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Reference photo: Franco Origlia/Getty

Can the Catholic Church Save the Amazon?

A dispatch from Pope Francis’s efforts to combat climate change—and to give a diminished Church a new indigenous face

On a blue-skied October Sunday morning in Rome, an 85-year-old cardinal of the Catholic Church named Cláudio Hummes celebrated mass at the stone altar of the Catacombs of Santa Domitilla, a crypt of early Christian martyrs beneath the city’s southern outskirts. Even by the standards of the Roman Church, the sepulchral ceremony ran thick with symbolism. The vestment draped around Hummes’s neck once belonged to Dom Hélder Câmara, Brazil’s “archbishop of the slums,” who famously said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” And it was at Santa Domitilla, 54 years earlier, that Câmara led the signing of the “Catacombs’ Pact of the Poor and Servant Church,” a signal event in the rise of liberation theology, a Christian-Marxist hybrid movement that for decades aligned many leading figures of the Latin clergy with popular struggles from Chile to Chiapas. 

Hummes and 40 bishops had followed Câmara’s footsteps to Santa Domitilla to renew the 1965 pact and sign another in the same vein, called the “Catacombs Pact for the Common Home.” The 2019 pact vows commitment “to an integral ecology in which all is interconnected [and] all beings are sons and daughters of the earth.” The text expresses urgency before a climate crisis driven by the “violence of a predatory and consumerist economic system” that threatens all of creation—nowhere more critically than in the supernova of life that is the Amazon rain forest. 

The bishops gathered in Rome marked the pact by singing Latin canticles, backed by indigenous attendees from Peru and Brazil who rattled shell-shakers in time. The mass had the look, sound, and politics of what Pope Francis hopes will be a Church with an “Amazonian face,” a project that could carry profound implications for an institution that claims the attention, if not quite the old allegiance, of 1.2 billion people.

Just as Câmara’s 1965 pact was signed in the final weeks of the Second Vatican Council, reflecting the reform agenda of Pope Paul VI, the 2019 sequel follows the thrust of Catholic social teaching under Pope Francis. The pact takes its name from Francis’s 2015 encyclical—On Care for Our Common Home, better known as Laudato Si—which introduced the concept of “integral ecology” to Church doctrine. Building on seven centuries of Church writings, from St. Aquinas to Pope Benedict XVI, Laudato Si makes the Catholic case for a holistic approach to climate change, inequality, resource depletion, social breakdown, pollution, and development. It put a radical concept at the center of an institution not known for radicalism. 

Integral ecology was the animating idea behind last month’s Synod on the Amazon, a 21-day convocation of senior clergy that brought 185 bishops and cardinals, including the signatories to the Catacombs Pact, to Rome. The gathering was the fourth synod of Francis’s papacy. But this one was different. Along with the usual red and pink skullcaps, the synodal chamber featured the headdresses of dozens of indigenous “auditors” from the Amazon, invited by the Pope not to be baptized, but in a spirit of reconciliation and humilitus.

The overture was a clear expression of the ethos of Laudato Si. As developed in Francis’s signature encyclical, integral ecology demands “a new and universal solidarity” that approaches nature with “openness to awe and wonder” and fights to replace fossil fuels “without delay.” By seeking to address the spiritual dimension of humanity’s predicament, the idea complements secular conversations happening around the need for new social and economic thinking in the face of the climate crisis. Just about any section of Laudato Si could have been excerpted in the Extinction Rebellion Handbook.   

Francis’s vision as expressed in the October synod naturally has its skeptics and outright opponents. Many would-be secular allies see the Church as a deeply compromised force for moral leadership. There are reactionary Catholics who fear any adulteration of “divine revelation” and what they consider the Church’s narrow evangelical mission. There are Amazonian governments, notably that of the right-wing strongman Jair Bolsonaro, who bristle at outside attention and involvement in regional land conflicts. And there are, of course, the myriad corporate interests that would prefer the Church to stick to the business of saving souls.

For the Pope’s enemies within the Church, the Amazon Synod was a parade of horrors. Days after the June release of its working document, or Instrumentum Laboris, the German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller wrote that the agenda constituted a “heretical” attack on the “hierarchical-sacramental constitution of the Church.” The Pope’s respectful inclusion of indigenous cultures in a discussion of Church doctrine and reforms—“getting out of the boat of colonialism and into the canoes,” as one bishop put it—was for the 90-year-old prelate an “apostasy” that reduced the Church to “a secular NGO with an ecological-social-psychological mandate.”

Pope Francis receives a plant from an Amazon native as he celebrates the closing mass of the Synod on Amazonia on October 27, 2019, at Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Andreas Solaro/AFP/ Getty

A week before the synod opened, the U.S. Archbishop Raymond Burke, in a First Things interview with Sohrab Ahmari, repeated Brandmüller’s charge of apostasy and assailed the notion that the Church “should learn from the culture [of the Amazon]” as a wicked role reversal that “denies the fact that the Church brings the message of Christ, who alone is our salvation.”

Then came the synod’s opening ceremony, followed by a metaphorical—and, for some traditionalists, literal—breaking loose of all hell. 

On the afternoon of October 4, the Pope consecrated the synod to St. Francis of Assisi at a service in the Vatican Gardens. Following a Catholic liturgy, a delegation of indigenous women performed a prayer for the Earth and presented the Pope with three small, wood-carved statuettes of pregnant women, which they carried aloft in a canoe. The Pope blessed the rough-hewn figures, described by one of the women as “Our Lady of the Amazon.”  

When images of the ceremony hit the internet, conservative Catholic commentators rent their garments over the sacrilege of “pagan idols” in the Vatican Gardens. Where the assembled bishops saw symbols of fertility and maternity, traditionalist websites saw the “naked demon Pachamama” and “a dragon smuggled into the Vatican in the guise of a woman.” In a post titled “The Pachamama Pope,” Rod Dreher of The American Conservative wondered if the statues didn’t herald the fulfillment of an end-times prophecy known as the “abomination of desolation in the temple.”

During the synod, the statues were put on display at the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina, a basilica near the Vatican. They remained there until the predawn hours of October 21, when they were stolen by two men who traveled to Rome from Austria after reading about the “idols” on conservative Catholic websites. Because the culprits posted a video on YouTube showing where they threw the three statues into the Tiber River, they were recovered the next day. The Pope asked forgiveness for the theft, his second public apology to the synod’s indigenous guests in as many weeks.

The conservative outrage on display during the synod was about much more than the Pope’s blessing of a few wooden fertility statues, or even the project of an Amazonian church reflecting local cultures and sensibilities. The synod was centered around a larger debate suggesting a general recalibration of the role of women in local ministries and, perhaps eventually, the Church hierarchy. This was reflected in the makeup of the synod—an unprecedented 39 women took part, including lay Catholics, nuns, and nine indigenous women. 

The latter brought an earthiness that was previously unknown to the stiff, rarefied atmosphere of Vatican debate. This was especially true of Anitalia Pijachi, a Huitoto woman from the rain forests of southern Colombia, whose frank speech earned her the unofficial synodal nickname “Terror of the Bishops.” Early in the sessions, she reminded every man in the room, including the Pope, exactly how they came into the world. It was very likely the first-ever use of the word “vagina” in a synodal chamber. This was as the Pope intended. At the opening session, he told participants to speak with parrhesia, a Greek word for testifying boldly and without fear.

Much of the media coverage of the synod focused on the conversations around allowing married priests and female deacons to administer sacraments in remote regions of the Amazon. But dwelling too narrowly on these marquee doctrinal debates risked missing their larger significance. The absorption, or “incultration” in Church terms, of indigenous culture and spirituality in Amazonian churches promises—or, depending on your politics, threatens—to exert a feminizing and democratizing influence on the Latin Church and beyond.

“We must reinterpret the traditions and give women the role that belongs to them,” said Eleazar Lopez Hernandez, an indigenous Catholic priest and leader in the movement of indigenous clergy from Tehuantepec, Mexico.

“The mercy and tenderness of Mary helped indigenous cultures in Latin America understand Jesus from a female perspective, because in the ancestral Mesoamerican religions, the father and mother together generate life,” said Hernandez, who wore a Zapotec patterned coat over his black clergy shirt and priest’s collar. “It’s time to recover this and be in tune with local traditions, with reverence expressed in local schemes. The wisdom of indigenous people is valid, it predates the Church, and it will help the world.” 

Indigenous leaders take part in a procession with prelates on October 19, 2019.
Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty

The final synod document recommends several reforms and conceptual refinements related to the role of women in the church. Quoting Francis and Paul VI, it advises the church to strengthen female participation and leadership in pastoral councils and government, and “recognize them as protagonists and guardians of creation and our ‘common home.’” It pledges to fight abuse and trafficking in the region, and notes that “the ancestral wisdom of the peoples affirms that mother earth has a feminine face.”

This is no squishy theological shift. In 2018, two indigenous people were killed every week in the Amazon fighting to protect its forests and rivers. Bearing witness in the region is a bloody business and not a pursuit for anyone feeling skittish about martyrdom. (One of the longest-running records of this violence is maintained by the Brazilian Church’s Pastoral Land Commission, created in the mid-1970s, at the crest of liberation theology.)

This was the message delivered in Rome by Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader from Ecuador living under a state protection program due to death threats from local loggers. She described the atmosphere of violence while standing beneath photos of Amazon Church martyrs that lined the walls of the synodal chamber. Among them was the image of Sister Dorothy Stang, an Ohio-born nun and candidate for patron saint of the Amazonian Church. In 2005, Stang was shot six times at close range by two cattlemen on a remote road in Para, Brazil. According to a witness, she opened her Bible and read proverbs from the Beatitudes to her killers as they took aim with their weapons.

It was a Brazilian bishop at the synod who noted, “It is not for lack of holiness that we don’t have female priests.”

The movement to canonize Stang is a good reminder that culture-war bloggers and the odd traditionalist cardinal are not the real enemies of a Church with an Amazonian face. Francis and the bishops are vowing spiritual war against earthly powers that defend their interests with lawyers and lobbyists, with investments in think tanks and media networks, and with guns and armies.   

The earliest critics of the synod were the far-right president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and members of his inner circle. In February, the general who runs Brazil’s domestic intelligence told a São Paulo newspaper, “We are worried, and we want to neutralize this thing.” Inside the Vatican, rumors circulated that Brazil had sent agents to Rome to monitor synod participants. 

It’s easy to see why Bolsonaro is troubled: Polls show that 85 percent of Brazil’s 123 million Catholics see destroying the Amazon as a sin. Nor is Bolsonaro’s the only government in the region displeased by the prospect of a globally connected and environmentally committed Amazonian Church.

“Opposition will grow,” said Patricia Gualinga, the Kichwa leader from Ecuador. “Those who say the synod is an ugly thing have invested a lot of money into activities that violate our rights and communities. Many are very close to governments who back extractive industries. They are upset because we are touching their comfort.” 

“When you mess with financial power, you get backlash,” said Mauricio Lopez, executive secretary of Red Eclesial Panamazónica, or REPAM, a network of Amazonian state churches backed by the Latin American Bishops Conference. The real problem, Lopez noted, is that some of that financial power is rooted in the Church itself. “Many groups with influence inside the Church are linked to the interests that Francis is denouncing,” he said. “This synod will produce a more direct confrontation with those who want the Church to be silent or collaborate with power.”

REPAM is a network of local churches with an international reach. It has a formal relationship with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., and produces reports on violence and illegal development in the nine Amazonian countries. It is also involved with the fossil-fuels divestment campaign spearheaded by the Global Catholic Climate Movement. After the synod was announced, ten dioceses in Austria announced they would divest from fossil fuels, joining 150 other Catholic financial institutions, including Caritas and the Austrian Bishops’ Conference. The next big prize in the GCCM’s sights is the Vatican Bank and its $9 billion to $15 billion in managed assets.

 “Catholic institutions make up over 10 percent of institutions that have divested worldwide,” says Tomás Insua, the Argentinean director of the GCCM. “There is a clear moral imperative to step away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. The Pope understands this. The momentum for divestment within the Church grows every day.”

In a narrow sense, the seeds of the Amazon Synod were planted during a 2017 papal trip to the Amazon. But one could argue they were visible in Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s decision to name his papacy after the patron saint of ecology, St. Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century musician-mystic and pilgrim-preacher known for animal-whispering and his love of trees. The Pope opened his 2015 encyclical with Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures”—“Praise be to you [Laudato si’], my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us”—and returns to him throughout, describing him “as the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” 

This spirit survived a two-thirds vote and infused the final synod document presented to the Pope on October 26. Titled “Amazonia: New Ways for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” it lays out in 120 paragraphs a plan to concretely enact the agenda of Laudato Si. “The celebration ends with great joy and hope,” it reads, “of embracing and practicing the new paradigm of integral ecology, the care of the ‘common home’ and the defense of the Amazon.”

On the night before the concluding Mass, the Vatican rushed out translations of the document. Much of the press corps was still working through its pages the following morning as it waited at a side entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. Austen Ivereigh, the London-based dean of liberal Catholic journalists and a biographer of Pope Francis, seemed especially pleased. I arrived at the church to find him holding court on the virtues of the synod’s recommendations on married priests, a female deaconate, and a raft of ideas for answering “the cry of the wounded earth and its inhabitants.”

“This was the most remarkable of the many synods I’ve covered,” he told me. “The final document says that what’s happening in the Amazon is so unique and urgent that it requires bold creative thinking—the Pope kept using the verb desborde, to overflow like a river. It calls for local churches where lay people and women are actively involved in ministries. This Amazonian Church will be able to articulate the needs of indigenous people to international bodies and the national governments. You can see why Bolsonaro feels threatened. It also awakens deep fears among traditionalists who find change threatening, because they find the world threatening.”

At mass that morning, the Pope entered to the equivalent of his papal fight song, Francis of Assisi’s “Laudes Creaturarum” (Praise of the Creatures). During the offertory, an indigenous woman presented him with a potted plant from the Amazon. The simple plant remained on the altar the remainder of the service, a bright flash of color and life against the weight of so much bronze and marble.

For his homily, the Pope told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a choice widely seen as a direct message to the synod’s critics.

“The root of every spiritual error is believing ourselves to be righteous,” the Pope said. “In this synod we have had the grace of listening to the voices of [those] threatened by predatory models of development. Many have testified to us that it is possible to look at reality in a different way, accepting it with open arms as a gift, treating the created world not as a resource to be exploited but as a home to be preserved, with trust in God.” 

Everyone, including the Pope, understands the Church is a complicated and compromised ally in Latin America. Beginning with the mass tortures and genocides committed by cross-wielding Castilian conquistadors, the church has been complicit in centuries of repression and violence. This history has always overshadowed a parallel history of clergy championing indigenous rights and social justice. Last month, this shadow began to withdraw.

“This synod has transformed our relationship with the Catholic Church,” read a statement by the coordinating body of indigenous organizations of the Amazon basin, or COICA. “Five centuries after the missionaries arrived from Europe with the Portuguese and Spanish colonizers and sanctioned their treatment of us as less than human… this valiant Pope and his army of bishops and priests have promised to walk with us and help us transform a development model that endangers the entire planet.”

Skeptical secularists might consider the indigenous example as they take measure of the Church as a potential ally. The fate of retrograde Church positions on contraception, abortion, and gay marriage won’t be decided in the next 20 years, but the fate of the Amazon will be. The Church is set to play a pivotal role in this fight. In doing so, it can also breathe new life into conversations around the moral and spiritual dimensions of the current crisis—conversations about the void at the center of a consumer economy that is driving the world to ruin.

The Pope’s traditionalist critics are wrong to describe integral ecology as a left-wing project of the Latin Church—liberation theology with a green NGO façade. It is actually a blueprint for a much more profound transformation, premised on a rejection of the materialist worldview shared by left and right alike. It challenges extractivist governments in La Paz, Guayaquil, and Lima as much as the one in Brasilia. It asks that wealth be created, shared, and consumed in new ways, everywhere.

It is, in other words, a monumental project on the scale of ancient Rome, to be completed in a very short amount of time. The odds are not great. But providing the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon with a megaphone the size of the Catholic Church is a good start. And if the Pope can’t throw a Hail Mary, who can?