinary folk murdered by gold diggers and greedy corporations.
Many of these have ties to the US. So no wonder that some of the fiercest critics of the Amazon synod are based there. This pope, with his love of the Amazon and his desire to make the church more receptive to suffering, is a thorn in their flesh. And he will feel their antipathy even more strongly in the future.