What Does the Catholic Church’s Patriarchal Structure Have to Do with the Failure of the Amazon Synod?

Feminist liberationists have long claimed that discrimination against women is the model for favoring the power of elites over the rest with negative consequences worldwide. The Amazonian Synod only reinforced the claim. The mistakes were breathtakingly obvious and relatively easy to fix.

A representative of one of the Amazon Rainforest's ethnic groups attends the morning session, on the second day of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region on October 8, 2019 in the Vatican. ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images

The recent Synod in Rome, the “Special Assembly for the Amazon of the Synod of Bishops,” focused on the topic “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology” with controversial and less than optimum results. The outcome was not a surprise because church-related discrimination created a costly missed opportunity for a dying planet. If the Catholic house were in order, its impact on climate change would increase exponentially.

The Synod of Bishops was established in 1965, after Vatican II, to include bishops in decision-making with the Pope. Modifications have been made by subsequent popes and themes vary, but ‘synodality’ as it’s called, is meant to foster collegialityalbeit among only a tiny segment. For example, a 2018 synod focused on “Young People,” and in 2015 on the “Family.” Both of those fell far short of the mark as well because neither young people nor those living in families were allowed to vote on the final document. The result was that the institutional church lost what little credibility it started with on both topics.

Synods have a preparatory phase when consultation with a broader audience takes place; followed by a celebratory phase which is what the meeting just completed in Rome focused on the Amazon was; and finally, an implementation phase when the Pope considers the conclusions from the Synod, and then writes his own statement that becomes the way forward for local churches worldwide. Ironically, rather than being collaborative, in the final analysis the Synod is advisory with the Pope making the final call. Elections have consequences.

At best, such a meeting is a way to gather data, hear various ideas, and make changes that could move the Roman Catholic monolith into a new century (I leave it to the reader to speculate on which century). At worst, these meetings become one more occasion to reinforce and reinscribe a hierarchical model of church with bishops in league with the pontiff to make few if any substantive structural changes, indeed to keep change at bay as it turns out too often.

Regrettably, this was what happened in Rome of late. The crucial needs of a planet in trouble were addressed. But the fact that church men are still arguing over women’s roles and the marital status of priests meant that focus was distracted. I surmise that people from the Amazon region went home wiser about what not to expect from Rome, and confirmed in their conviction that they need to be church on their own terms. If there is any upside, it’s that those who have significant financial resources to work for change (on women, for example) learned that not even loads of money can change a patriarchal church. The ultimate losers were the people of the Amazon and the planet because the Roman Catholic Church is simply too compromised internally, between sex abuse and discrimination, to have enough moral credibility for governments or corporations to take it seriously. Why should they? It will be Catholics in small communities that have any clout whatever, especially at the ballot box.

The preparatory document circulated before the gathering showed real promise. There was, in the preamble, explicit acknowledgement that the Amazon is but one of many places threatened by colonialism, commercialism, and corruption:

“The Special Synod’s reflections transcend the strictly ecclesial-Amazonian sphere, because they focus on the universal Church, as well as on the future of the entire planet. We begin with a specific geographical area in order to build a bridge to the other important biomes of our world: the Congo basin, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the tropical forests of the Asia Pacific region, and the Guarani Aquifer, among others.”

This approach shows how a global organization can be useful.

The Amazon, the so-called “lungs of the universe,” is seen to be on life support given the ways in which the land has been exploited by developers and the people have been robbed of their culture:

“The Amazon Basin encompasses one of our planet’s largest reserves of biodiversity (30 to 50% of the world’s flora and fauna) and freshwater (20% of the world’s fresh water). It constitutes more than a third of the planet’s primary forests andalthough the oceans are the largest carbon sinksthe Amazon’s work of carbon sequestration is quite significant. It covers more than seven and a half million square kilometers, and 9 countries share this great Biome (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela, including French Guyana as an overseas territory).” [Section 1]

Yet those countries taken together comprise one of the poorest regions on Earth and the ecosystem described is in meltdown.

There are many reasons why the Catholic Church focused on the Amazon. Of global significance, the impact of losing the ecological richness and diversity of the Amazon region is incalculable according to scientists.

“As habitat destruction trends interact with climate change, the concern is that the Amazon will be caught up in a set of ‘feedback loops’ that could dramatically speed up the pace of forest loss and degradation and bring the Amazon Biome to a point of no return. This threshold, also referred to as a tipping point, may occur when Amazonian forests die and are progressively replaced by fireprone brush and savanna (ecological tipping point), and rainfall is inhibited on a regional scale (climatic tipping point).”

Implications for climate change and global warming astound, not to mention the loss of life and culture among the region’s inhabitants.

On an ecclesial level, the Church has long had missioners working in the Amazon on the side of people made poor and a planet ravaged by greed. For example, American Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who later became a Brazilian citizen in light of her commitment, was deeply involved in helping small farmers maintain their land rights and in opposing big business. She was murdered for her efforts.

Another factor for the choice of the Amazon was that the Catholic Church is rapidly losing market share to evangelical Protestants there. Given that it hasn’t respected the local culture when it comes to church matters, this is not unexpected. Many parishes in the millions of square kilometers see a priest for Eucharist and Confession once a year at most. Daily pastoral needs are fulfilled largely by lay people, the majority women, who are not considered ‘fit matter’ for ordination, and by male deacons who are married. Ironically, tragically, these internal church matters that can easily be changed by papal fiat remain stumbling blocks to the institution’s potential impact on climate change.

Feminist liberationists have long claimed that discrimination against women is the model for top-down, over-against ways of thinking that structure power for elites over the rest with negative consequences worldwide. The Amazonian Synod only reinforced the claim. The mistakes were breathtakingly obvious and relatively easy to fix.

Start with the center-periphery model. Rome is the center; the Amazon is the periphery. A proper meeting about the region would have been held in the region, not in Rome. That way, bishops from around the world would have been in the minority, experiencing Amazonian culture on its own terms in all of its specificity, generosity, and struggle for survival. Some Roman types were heard to demean the Amazonian guests’ choice of headgear, claiming their cultural superiority over those from the periphery. I doubt any local citizens in Manaus would have commented on the bishops’ headwear. Power dynamics begin with place, so going to the Amazon would have spoken volumes.  

Moreover, if feminists were involved, the meeting would not have been of a group of 180+ bishops even though they were said to represent the whole church. It would have been, and could have been by Pope Francis’ choice, a meeting of the whole church made up of delegates from all sectors, privileging the lay majority. Instead, this event maintained the outmoded monarchical model of church that is driving people to the doors. 

Several dozen women, deeply experienced in ministry and administration, were auditors but not voting members of the Synod. This is clericalism writ large. It was made worse by the fact that one religious brother, canonically equivalent to a sister but with different anatomy, was allowed to vote. How much longer will Catholics tolerate the senseless injustice of ecclesial sexism, which the Pope could change with the stroke of a pen? No wonder the evangelical churches are gaining adherents.

Questions of this sort distracted from the ecological focus of the Synod. The matter of male deacons being ordained as priests even though they are married was discussed. The point was simple: you can’t have it both ways—regular celebration of the Eucharist and a celibate priesthood. Men in the region aren’t interested in making a commitment to celibacy. The few who become priests fly/drive/walk around a huge area to dispense the sacraments like one more product. It’s a hideous theological model—the community gathered in thanksgiving and not the presence of a priest constitutes Eucharist—and a futile struggle for the Roman model.

Another issue that arose was the ordination of women as deacons. By all accounts, women already do the greatest share of the pastoral work in the region. They realize that unless the ecclesiology is flattened out from a pyramid to interlocking circles with commensurate theological change, it will be important for their ministry that they be ordained so they can function fully and effectively.

These issues, while important in principle and to fulfill pastoral needs, pale next to the needs of the planet. In the final document there is support for married men to be ordained as priests. If so, the result will still keep the fundamental ecclesial model and theological understanding of Eucharist rather than empower people to be agents of their own religious faith. This smacks of the same colonialism of the corrupt business people in the region, in that a few make decisions for the many. One step forward, two steps back.

The ordination of women deacons was relegated in the final document to further study, as if years of scholarship about women deacons in the Early Church had never been published. Pope Francis has made his theo-politics on the question quite clear. In 2016, he joked by quoting an Argentine president who said: “when you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission.” So he appointed such a group to explore the question in 2016. In May 2019, the pope reported that the group agreed on little, and gave their findings to the International Union of Superiors General, which requested the Commission in the first place. Francis announced then that he would reconvene the group, perhaps with other/additional members. Oddly, at the end of the Synod he seemed to suggest that on the basis of the Synod’s discussion he would reconvene the same study group that he had already announced earlier he would reconvene.

No breath-holding here for women to have any significant power any time soon. In fact, there’s every reason for women to push for equality not just in diaconate and presbyterate, but episcopacy and papacy. If Synods are for a world church, there are surely women in the world at least as competent for those jobs as men. But patriarchy is pernicious and pervasive.

A hate crime took place in Rome on October 21, 2019. Two men entered the Church of Saint Mary in Traspontina where visiting Amazonian Catholics and their supporters had decorated a side altar. Candles, carvings of birds, and other objects representing religious and ecological concerns were a focal point for prayer. Included among the symbols were copies of a wooden statue of a pregnant woman depicting “life, fertility, Mother Earth” as reported by Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communications in the Vatican. The two men stole the wooden art pieces, carried them brazenly to the Tiber River, and tossed them in as a way of expressing their contempt for what they consider the pagan ways of the Amazonian people, symbolized of course by a woman.

The whole despicable incident was caught on video and shown on social media to the delight and applause of some ultra-conservative Catholics. They were edified by the nerve and alleged fidelity of the two men from Vienna, Austria who saw it as their duty to rid the church of “pagan” influences. Right-wing critic Taylor Marshall tweeted that it was “an act of obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ & in reparation to his Sacred Heart wounded by sin.”

Catholic conservatives understand that some images, especially female images, are simply too powerful to risk having around lest change follow.

The original wooden statue was called “Our Lady of the Amazon,” a representation of Mary similar to Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Lujan, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. Like the others, it’s reminiscent of the Incan Pachamama, a goddess, with deep symbolic Christian Catholic meaning to those who took it to Rome. The Red Ecclesial Panamazonica, REPAM, an umbrella organization of church groups and bishops from the region, issued a strong condemnation: “In recent days, we have been victims of acts of violence, reflecting religious intolerance, racism, humiliation against indigenous peoples above all.” It’s no coincidence that the statues were of a pregnant female, an all-too-vivid reminder of how women in general and Earth in particular are treated. So much for pro-life claims.

The institutional Roman Catholic Church has created these problems for itself over long centuries of misogyny and resistance to recent decades of good faith efforts to open the ranks of ministry and decision-making to all. Alas, the shortsightedness of patriarchs who fear the loss of their power, the revelation of their corruption on clergy sexual abuse and its coverup, and an end to their dubious financial dealing, have aborted the Catholic community’s full potential to take on the current climate catastrophe in any credible and effective way.

I’m not arguing that the full equal participation of all Catholics of whatever gender or marital status in their own church will heal the planet. But I am sure that, with continued recalcitrance on the part of church officials to changing models and mores, the impact of that religion’s powerful teachings (for example, Laudato Si) on care of Earth, sharing in creation, and securing rights for those who are made poor and marginalized will be truncated forever. Such a church can rest in peace as its successors, led by formerly marginalized people, take on the urgent tasks at hand.