Filipe Maia – « The Pan-Amazon Synod »

Filipe Maia « The Pan-Amazon Synod »

It seems appropriate, possibly providential, that just weeks after the fires broke in the Amazon forest in July 2019 bringing the region to international attention, Roman Catholic leaders, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples gathered in the Vatican for the Pan-Amazon Synod. The gathering responds to the urgency that environmental catastrophe poses for life on the planet and places the Church in a prophetic position as a proclaimer of justice in light of the ‘cry of the earth and of the poor.’[1]

Pope Francis convoked the Synod in October 2017 and envisioned that it would give the Church a chance to discuss the Amazon region and re-encounter its mission in the area. The three-week long Synod, held in the Vatican in October 2019, welcomed church authorities from nine countries whose territories contain portions of the Amazon forest, in addition to a host of representatives from the more than 390 ethnic groups present in the region. In the Synod’s opening mass, Pope Francis called the church to a ‘daring prudence’ to ‘renew paths of the Church in Amazonia’ and closed his homily echoing the words of Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, stating that the Amazon territory is holy ground where the memories of missionaries is preserved for their fight on behalf of the forest and its peoples.[2]

The synodal Instrumentum laboris adopts the familiar approach of seeing-judging-acting espoused by Latin American liberation theologians. The document opens with a chapter on ‘The Voice of the Amazon’, moves to an eco-theological session calling for an ‘Integral Ecology’, and concludes with a call to action, ‘A Prophetic Church in the Amazon’. The Synod minces no words when it demands an ‘integral ecological conversion’ from the Church (Instrumentum laboris 5). Data included in the document shows that nothing short of a conversion could properly address the situation in the Amazon region. Experts place Amazonia as the second most vulnerable habitat in the planet, next only to the Arctic. A 4°C increase in temperature and/or a 40% level of deforestation can lead to points of no return toward desertification. In 2018, leading Brazilian climate scientist, Carlos Nobre, and renowned biologist Thomas Lovejoy argued that desertification in the Amazon could be expected to begin when deforestation reaches 20-25% of the Amazon area.[3]After the fires and the extravagant increase of deforestation rates in August 2019, Nobre fears a tipping point is dangerously close.[4]

Needless to say, the effects of this would be devastating, environmentally and socially. The Synod ably connects data on deforestation with the social reality of Amazonia: the criminalization and assassination of indigenous leaders, lack of public policies for land demarcation, appropriation and privatization of natural goods, destruction of the forest for large ‘development’ projects, pollution, alcoholism, human trafficking, etc. These are symptoms of what Pope Francis addressed as ‘disconnection’ and ‘indifference’ to the cries of the earth and of the poor (Laudato Si’ 49, 91). For Francis, the ecological crisis demands an integral approach. 

The Synod acknowledges that this holistic attitude will be met with resistance from ‘[economic] interests and a technocratic paradigm [that] rebuff[s] any attempt to change’ (Instrumentum laboris 41). These interests are indeed paramount in Amazonia. In light of lowering oil prices, Venezuela adopted an aggressive policy to incentivize mining in the Amazon region, which included the concession of lands to Chinese mining companies. Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru continue to wrestle with criminal fires in its Amazon regions and the influence of groups that seek to clear the forest for farming and cattle raising, a criminal activity that often goes unchallenged by government officials. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, for example, was pressured to suspend a law that authorizes ‘controlled fires’ in Amazonia. In all these cases, the ‘technocratic paradigm’ and the need to ‘develop’ the region continue to be the driving force justifying the destruction of forest areas.  

Brazil, a country whose territory embraces more than 60% of the Amazon forest, is currently a key site of the anti-environmentalist agenda. Guided by its newly elected, far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian political authorities have carefully scrutinized the Pan-Amazon Synod. Elected for office in October 2018, Bolsonaro ran a campaign that promised not a ‘single additional millimeter’ of land demarcations for indigenous peoples and loose environmental regulations, all the while publicly endorsing agrobusiness mammoths that eye the Amazon as a site for massive profit-making. Bolsonaro’s cabinet secretary for institutional security, General Augusto Heleno, portrayed the Synod as a ‘leftist’ threat to national security and warned against international interference in Brazilian domestic policies.[5]  Reports indicate that the government spied on Brazilian Bishops and others involved with the planning of the Synod.[6]

Internationally, ultraconservative Catholic groups voice criticism of what they perceive as ‘neopagan’ religious ideas stated in the Instrumentum laboris for the Amazon Synod. One such report indicts the document of espousing ‘syncretism’ and, worse still, ‘apostasy or false religion’.[7] Such critics possibly eye the important positions assumed by the Synod with respect to the importance of an Amazonian indigenous theology, which shall incorporate the ‘original myths, traditions, symbols, knowledge, rites and celebrations that include transcendent, community and ecological dimensions’ (Instrumentum laboris 98). The synodal final document insists on the importance of inculturation, both theological and liturgical, and it offers some practical recommendations in that regard.  

Another topic addressed by synodal documents that gained significant attention is the call to integrate social and ecological concerns with women’s struggles. The Synod’s final document includes a request for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate while acknowledging the crucial role women continue to play in the struggle for the environment in Amazonia.[8] This is far from good news for women who have sought recognition for their ministries in the Roman Catholic Church, but it is certainly a promising outcome of the Synod’s deliberations. The ability to connect pastoral needs in Amazonia, the leadership of women, and environmental justice is perhaps the greatest blow of fresh air the Synod offers to the Church. 

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who writes extensively on theology and the environment, portrayed the Synod as ushering in a ‘new type of presence of the Church in the Americas’ and a new ‘degree of consciousness’ about the importance of Amazonia for the Earth’s climate and for the future of life in the planet.[9] Boff perceives the Synod as the fruitful result of Pope Francis’ courageous leadership, perhaps best exemplified by his 2015-speech in Bolivia, where he famously asked for forgiveness ‘not only for the offenses of the Church, but also for the crimes committed against indigenous peoples during the so-called conquest of the Americas’.[10] As Boff suggests, these statements are materialized in the efforts of the Pan-Amazon Synod.   And they might be symbolized by an auspicious moment at the conclusion of the Synod. On October 20, a group of Bishops and participants gathered at the Catacombs of Domitila in Rome and affirmed their commitment to listening to the cry of the earth and of the poor. The event is reminiscent of a similar gathering at the concluding session of Vatican II where Bishops, led by Archbishop Hélder Cámara, firmed the ‘Pact of the Catacombs’ and swore to commit their lives and ministries to the poor, a commitment known to have helped the birth of liberation theologies. The pact firmed in the gathering of 2019, ‘Pact of the Catacombs for the Common Home’, might be our hope for the dawning of a new prophetic era for the Church. This may be our hope for a fresh wind of the Spirit, blowing from the crevices of the Amazon. 

[1] The expression was first proposed by Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997, and is repeated in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’.  

[2] Pope Francis, ‘Homily of Pope Francis, Holy Mass for the opening of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region’, 6 October 2019.

[3] Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, ‘Amazon Tipping Point’, Science Advances, 4.2 (2018): eaat2340, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aat2340.

[4] Dom Phillips, ‘Amazon Rainforest “Close to Irreversible Tipping Point”’, The Guardian, 23 October 2019.

[5] Eduardo Campos Lima, ‘Eyeing Amazon Synod, Brazil Accuses Church of “Leftist Agenda”’, National Catholic Reporter, 26 February 2019.

[6] Tânia Monteiro, ‘Planalto vê Igreja Católica como potencial opositora’, O Estado de São Paulo, 10 February 2019.

[7] Charles Pope, ‘Don’t Be Tempted by False Gardens – We Preach Christ Crucified’, Pan-Amazon Synod Watch (blog), 18 October 2019.

[8] See Vatican News, ‘Amazon Synod: The Church Committed to Be an Ally with Amazonia’, Vatican News, 26 October 2019, ; Christopher Lamb, ‘Amazon Synod: Bishops to Vote on Women Deacons’, The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly, 22 October 2019.

[9] Leonardo Boff, ‘Como o Sínodo Panamazônico pode nos surpreender’, Leonardo Boff (blog), 7 October 2019.

[10] Pablo Ordaz, ‘El Papa pide perdón por los crímenes durante la conquista de América’, El País, 10 July 2015.


Filipe Maia is Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston University School of Theology. His research focuses on liberation theologies and philosophies, theology and economics, and the Christian eschatological imagination. He is currently completing a book that offers an analysis of the debate in critical theory addressing the ‘financialization’ of capitalism to show how future-talk is ubiquitous to financial discourse and how contemporary finance engenders a particular mode of temporality.

Adress: Boston University School of Theology, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, mailbox 250, Boston, MA 02215, USA.

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