Asking the wrong question: how we are putting the Amazon and the world at risk

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The future of the Amazon raises fundamental ethical and spiritual questions which we should all consider, even – perhaps especially – in the West, Joseph Evans argues. 

If you want the right answer, ask the right question. And precisely because of this, because people often don’t want the right answer, they can be doggedly determined in focusing on the wrong issue and so miss the whole point of the argument.

One of the latest episodes of this phenomenon has just taken place in my own Church. Anyone following Catholic media, or secular media echoing it, would be convinced that a recent meeting in the Vatican about the Amazon was really a massive fight over the question of priestly celibacy.

It would seem – so the reports would have us believe – that some bishops attending the meeting (known as a synod) wanted to use the October 2019 gathering to bring in married priests through the back door (and the Amazon must be one of the biggest back doors one could find on planet Earth). Given that priestly vocations are low in this region and many people are therefore left without a priest, the argument was that we should ordain more married men to supply the need. And when this proposal was then dignified with the elegant Latin term viri probati (proven men) to give it extra authority, Catholics of a traditional bent leapt into action to resist what they saw as a massive Trojan horse threatening the very identity of Catholic priesthood.

Imagine, then, the rejoicing of said traditionally-minded believers when in his official document following the synod, Querida Amazonia, which was published last month and which is arguably the only Church text related to the synod that actually matters, Pope Francis simply avoided the question. Champagne corks popped in more than one presbytery as guardians of orthodoxy rejoiced over what they saw as the “defence of celibacy”.

All well and good – or badly and bad – depending on one’s position. But while I am happy to affirm that there are few more ardent advocates of priestly celibacy than myself, in this synod priestly celibacy was one massive Amazonian red herring (or should that be a piranha?). Like Pope Francis, we should all have had the good sense simply to ignore the question. It should never have been given such prominence.

What we should focus on is the Amazon itself and what it has to tell us about our relationship with the world and our relationship with others.

And once the dust settles, it will become ever more imperative to consider what Querida Amazonia actually says and not keep harking back to what it didn’t say.

When the Pope first announced a synod on the Amazon, some conservative Catholics reacted with consternation. One papal document on the environment – Francis’ precious Laudato Si’ of 2015 – was, they thought, enough. But to waste a major international gathering of bishops on the topic was for some going too far. Shouldn’t the Pope be focusing on more specifically doctrinal questions? Wasn’t it time he affirmed traditional moral teaching on issues like sexuality or life in the womb?

Once again, I must state that I too could be considered a conservative Catholic and am all in favour of traditional Catholic moral teaching, but having read Querida Amazonia, I am totally convinced of its importance and timeliness. It, and Laudato Si’ before it, are key texts which need to be read and implemented in their fundamental propositions. 

“Shouldn’t the Pope be calling us to conversion?” some Catholics say. Well, he is, whether we’re Catholics or not, and to a form of conversion which affects how we relate to our life on earth and our life with each other.

“A sound and sustainable ecology,”

Francis writes,

“one capable of bringing about change, will not develop unless people are changed, unless they are encouraged to opt for another style of life, one less greedy and more serene, more respectful and less anxious, more fraternal.”

He is telling us, like a true prophet, that a failure to change our behaviour could endanger our planet’s very existence, or at least our existence on it. 

Apocalyptic calls like that can switch people off, for how can we make categorical predictions about future events? That may be so but what is beyond doubt is that the level of consumption and waste which characterises our age can only have a harmful effect on ourselves and the world around us.

Drawing on Laudato Si’, the pontiff speaks strongly: “From a superficial standpoint, we might well think that ‘things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen’.”

Having focused on creation in general in Laudato Si’, the Pope homes in on the Amazon in this document, this “sacred mystery”, as he calls it, a region which he describes as containing “a dazzling diversity of woodlands on which rain cycles, climate balance, and a great variety of living beings also depend. It serves as a great filter of carbon dioxide, which helps avoid the warming of the earth.”

Any reference to global warming quickly raises hackles. Deniers rush to refute it, supporters to its defence.

It is of course possible that the Pope could be wrong in his science. But I find it hard to conceive how God could have given us such an enormous expanse of natural resources for nothing.  If nature stands before us in such majesty in the Amazonian region, surely it is for our amazement and respect, not for its violation.

The Amazon is an exceptionally important case study. How we treat the Amazon – its natural environment and the peoples who live there – is like a test: are we ready to venerate creation as a God-given treasure or are we determined to exploit and abuse it?

It is like a new form of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. God gave Adam and Eve every possible tree to eat from but ordered them simply to avoid one. And like children they went straight to the forbidden object. Will the Amazon be our generation’s forbidden fruit? 

The Pope describes the geo-political situation. “The Amazon region,” he explains, “is a multinational and interconnected whole, a great biome shared by nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, Venezuela and the territory of French Guiana.” He insists that the competency of these countries should be respected: “The answer is not to be found, then, in ‘internationalising’ the Amazon region, but rather in a greater sense of responsibility on the part of national governments.”

He rejects the idea that international bodies will take better care of the Amazon than the existing countries in which it is contained and sees this as merely a way for multinationals to exploit it ever more. Rather, in the spirit of Catholic social teaching, with its insistence on the principle of subsidiarity (put simply: leave local decisions to local people), he calls for an ever-greater respect for the ethnic groups already resident in the Amazon. They are the ones who best know the Amazon and who best know how to take care of it. 

Without falling into a naive Rousseauian vision of the noble savage who can do no wrong and is only corrupted by contact with modern society (the Amazonian peoples also have their “limitations”, the Pope says), Francis asks the world to respect these groups and “the wisdom of their way of life”. 

“Their situation is very tenuous and many feel that they are the last bearers of a treasure doomed to disappear, allowed to survive only if they make no trouble, while the postmodern colonisation advances. They should not be viewed as ‘uncivilised’ savages,” he writes.

So the challenge of the Amazon is not only whether we can respect the fragility of nature but also whether we can respect the fragility of peoples very different from ourselves.

It touches on our ability to learn from apparent weakness: to discern the greatness and action of God hidden in fragile forms of existence, be they physical or human.

More than getting mired in questions of Church policy, Francis asks his readers to feel a prophetic “outrage” at the abuses committed against God’s creation and God’s people.

“It is not good when our social consciousness is dulled before ‘an exploitation that is leaving destruction and even death throughout our region’”

the Pope says, with words from a major document produced by Latin-American bishops in 2007, to which he was a significant contributor as the then-Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The Pope outlines his “dreams” for the Amazonian, which he describes as “social”, “cultural”, “ecological” and “ecclesial”. He wants the Amazon to be “a place of social dialogue”, with the poor people of the region as “principal dialogue partners”. Is this hopelessly naive? Well, until we try we will never know. 

Rather than asking the wrong questions, Francis proposes what he considers “the great question”:  “What is their idea of ‘good living’ for themselves and for those who will come after them?”

In his cultural dream, the Pope celebrates the human ecology of the Amazon as much as its physical diversity.  “Even now, we see in the Amazon region thousands of indigenous communities, people of African descent, river people and city dwellers, who differ from one another and embrace a great human diversity. In each land and its features, God manifests himself and reflects something of his inexhaustible beauty.”

[ Asháninka boys ]

He warns Amazonian youth not to get swept up by Western consumerism and to value the traditions of their peoples. He invites a dialogue between those of us outside the Amazon and those in it in which we can learn from each other.

In his ecological dream, the Pope warns against the erosion of soil and deforestation in the Amazon region and calls for “a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems”. Instead of an attitude of exploitation, he advocates a spirit of contemplation. ‘if someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple’”, he writes quoting his own Laudato Si’.

The Pope’s ecclesial dream – that is, his dream for the Church – involves a proclamation of Jesus Christ to the peoples of the region which is respectful of their existing traditions and the many good aspects contained within them. In fact, many of the Amazonian peoples are already Christian and external powers and agencies must also show respect for the Amazon by respecting the faith of its inhabitants. “Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression”, he reminds us, and these include non-urban forms of Christian life. “Those who live in cities need to appreciate this wisdom and to allow themselves to be ‘re-educated’ in the face of frenzied consumerism and urban isolation.” 

There is no substitute for the role of priests so the Pope calls for prayer for priestly vocations and even for more outside priests to go there as missionaries, but the pontiff also calls for a greater appreciation of the role of lay people in the work of spreading the Christian message, with a special focus on women: “without women, the Church breaks down”. 

Querida Amazonia is urgent and poetic, prophetic and contemplative all at once. It calls on us – particularly those of us in the rich West, people of all faiths and none – to open our eyes to issues and challenges beyond our narrow range of experience and concerns and to learn to relate to peoples who live in very different contexts from our own.

We cannot simply keep consuming and turn a blind eye because the damage to our planet is elsewhere. There are issues of justice we must heed “so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”, for ultimately, the Pope tells us, what is at stake is “the good of the Amazon region and of humanity as a whole.”

Globalisation does not have to mean exploitation.

“The challenge”, says Francis, quoting Pope John Paul II, “is to ensure a globalization in solidarity, a globalization without marginalisation.” 

I did a google search in the document for one simple character, the humble question mark, to discover what questions were raised in Querida Amazonia. I found seven of them. Let’s just focus on the final two which stand side by side near the end of the document and are worth giving in full: “How can we not struggle together? How can we not pray and work together, side by side, to defend the poor of the Amazon region, to show the sacred countenance of the Lord, and to care for his work of creation?”

Surely these are the questions which the Amazon, our planet and the poor of the world are crying out for us to answer. The right questions. And humanity’s future might depend upon the answer we give – or fail to give.

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