ROME – When roughly 300 Catholic leaders gather in Rome Oct. 6-27 to talk about the Amazon, it will be the 29th time since 1965 a pope has convoked a Synod of Bishops. For most of that span, the body’s role could have been described in the same ironic terms Bob Dole once used about the Vice Presidency: “It’s indoor work, and no heavy lifting is involved.”
A Synod of Bishops is merely consultative, lacking the power to do anything other than make recommendations to a pope. Frankly, for most of its history, even that role seemed terribly anemic, with outcomes generally determined well in advance. During the St. John Paul II years, the Polish pontiff would sit on the dais during synods with his prayer book, and the running joke was that he was actually reading the conclusions of the event before it was even over.
Of the 28 previous synods, even Catholics who pay close attention to Church affairs probably would be hard-pressed to name the dates and themes of more than, say, five. (I know bishops who actually attended some of those synods who struggle to recall what they were about or when they happened, so unmemorable were the proceedings.)
You have to give this to Pope Francis: Against all odds, he’s found a way to make synods really, really interesting.
This week, an official of Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Relations actually had to go on national television, flanked by a Catholic cardinal, to assure his countrymen that the government of President Jair Bolsonaro isn’t threatened by the looming Synod on the Amazon and doesn’t think the meeting violates a treaty between the Vatican and Brazil governing the Church’s status in the country.
The government “recognizes the historic role of the Church in Brazilian formation, and very much appreciates the active and constant choice of the Church in favor of the less fortunate,” said Ambassador Kenneth da Nóbrega, an official in charge of relations with the Middle East, Africa and Europe, whose brief therefore includes the Vatican.
Nonetheless, Nóbrega conceded the government has been concerned about language in the working document for the synod, called the Instrumentum Laboris, regarding the Amazon and international law, which some worried might threaten Brazil’s sovereignty over the roughly 60 percent of the Amazon within its borders.
Obviously implied is a judgment by Brazilian officials that it actually matters what a body of bishops in concert with Francis might say about the Amazon and its international status.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked to open a diplomatic and institutional channel with the Holy See to ask for clarifications on these themes,” he said, while denying media reports that the government is “opposed” or “dissatisfied” with the synod itself.
Nóbrega appeared alongside Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil, a key Francis ally who’ll act as the relator, or chairman, of the October synod. While Hummes thanked Nóbrega for his interest, he also expressed “surprise” over news reports that the Brazilian military and security service are “spying” on bishops, especially in the Amazon, in the run-up to the synod.
“This surprised us greatly, because it gives a negative impression of censorship,” Hummes said.
In fairness, military and security officials have denied repeatedly that they’re spying on anyone, though they’ve acknowledged following developments regarding the synod because, they said, it raises “national security” issues.
Frankly, the idea that any government would have invested resources in spying on a Synod of Bishops in the pre-Francis era would have been almost laughable. No one would have bothered, because too little was at stake.
Of course, there’s a special history in Brazil of governments leaning heavily on military support being challenged by populist bishops speaking out in defense of democracy and human rights, which lends a certain logic to the preoccupations of Bolsonaro and his advisers.
More broadly, however, Francis has made synods worth paying attention to, and not just in the Amazon.
In 2014 and 2015, he used two synods on the family to road-test what’s arguably been his single most controversial ecclesiastical decision to date, which was the cautious opening to Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church expressed in his 2016 document Amoris Laetitia.
In 2018, Francis issued a document beefing up the authority of a Synod of Bishops, among other things stipulating that its final document will carry magisterial authority – meaning, it’ll be part of official Church teaching – once it receives the approval of the pope.
This time around, the drama at the Amazon synod won’t just be ad extra, meaning whatever it says about politics and ecology – although the fact the meeting will unfold just after a new report saying that deforestation has surged 43 percent over the past five years, and that a swath of forest the size of the UK is lost ever year, would be enough to guarantee global attention.
However, there’s also strong ad intra buzz around the synod, meaning ferment over its implications for internal Church policies, given the likelihood of debate over the viri probati, or tested married priests. Should the synod endorse an experiment with the viri probati, no matter how limited or geographically restricted, some critics worry it would create a slippery slope leading to the de facto abolition of mandatory clerical celibacy in the Latin Church.
In other words, Francis once again has managed to guarantee that the world will be watching when the curtain goes up on his fourth Synod of Bishops.
No matter what happens after it does, the fact the pope is able to deliver an audience for an event that once packed all the sex appeal of watching paint dry can’t help but seem, by itself, a sort of minor miracle.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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