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Querida Amazonia in Five Sentences

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, generated a great deal of commentary immediately after its publication in February. Mike Pothier argues that it is necessary to read the text reflectively to find its treasures and assess its weaknesses. He focuses on five passages that encapsulate the main themes of the apostolic exhortation.

Now that the dust has settled concerning Pope Francis’ decision not to endorse the idea of married priests in the Amazon region, we can read his Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia for what it says, rather than what it avoids saying.

If you haven’t yet looked at it do yourself the favour of visiting the Vatican website and downloading it.[i] It is relatively short, about 40 pages, easy to read, but very rich and deeply lyrical. Like me, you may find yourself questioning some of Francis’ positions, or even disagreeing with his views. That’s fine. Overall, with one glaring exception, it is a glorious document, despite the fact that it has disappointed those – like me – who had hoped for a move towards optional celibacy and (naively perhaps) towards some form of ordained ministry for women.

READ – Querida Amazonia, 2 February 2020 // Vatican website

Reading the Exhortation, five particular sentences struck me:

Humility

1. “I would like to officially present the Final Document, […] which profited from the participation of many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems of the Amazon region, since they live there, they experience its suffering, and they love it passionately.” (Para 3)

The ‘Final Document’ refers to the document The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology, containing the conclusions of the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops that met last October. The crucial part of the sentence is the ready admission that the “many people” who contributed to that document “know better than myself or the Roman Curia” what they are talking about. Very few papal exhortations commence with such a self-effacing declaration! But this is not just Francis being his usual modest self. He is sending two messages.

Firstly, look to yourselves for the answers – you live and work there, so you understand the context. This is an invitation to the local Church to propose options and interventions to meet its own challenges. Francis has encouraged this before, but local Churches have been slow to respond. Only in Germany, so far, have Catholics begun to explore their own context synodally. Elsewhere, and especially here in the developing world, Bishops’ Conferences still seem generally content to take their lead from Rome.

This is an invitation to the local Church to propose options and interventions to meet its own challenges.

Which brings us to the second message: the Roman Curia does not know better than the local Church. This is consistent with Francis’ repeated insistence that the Curia must be at the service of local Churches (and Episcopal Conferences) rather than vice versa. This message has not met with an enthusiastic response in many dicasteries, and neither has it led to any noticeable assertion of adulthood on the part of local Churches. After a good few centuries of assiduous Roman centralism this is not surprising, but it is a pity nonetheless.

The cry of the earth and the poor

2. “[A] true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (Para 8)

This quote from Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’ is incorporated into the Exhortation at the beginning of the first chapter, and in many ways it sets the tone for the document. Ecology is a matter of justice, specifically of social justice. It is not merely a cold, detached, scientific endeavour – instead, it is grounded in questions with profound human relevance. How do we relate to the natural world, how do we appropriately make use of it, and in what ways are we harming it? And how does the way we relate to it and interact with it affect our relationships with one another?

This is an important antidote to the view that nature exists for its own sake, and that we humans are somehow intruders who inevitably do more harm than good. Some environmental campaigners imply, and some say it explicitly, that the natural world would be better off without us; that human extinction would be a net gain for the planet. Yes of course, we humans have done immense harm to ecosystems, but it is a fallacy to think that there is nature – forests, rivers, oceans, animals, insects – one the one side and us on the other, in eternal opposition. Such thinking mimics that of the worst environmental exploiters: that we stand apart from nature and that we can (mis)use it as we like. In fact, we stand or fall with nature, for we are fully part of nature.

WATCH – Protecting the Oceans, September 2019 // The Pope Video

Therefore, ecological questions are social questions, and it is only when we adopt an integral approach to these questions that we, as natural creatures, can hope to thrive (or even to survive). This is also why the ‘cry of the earth’ and the ‘cry of the poor’ are intertwined. Every environmentally harmful act, from deforestation to over-fishing to emissions of greenhouse gases, has a disproportionate effect on the poor.

‘Cosmic’ interrelatedness

3. “In a cultural reality like the Amazon region, where there is such a close relationship between human beings and nature, daily existence is always cosmic.” (Para 41)

This sentence almost sounds like it comes from the 1960s, the era of ‘flower power’ and hippies; the writer would have been wearing a colourful kaftan rather than a sober white soutane. One conservative commentator called it ‘breathless’ – which I take to mean over-excited, naively enthusiastic.[ii]

But ‘cosmic’ has a deep meaning here. The point seems to be that daily existence in the Amazon region encompasses all the key relational aspects of what it is to be human – environmental, cultural, social and spiritual. And that these aspects – all of which are treated in detail in the Exhortation – are held in a proper, life-giving balance; a balance which stems from the closeness of the relationship between the people and nature. This is clear from the last sentence of the paragraph: “Th[e] insistence that “everything is connected” is particularly true of a territory like the Amazon region.”

We have lost, to a large extent, the relational aspects of our human nature and have thus become environmentally, socially, culturally and spiritually alienated – from each other and from our Creator.

I think Francis is pointing out the degree to which we in the industrialised, consumerist, secular and disconnected world have gone astray. For a large part of the world’s people, daily existence is far from a cosmic experience. It is fearful, fragmented, precarious and self-absorbed. We have lost, to a large extent, the relational aspects of our human nature and have thus become environmentally, socially, culturally and spiritually alienated – from each other and from our Creator.

There is of course a risk here of romanticising life in the indigenous communities of the Amazon. We surely do not want to resurrect the ‘noble savage’ myth or to pretend that, as long as these communities are left alone, their lives will be idyllic. They have diseases, they endure harsh conditions, they have rivalries and disputes, sometimes violent, over territory and access to resources, and no doubt some of their inter-personal relationships are problematic. Individual autonomy and choice of the kind that we in the West take for granted, is often sublimated in such societies to the needs of the community, or to the wishes of the communal authorities.

But the greater risk – which the document continually warns against – is that the Amazon’s valuable and enduring lessons in how to live an integral life, a truly cosmic existence, will be lost in the rush to exploit the riches of the region and to ‘civilise’ its communities. And the same is true, obviously, of many similar regions here in Africa and elsewhere, where powerful people’s selfishness leaves no room for an appreciation of the cosmic.   

Poetry as a new paradigm

4. “Poetry gives voice to a painful sensation shared by many of us today.” (Para 47)

The Exhortation quotes from a number of poets, few of them, as far as I know, writing from a specifically religious position and some of them, according to what Cardinal Raymond Burke has been told, “very radical in a non-Christian way.”[iii] I wouldn’t know about that, but certainly Pablo Neruda was not considered a friend of the Church in his native Chile.

“Those poets, contemplatives and prophets, help free us from the technocratic and consumerist paradigm that destroys nature and robs us of a truly dignified existence.” 

pope francis, querida amazonia

I suspect that something has been lost in translation occasionally, since some of the poetry is stilted and difficult to grasp (“Amazonas, capital of the syllables of water…”?), but that is not the point. The use of poetry makes the document both more reflective and more inclusive. Some of the verses do indeed describe ‘painful sensations’ but others are quite uplifting. All of them, in the way of good poetry, enable us to reflect on their subject matter in a manner that is seldom achieved by prose, let alone by the relatively dense and didactic writing that tends to characterise papal documents. The effect is refreshing.

It is also indicative of another of Francis’ themes, the need for the Church to engage with the margins and the peripheries. Why not go to the poets and the indigenous writers of a region if they have something to say that enlightens us? Even if they are not strictly within the Catholic, or even Christian, fold. As Francis puts it in the previous paragraph: “Those poets, contemplatives and prophets, help free us from the technocratic and consumerist paradigm that destroys nature and robs us of a truly dignified existence.” 

Indeed; though I would balk at the idea expressed in one of the poems that “Only poetry, with its humble voice, will be able to save this world.”

 The ‘proper’ place of women?

5. “Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother.” (Para 101)

To my mind paragraphs 99 to 103, under the heading ‘The strength and gift of women’, are deeply disappointing. Even Francis, despite his reforming zeal, cannot free himself from the shackles of misogyny and patriarchy. And because of that, this section is characterised by sophistry on the one hand, and condescension on the other.

We read that admitting women to Holy Orders “would lead us to clericalise women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.” Why ordaining women would diminish the value of their accomplishments, or make their contribution less effective, is simply not explained; and it is hard to think of an explanation since, quite evidently, ordaining men is not regarded as negating their accomplishments and contributions. Or, more specifically, ordaining some men does not prevent other men from making all sorts of contributions to the Church; why should it be different for women?

READ – Querida Amazonia – radical call to ecological conversion misses the boat on women, 18 February 2020 // spotlight.africa

Perhaps clericalism is the danger? Then address clericalism, instead of pretending that it is an implacable foe from which women must be sheltered. This argument is akin to justifying racial segregation on the basis that black people would otherwise acquire the bad habits of whites. And, indeed, Apartheid apologists did exactly that, claiming disingenuously that black people would thrive (in a way that was properly theirs!) only if kept separate from whites. That such separation meant – and was intended to mean – subservience was conveniently overlooked.

The notion that, in the Church, women have a ‘proper’ or ‘typical’ role runs like a refrain in these five paragraphs. As noted above, women must “make their contribution […] in a way that is properly theirs”; they have a “kind of power that is typically theirs”; there are “forms of service and charisms that are proper to women”; women “should have access to positions [not Holy Orders] that can better signify the role that is theirs”; finally, women should be allowed to influence decisions in the Church community “in a way that reflects their womanhood.”        

It is like reading one of those florid Victorian domestic novelists who loved to draw humble characters who knew their ‘proper’ place, and villains who didn’t. Why is our Church almost the last bastion of this outdated, archaic thinking? (I leave aside other, even more reactionary denominations and faiths.) What other field of human organisation in the civilised world still clings to these discredited notions? Not politics, or business, or the law, or the arts, or academia, or sport, or science. In all these areas the realisation dawned some time ago that there is no ‘proper’ or ‘typical’ public or institutional role for women, and that to suggest that there is invariably an attempt to cling to patriarchal power or to disguise misogynistic feelings.

It is beyond sad that the Exhortation should have dealt with women in the Church this way. It would have been better if Francis had simply not mentioned the issue at all, as he did with the celibacy question.

Certainly, many of the problems identified and the solutions proposed could equally well be applied to our continent.

So these are five sentences that, for me at least, frame the document. There is much that is specific to the Amazon region, obviously, but most of it is also of universal application. Certainly, many of the problems identified and the solutions proposed could equally well be applied to our continent. Despite its depressing treatment of women in the Church, it is an uplifting and inspiring essay, and hopefully it will be taken seriously well beyond the confines of Catholicism.

The challenges it identifies are immense and, politically at least, with the rise of right-wing populism in Brazil there is little sign that these challenges will be addressed honestly and constructively in the near future. But, as Francis writes in paragraph 69, “let us be fearless; let us not clip the wings of the Holy Spirit.”

Amen, and may that count for women too.


[i]http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20200202_querida-amazonia.html

[ii] https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/to-come/

[iii] https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/cardinal-burke-discusses-querida-amazonia

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Mike Pothierhttp://www.cplo.org.za
Mike Pothier is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, and Programme Manager of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in Cape Town.

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