Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
Note: This is the first article in a five-part series in which I express my serious concerns about the working document (instrumentum laboris) for the Oct. 6-27 Pan-Amazon Synod. Part two will focus on the demonization of the West (formerly known as Christendom). The third piece will focus on the radical redefinition of evangelization as listening and learning rather than preaching and teaching. Part four will ask, “Where is Jesus?” The final article will refute the notion that a married clergy is needed and challenge the right of a local synod to make such a sweeping change.
In reading the summary of the instrumentum laboris for the Pan-Amazon Synod, I was reminded of the fictional Shangri-La, described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. It was a term more familiar to my parents’ generation and is used to refer to a remote, beautiful, imaginary place where life approaches perfection. My father loved old movies and I remember well watching the 1937 movie of the same name as well as the 1973 remake. The story follows a small group of people who crash-land in the Himalayas and seek refuge in the nearby lamasery of Shangri-La. It was a land protected from the outside world by mountains, it didn’t even get cold there despite its location, and its residents lived incredibly long lives. It was a movie about escaping from the real world to the world that ought to be.
Many of us today in this wearisome world look for our Eden, our Shangri-La, a world untouched by human sinfulness. We seek those who still live in perfect harmony with nature, with one another and with God.
As we all know, there is no Shangri-La. We live in paradise lost, a fallen world governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. All of us, including the indigenous peoples of Pan-Amazonia, are sinners and need Jesus to be saved. While the instrumentum does not deny this, it places such a heavy emphasis on the pristine quality of the Amazon basin and its people that it seems to be describing Shangri-La. Any trouble at all in the region is ascribed to colonization and the interference of other interlopers than anything internal. The document gives the impression that these wonderful people and the magnificent jungles and rain forests were much better off without anyone else, including the Church. The people all got along so well and lived in such harmony with nature before the arrival of outsiders!
Here are some excerpts from the instrumentum that speak of this idyllic place, untouched by and secluded from the devastating modern Western world:
In the Amazon, life is inserted into, linked with and integrated in territory. This vital and nourishing physical space provides the possibility, sustenance and limit of life … a place of meaning for faith or the experience of God … epiphanic places where the reserve of life and wisdom for the planet is manifest, a life and wisdom that speaks of God. In the Amazon, the “caresses of God” become manifest and become incarnate in history … the brother tree, the sister flower, the sister bird, the brother fish, and even the smallest sisters like ants, larvae, fungi or insects (cf. Laudato Si 233). … When we contemplate the beauty of the Amazon territory, we discover a masterpiece of the creation of the God of Life. Its endless horizons of boundless beauty are a song, a hymn to the Creator … a precious space for shared human life and shared responsibility “for the good of all.” … The Amazon is where there’s the possibility of “good living,” and the promise and hope of new paths for life. Life in the Amazon is integrated and united with the territory; there is no separation or division between the parts. … The life of Amazon communities not yet influenced by Western civilization is reflected in the beliefs and rites regarding the actions of spirits, of the many-named divinity acting with and in the territory, with and in relation to nature. (Instrumentum Laboris nos. 19-25)
Wow, what a vision — it is Shangri-La to be sure! What some have called a deep, malarial jungle is in fact Eden redivivus. This is Earth in all her glory; this is the “lung” of the world; this is our hope and our future. To the authors, the Amazon far outranks even the farmlands, vineyards, and pastures of other regions that feed the world.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the document seems to divinize nature or to blissfully acknowledge and even honor other “gods” active in the Amazon. It speaks of “actions of spirits, of the many-named divinity acting with and in the territory.” Taken literally, this is at best, syncretism — at worst, apostasy or false religion.
To be fair, the rainforests of the Amazon are a critical part of the world’s ecosystem and biodiversity. We ought not to neglect proper stewardship of it and to realize that reverence for it also involves reverence for God. The document rightly and significantly surveys many biblical texts that speak to the glory of creation as both a revelation from God and a gift to be revered. The Church has always insisted that along with sacred Scripture, the created world is a source of teaching about God. Scripture itself insists that the created world reveals God, his existence, and his laws and attributes (e.g., Romans 1:19-20).
The first problem I see with the instrumentum is that through its lack of balance it misses a key point by treating creation as pristine and perfect in itself and implying that we should simply sit before it in silent wonder or pseudo-worship, seeking to learn its ways.
In fact, Scripture teaches that creation, as we experience it now, is to some degree cursed (see Genesis 3:17). There are things that have become disordered and chaotic in nature due to the aftermath of Original Sin. There is disease, famines, plagues and natural disasters. Jungles and mountains may be beautiful, but they also have their malaria, pestilence, volcanism and avalanches. Arctic tundra and desert regions also have a raw beauty, but they are unproductive and subject to extremes. So, creation is beautiful, but it is also unruly and chaotic. As beings endowed with reason, we are called to bring greater order where we can, to harness an unruly and often hostile world to make it more productive. We are right to fight disease and work to limit the effects of natural disasters. Simply sitting back and admiring nature is ill-advised given its fallen condition. Pristine and primeval should not be confused with perfect. Nature is not perfect; it is fallen and to some degree unruly, even while still manifesting much of its original glory from God.
Scripture speaks to the role of the human person in filling and subduing the earth (Genesis 1:28) and exercising stewardship over it. Even before Original Sin, Adam is told to guard the Garden and till it (2:15), suggesting that even in the Garden there was a work for man to do in directing creation to its proper and best ends. Adam names the animals, indicating superiority over them (2:19). God says that he has put the fear of man in every animal and given to us every plant and animal for our needs (9:2).
It is not intrinsically wrong to cut back certain forests to expand agriculture. In modern times we have attained to enormous productivity; the agricultural lands of our world feed and clothe billions. Forests have their places, but so do farms, houses, towns and cities. Our capacity to efficiently draw abundance from the land is a gift from God through our intellect and reason. Forest management has also become highly developed; trees are cut down to bring us many products, but more are planted. Forests, like farms, are managed and becoming ever more productive. In recent decades our knowledge of how to better recycle goods has increased. All of this is part of our stewardship.
Much of this productive stewardship of the planet has come from the very cultures and economies excoriated in the document as colonialist, exploitative and profiteering. I will expound on that further in the second article in this series.
The second issue with the instrumentum laboris is that it diminishes the one thing necessary if nature (or anything) is going to be better: the completion of the number of the elect, which will then usher in a renewal of all creation. Completing the number of the elect obviously presumes a vigorous evangelization, but the instrumentum is strongly unevangelical! It speaks of listening not proclaiming, of learning not teaching.
Simply put, there cannot be a restoration of the physical world (the environment) unless and until the full number of souls is brought to Christ and saved by him. As a Church, our work is always, first, and foremost to bring souls to Christ. We are not simply to become environmental activists or to parrot the views of secular extremists who, neglecting God, worship creation rather than the Creator.
Let’s look at an essential biblical text that teaches the connection between winning souls for Christ and the renewal of all creation:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, but in hope, for the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yes, we know that the whole creation has been groaning together until the present time (Romans 8:19-25).
Creation is eagerly waiting to be set free from futility, corruption and disorder, but that will only take place when the full number of the Children of God is completed and revealed. Creation will be imperfect and incomplete until the work of summoning souls is completed.
St. Peter says something similar in the following passage:
What kind of people ought you to be? You ought to conduct yourselves in holiness and godliness as you long for and hasten the coming of the day of God, when the heavens will be dissolved by fire and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with God’s promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11-13).
Yes, creation will be renewed in a kind of fiery refinement — but only at the Second Coming, when the number of the elect is complete. Thus, the Church’s job to vigorously evangelize, building up the number of the elect, is at the heart of any true or substantial renewal of the environment. Recycling has its place, but bringing souls to Christ through effective evangelization is what will truly set creation free from its bondage.
The effusive praise of creation in the document may be poetic hyperbole, but I fear that too much of the language regurgitates secular environmentalism with its near idolatry of creation and strong suspicion and demonization of humanity.
The Church would do better to uphold the evangelization of mankind as key to the solution and stop glorifying untouched nature as if it were some kind of idol or perfect image of God — it is not. Like all things in this paradise lost, it is fallen, groaning, and in need of Christ’s touch. That touch will only come when the Church does her work and resists the false image of Shangri-La.
The excessiveness in the preparatory document all amounts to unmoored environmentalism. We may be able to make small improvements in the environment, but no true or real renewal to creation’s former glory is going to happen until the Church does her primary job: bringing the full number of souls to Christ. Only then will the wolf live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child lead them (Isaiah 11:6). If it isn’t about Jesus and winning souls for Christ it isn’t going to accomplish anything lasting.