The “historic” Amazonian Synod, revisited

Given that he was one of the principal planners and prominent leaders of last October’s special Synod on Amazonia, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, is understandably enthusiastic about the results of that exercise. Indeed, the enthusiasm of the emeritus archbishop of São Paulo and prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy   seems virtually boundless: Cardinal Hummes recently claimed that “The Synod for the Amazon was historic; no previous synod was as synodal and reform-oriented as this one.” High praise indeed.

But is such fulsome applause really warranted? How does the cardinal’s claim measure up against the historical record? Not very well, I fear. Which suggests the possibility that Cardinal Hummes is reimagining the recent Catholic past in order to make certain points about the Catholic present and the Catholic future.

The 1974 Synod on evangelization was a donnybrook, reflecting the turbulence in the Church a decade after the Second Vatican Council. The synod fathers couldn’t agree on a final report, so they handed the synod’s materials to Pope Paul VI with the request that he do something. Pope Paul responded with the great apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Announcing the Gospel). It was Paul VI’s last pastoral testament to the Church and the first summons to what John Paul II would call the “New Evangelization:” the grand strategy that animates the living parts of the world Church today.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “historic” than that?

The 1990 Synod debated priestly formation and seminary reform. The propositions adopted by the synod fathers helped shape John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Shall Give you Shepherds). Where it was taken seriously (as in the United States), that exhortation helped apply the brakes to the silly season in seminaries and laid the foundation for the reformed seminaries of today.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “reform-oriented” than that?

The 1994 Synod explored the renewal of consecrated religious life in light of Vatican II’s teaching on the subject. Its reflections helped John Paul II write the 1996 apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life). Throughout the world Church today, religious communities of men and women that embraced Vita Consecrata are vibrant and making real contributions to the New Evangelization; those that ignored Vita Consecrata are moribund or dying.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “historic” than that?

And then there was the special Synod of 1985, which met on the 20th anniversary of Vatican II’s fourth and final session to explore what had gone right, and what had gone not-so right, in implementing the Council. Its final report’s description of the Church as a communion of disciples in mission provided the thread that wove the 16 documents of Vatican II into a coherent, compelling tapestry of Catholic faith. Like Evangelii Nuntiandi, the special Synod of 1985 was a crucial moment in the journey from Vatican II – the council Pope John XXIII called to give the Church new missionary energy – to the New Evangelization.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “historic” and “reform-oriented” than that?

As for the Amazonian Synod itself, others who were in Rome last October may remember the proceedings somewhat differently than Cardinal Hummes evidently does.

Some will remember that the roster of synod participants reflected a narrow bandwidth of Catholic opinion. Some will remember the rather stifling atmosphere within the Synod Hall, which reinforced the impression created by the synod’s managers that (to vary Orwell) some viewpoints were more equal than other viewpoints. Some will remember the extraordinary things that were said in the synod assembly and in the synod’s press conferences – including the boast by a venerable missionary bishop that he hadn’t baptized an indigenous person in 35 years. Still others will remember that Rome in October 2019 was awash in German money and full of German-financed non-governmental organization, which functioned more like political lobbies (or theatrical companies) than ecclesial communities.

Time will tell whether the special Synod for Amazonia made a significant contribution to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and the Gospel in a largely unevangelized region, or whether that synod was a stalking horse for a host of other agendas, ecclesiastical, ecological, and political. One thing only seems clear now: Querida Amazonia [Beloved Amazonia], Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation completing the synod’s work, gravely disappointed those who imagined the Amazonian Synod as the decisive pivot to the Catholic revolution they had long sought.

So one must wonder, again, just what Cardinal Hummes had in mind by describing the Amazonian Synod as “historic.”

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash