An Ecological Reading of the Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region

By: Guillermo Kerber

November 15, 2019

Religious Responses to the Amazon Rainforest Fires

The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, held in Rome from October 6 to 27, 2019, has had media impact mainly due to two proposals: the ordination of married men and the expansion of ministries (including diaconate) to incorporate women. The first proposal is, according to the final document, “to establish criteria and dispositions … to ordain to the priesthood suitable men who have already legitimately constituted a stable family, are held in esteem by the community” (§ 111) [1]. The second proposal encourages a revision to present dispositions “so that adequately formed and prepared women might also receive the ministries of acolyte and lector, among the others they are already able to carry out” (§ 102). The document also reminds that the request to open the permanent diaconate to women has been expressed by various preparatory consultations in the region (§ 103).

The point here is not to analyze these proposals so highlighted by the media, but to stress how the synod has become a concrete example of “integral ecology” in the Catholic Church. Integral ecology, a concept used often in the document (22 times), “links the exercise of care of nature with that of justice for the most impoverished and disadvantaged on earth, who are God’s preferred option in the history of revelation” (§ 66). Integral ecology was the proposal of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, where the concept includes scientific, social, cultural, and human ecology and stresses the fact that “everything is interconnected.” 

According to the final document of the synod, “facing the pressing situation of the planet and the Amazon, integral ecology is not another way that the Church can choose for the future in this territory, it is the only possible way, because there is no other viable path to save the region” (§ 67). Consequently, the Church, as part of the international community, should advocate for the recognition of the “central role of the Amazonian biome for the balance of the planet's climate, encouraging the international community to provide new economic resources for its protection and the promotion of a fair and supportive development model, with the prominence and direct participation of local communities and native peoples in all phases from the approach to the implementation, also strengthening the tools already developed by the (UN Framework) Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)” (§ 68).

This role of the Church is based on the acknowledgment of the dramatic situation of destruction of the Pan-Amazon region: the disappearance of its territory and its inhabitants, especially indigenous peoples (§ 2). The beauty of the region has been deformed by threats to life such as the privatization of natural goods, predatory models of production, deforestation, unsustainable mega projects, pollution from extractive industries, dumps, and above all climate change. Together with these environmental challenges, social consequences of the crisis have been identified: drug trafficking, alcoholism, violence against women, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, the loss of indigenous cultures and identities, criminalization of leaders and defenders of the territory. “Victims are the most vulnerable sectors of the society: children, youth, women, and sister-mother earth” (§ 10). 

Special attention is given to human mobility in the region. Together with the traditional displacement of indigenous communities from their territories in recent times, we have witnessed the forced displacement of indigenous populations, international migration, and the increase of refugees who flee from devastated countries due to natural catastrophes or political conflicts (§ 12, 13, 29).

Despite this negative and even critical situation, the voice and the song of the Amazon region is a message of life. Water and earth in the region nurture and sustain nature, life, and the cultures of hundreds of indigenous communities, peasants, people of African descent, mestizos, settlers, and inhabitants of urban centers. The search for abundant life and “good living” (buen vivir) of indigenous peoples in multiethnic and multicultural societies is an expression of living in harmony with oneself, with nature, with other human beings, and with the supreme being. There is intercommunication between the whole cosmos, where there are not excluders and excluded but the possibility to forge together a common project of full life for all (§ 6 – 9).

It is interesting to note that the final document uses expressions which belong not to the Christian tradition, but to indigenous beliefs, such as, as shown in the previous paragraph, supreme being (§ 9) and especially mother earth (§ 10, 25, 101). There is a clear recognition of the need for interfaith dialogue: “In the Amazon, interreligious dialogue takes place especially with indigenous religions and Afro-descendant cults. These traditions deserve to be known, understood in their own expressions and in their relationship with the forest and mother earth. Together with them, Christians…engage in dialogue, sharing their lives, their concerns, their struggles, their experiences of God, to deepen each other's faith and to act together in defense of the common home…Sincere and respectful dialogue is the bridge towards the construction of ‘good living’” (§ 25).

Ecumenical dialogue plays a key role in the document (§ 23). Despite the fact that relations between Catholics, Pentecostals, Charismatic Christians, and Evangelicals have not been easy in the region, “ecumenical, interreligious, and intercultural dialogue must be assumed as an indispensable way of evangelization in the Amazon region” (§ 24). Furthermore, although not mentioned explicitly, the proposal of the document to stress ecological sin has been a key contribution of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who already in 1997 expressed: 

"For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands; for humans to injure other humans with disease; for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances: these are sins" [2].

The final document defines “ecological sin as an action and omission against God, against the neighbor, the community and the environment. It is a sin against future generations and manifests itself in acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment, transgressions against the principles of interdependence and the breaking of solidarity networks between creatures” (§ 82). 

Two key concepts are included in the titles of all chapters: conversion and new ways. Conversion is developed as integral conversion, pastoral conversion, cultural conversion, ecological conversion, and synodal conversion. Both concepts refer to the indispensable change needed in the region, but also in the whole world. Therefore, the document—which is not a final word but a milestone in a synodal process which started years ago and will continue in the coming years—contributes the perspective of relevant actors in the region to address some of the critical challenges we face. 

  1. At the time of drafting this article, the English version of the final document of the synod is still not available. I translated from the original Spanish version
  2. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “A Rich Heritage: Address During the Environmental Symposium in Santa Barbara, November 8, 1997,” in Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I, ed. John Chryssavgis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 190.
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