Rev. Thomas Reese: Controversy Mixes With Consensus as Catholic Bishops Gather for Amazon Synod

Pope Francis meets with indigenous representatives in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Jan. 19, 2018. Standing with thousands of indigenous Peruvians, Francis declared the Amazon the “heart of the church” and called for a threefold defense of its life, land and cultures. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Catholic clergy from around the world are arriving in Rome this week for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which begins Sunday (Oct. 6). At the synod, 185 bishops will discuss the 3 million-square-mile area that is the home of marginalized indigenous people, a resource-rich territory heavily exploited for its bounty and the location of rainforests essential for recycling carbon dioxide that causes global warming.

While there will be some disagreements in the synod over how to adapt Catholicism to indigenous cultures, the bishops will be united with Francis on other topics that he holds dear: the environment and justice for indigenous peoples.

The overwhelming majority of the bishops called to the synod are from the Amazon region but some come from other parts of the world, including three from the United States: Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Cardinals Sean O’Malley of Boston and Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.

O’Malley and Farrell are no surprise. O’Malley has been a close adviser of the pope and a member of the Council of Cardinals that the pope brings together periodically to give him advice. As the head of a Vatican dicastery, Farrell was a predictable appointee to the synod.

McElroy, on first blush, appears to be a simple bishop from San Diego, and some were curious as to why he was summoned. But McElroy is one of the smartest members of the American hierarchy. He has two doctorates, one from the Gregorian University in theology and another from Stanford University in political science. In addition, he is a strong supporter of Pope Francis and rumored to be under consideration for appointment to Boston, Philadelphia or some other major archdiocese.

Besides the bishops, another 80 people, including 53 lay and religious women, will be able to participate but will not be able to vote. Not allowing religious sisters to vote has been controversial since recent synods have had a religious brother with a vote.

The bishops will agree on the importance of protecting the Amazon rainforests but will also ask why the Amazonians should bear the burden of global warming while Europeans and Americans continue to pollute the Earth to preserve their lifestyles. Justice for the indigenous means not only freeing them from exploitation and murderous attacks but also giving them the tools to improve their lives while preserving the environment.

Here, the opposition will come mostly from outside the synod hall, from governments and economic interests who put their short-term financial interests ahead of the environment and indigenous peoples. Mining, logging and agribusiness continue to destroy huge patches of the Amazon with little restraint from government regulators. The presidents of Brazil and the United States believe that exploiting the Amazon, no matter the environmental costs, is essential to economic growth.

The few bishops who support these interests will argue that the bishops should focus on spiritual matters and leave politics and economics to others. But most bishops agree with Francis that the struggles for justice and the protection of the environment are integral parts of the gospel message.

More controversy will surround the topic of evangelization: how the gospel message should be expressed in indigenous cultures. Here the bishops will have a variety of views.

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Source: Religion News Service