Catholic Values Column: Colonialism and the Amazon synod



ElishaApparently, defaulting to colonialism is the preferred method for evangelizing to the native peoples of South America. If the comments of certain leaders for the current Amazon Synod are any indication, that just might be the approach they decide to take. 

Last week, Bishop Erwin Kräutler, an Austrian-born prelate who served as bishop of the Xingu prelature in Brazil, said that “there is no other option” but for the Catholic Church to remove its celibacy requirement for the priesthood in Amazonian territories like his. 

His reason for this? “The indigenous people do not understand celibacy.” 

When I read Kräutler’s statement, I did a double take. Was he really saying the indigenous people were so incapable of understanding the concept of celibacy that the church should just drop its tradition? 

Yet that’s what Kräutler’s continued comments indicate. Despite his reported defenses for the rights of the indigenous peoples and the poor in his region, Kräutler’s remarks are tinged with veiled colonialism. 

Some are worried that the discourse of the synod fathers is motivated by an ideological desire for change as opposed to an authentic pastoral response to evangelizing in the Amazon.  

Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is participating in the synod by virtue of his position as prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship, said he feared some Western influencers  likely including bishops  want the synod to be a laboratory for the universal church. The cardinal called these desires “dishonest and misleading.” 

“Taking advantage to introduce ideological plans would be an unworthy manipulation, a dishonest deception, an insult to God who guides his church and entrusts to it his plan of salvation,” Sarah said. He continued, saying he was “shocked and indignant that the spiritual distress of the poor in the Amazon was used as an excuse to support typical projects of bourgeois and worldly Christianity. It is abominable.” 

When Kräutler, considered a key leader of the synod, says he would like to see females ordained to the priesthood and other bishops make questionable remarks regarding “an inculturated liturgy,” it would appear Sarah’s concerns are not unfounded. 

So, is colonialism present in the Amazon synod? I would answer yes, for how else would one define using the plight of pagan natives in order to effect political and theological change within the church? 

It would serve Kräutler and his brother synod leaders well to reflect on the example of saints like Junipero Serra and Isaac Jogues, missionaries to the indigenous people of their day.  

Serra and Jogues both dedicated their lives to evangelizing indigenous people, and they managed to do so while remaining celibate. They were missionaries and sacrificed everything in order to spread the Gospel throughout the Americas.  

They even laid down their lives: Serra with his health and Jogues with his martyrdom. In fact, Jogues was so committed to ministering and evangelizing to the indigenous people of Canada that he returned three years after being sent home to France. It was then that he offered the ultimate sacrifice of his life. 

For these two, and many more missionaries, they did not feel the need to pander to the indigenous by changing the practice of their religion in order to evangelize. They didn’t need to enculturate pagan worship into the sacred liturgy. Rather, they taught the whole truth of the faith, and I would venture to say their efforts were successful. They would disagree with Kräutler’s conclusions. 

At the beginning of this synod, Pope Francis explicitly warned them of colonialization themes, exclaiming, “(H)ow many times has there been colonization rather than evangelization! May God preserve us from the greed of new forms of colonialism.” 

It appears certain bishops haven’t gotten the memo. But instead of discussing ending clerical celibacy, introducing female “ordination,” or paganizing the liturgy in order to relate to the indigenous peoples, the synod fathers need to take the examples of missionary priests such as Serra and Jogues to hear and commit themselves to spreading the truth of the faith in South America. 

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