Americanism and the Amazon

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

On Nov. 6, a sharply critical article ran in the University News surrounding both the person of Pope Francis and the recent Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, more commonly known as the Amazon Synod. 

The criticisms raised against both the Pope and the Synod, which were scathingly harsh, revolved around a number of issues. Primarily, the criticisms raised brought into question both the faithfulness and dutifulness of the Pontiff as the Successor of Peter, as well as the perceived unorthodoxy of the Amazon Synod. 

Containing such broad and overtly hostile accusations, these criticisms warrant discussion of both their truthfulness and their appropriateness.

Perhaps the greatest issue at hand here is that of Americanism and respect for the Papacy. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII sent the letter Testem benevolentiae nostrae to the Archbishop of Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons and the entirety of the American people. 

The primary issues raised in the letter are Americans’ tendency to commit a number of errors. Of greatest concern to Leo, as expressed in his letter, is  the unnecessary intrusion of the philosophical principles from the 18th and 19th centuries (those of Locke, Mill, etc) into the minds of American Catholics. 

Among the worst results of this intrusion was what Leo XIII described as “the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject.” 

This confoundment, Leo noted, brought about the idea that should “such [a distinctly American conception of] liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity.” 

Leo declared these tendencies to be an error. 

Now, what does Leo’s letter mean for us today? Perhaps it means that we ought to not intensely involve ourselves in ecclesiastical affairs that we, as individual members of the laity, do not have a prescribed and active role in. 

Perhaps we ought to avoid making ourselves judge of the actions of Supreme Pontiff, of whom there is no higher authority than God alone. Perhaps we ought to not task ourselves with peering into the soul of the very man, whom by the guidance of the Holy Spirit was elected to the Apostolic See. 

Perhaps we should let the words of Pope St. Paul VI guide us, who in his constitution, Lumen Gentium, says, “[t]he laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church.” Now, this is not to say we can’t have opinions surrounding ecclesiastical affairs — we can and we should– but expressing these opinions is ultimately a matter of prudence and we must recognize when our simple obedience is due to the Church.  

As for the Amazon Synod itself, as well as Pope Francis’ involvement, we should not really be concerned. 

First, let’s distance ourselves from media-induced sensationalism and consider precisely how the synods function. According to the Notes on the Synodal Process, there exist three phases of the synod process which are, “the preparatory phase, in which the consultation of the People of God on the themes indicated by the Roman Pontiff takes place; the celebratory phase, characterized by the meeting of the assembly of Bishops; and the implementation phase, in which the conclusions of the Synod, once approved by the Roman Pontiff, are accepted by the local churches.” 

The Synod’s deliberations have closed and ended, and a document has been produced and submitted to the Pope, but there is a single key missing to decide which form of the final document is accepted and what is discarded — an apostolic exhortation. 

There do not exist norms for propagations for the results of synods, but in practice, the Pope promulgates an exhortation some months later that in no way changes doctrine, but urges the acceptance of a particular discipline. So, in other words, the final document of the Synod is nothing but a collection of ideas from assembled bishops. 

Thus, the admittedly mediocre attempt at inculturation (one only needs to look at the Church’s missionary work in the 17th century among Native Americans, Chinese, Tibetans, Indians and other peoples to see proper inculturation), talk of married priests and idea of female diaconate, are all likely to amount to nothing, especially if we have faith in Providence’s guidance of the Church. 

I’m certain that we can trust Pope Francis,  a man who most recently said, “[i]t is necessary to overcome the legacy of the Enlightenment,” is far from having beliefs contrary to the teachings of the Church. 

And as for concern for the environment? I’m rather certain that if St. Thomas Aquinas professed, “in creatures [created things, i.e plants] there is found the trace of the Trinity, inasmuch as in every creature are found some things which are necessarily reduced to the divine Persons as their Cause,” then we owe the environment at least some of our concerns because from it we can intelligibly discern causality from God.

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