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A “Church with an Amazonian Face” and the Danger of an “Ethnic Heresy” (Part 2)

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During the two long episcopates of Bishop Samuel Ruiz and Bishop Felipe Arizmendi in the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico (1959-2017), a Diocesan Directory for the Permanent Indigenous Diaconate[1]  was established and promulgated in January 1999. It was intended to serve as a model in the pursuit of the “goal of achieving a solid foundation for Autochthonous Churches”[2] throughout the Latin American continent.[3]

The theological foundation of the Directory is fully inspired by Indian Theology (God’s revelation is not limited to his manifestation in the Bible but also in his operative action in peoples and cultures, where He sowed the seeds of the Word, etc.[4]); and it is found in a chapter on the theological meaning of the permanent indigenous deaconate. The fourth chapter deals specifically with “the Construction of the Native Church” and points out that the indigenous community, “being committed to the project of the Kingdom, is the subject of its own evangelization and a privileged place where one lives the unity that strengthens us as a Church.”[5] Therefore, “the Native Church must have its own hierarchy”, to which the Permanent Indigenous Diaconate contributes insofar as it “converges with the [ancestral] system of positions in the communities” and is “intimately [situated] within the basic organization of its people.”[6]

In order to ensure the participation of the community, the “organizational principles” of the local culture must be assumed, “trying to make a synthesis between the traditional indigenous system of positions and the ministerial structure of the Catholic Church”[7] and taking into account that its ministry of service to the community “does not give it an oppressive-like power over it” because it is founded “in the communitarian being” of its people and the People of God. Therefore, its ministry must be configured “within the structure of the other ecclesial ministries and services of the indigenous tradition in order to build and consolidate the Autochthonous Church.”[8]

The indigenous deacon must above all listen and “accompany the experience of God which the communities live from their own religious tradition, as baptized,”[9] that is, the convergence that these communities carry out between “the traditional religious experience” and “the spirituality of the Church,” as the following paragraph says.[10] He should also promote a reflection on such experience with a view to “the elaboration of the theological categories that favor a true dialogue with the different theological currents of the Universal Church;” a dialogue that should promote not only Indian Theology but also the “deepening of traditional experiences that are at the bottom of this theology”[11] (that is, ancestral paganism).

According to the Directory, it is also necessary that the liturgical celebrations of the Autochthonous Church be carried out with “their own words, symbols and gestures that stem from the roots and hearts of the communities’ cultures, in harmony with the Christian mystery” (the italic is in the original to avoid the accusation of promoting exclusively pagan rituals, but the text makes clear that the matrix of the celebration should be the ancestral worship, syncretically harmonized with Christianity), as well as to “take care that in the liturgy are used the language and signs of the community’s culture.”[12]

Under the subtitle “Universality of the Autochthonous Church,” the Directory goes on to address the issue that is at the heart of what we have been studying in the preceding article and in this one, that is, the relations between the unity and catholicity of the Church. It first establishes that “Christ is the head of the Universal Church and model for all mankind,” not because he is the Word of God made flesh but “precisely because he incarnated himself in a particular people” so that “the universality of the Church is visualized in the variety of incarnate churches that live within it.”[13] For this catholicity to shine vigorously, exchanges and meetings should be promoted, but, paradoxically, not with deacons from different cultures but with “Indigenous deacons in Mexico and in different parts of the world.”[14]

That enclosure in the indigenous culture and in its own community of origin is manifested again at the end of the Directory by saying that the Permanent Indigenous Deacon “will exercise his ministry in the community or group of communities for which he was elected,”[15] although “visits between communities will be promoted during courses, meetings or parties to show the universality of the Church and strengthen its unity.”[16] However, “for the Permanent Indigenous Deacon to exercise his ministry in other communities or pastoral areas, he must have a written invitation from those communities, a permission of the communities where he was originally appointed, and an authorization from the Pastor and / or Pastoral Team”[17] (one would almost say this was copied from the Chinese system of internal passports, which restricts the labor movement of workers…).

In these conditions, it seems difficult for an Indigenous Deacon to “encourage the construction of the Autochthonous Church, promoting a harmonious relationship between the universal tradition of the Church and the cultural and religious tradition of his people.”[18]

The Vatican was slow to react to this Directory[19] and did so only after Bishop Samuel Ruiz and his coadjutor Raúl Vera conducted a scandalous mass ordination of 103 indigenous deacons and 53 “pre-deacons” held on January 18, 2000.[20] After a joint meeting to attend a video of the ceremony and analyze the theological and canonical aspects of the case (cardinals and prelates from five dicasteries of the Curia and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America participated in this meeting), the following July 20, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, sent a letter to Archbishop Felipe Arizmendia, successor of Bishop Ruiz in the diocese of San Cristóbal, to “communicate some concerns and suggestions.”

One of them emphasizes that it is necessary “to specify the content of the expression ‘autochthonous Church’ so that it is not presented as a different ‘model’ but as the natural result of implanting the Church in a specific social environment … in close communion with the Bishop of Rome and with all the churches in peace and hierarchical communion with him.” Likewise, “it is not possible to build a model of particular Church that is predominantly diaconal, which would not be in conformity with the hierarchical constitution of the Church.” One should even “avoid the term ‘permanent indigenous deacon‘ which would seem to place the diaconate of the diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas in a different typology” and also should suspend ordinations of new deacons “for a non-brief time”. In short, he is asked to “open up” the diocesan reality to all the components of the Church so that this diocese does not remain “enclosed” in the preceding exclusive typology.”[21]

Despite this interdicasterial decision, ordinations of indigenous deacons in Chiapas continued “because they had only suggested that I suspend them for a while,” Archbishop Arizmendi said. That forced Cardinal Medina to send him another two warning letters. In the first, dated November 17, 2001, the cardinal told him that if the number of those deacons continued to increase, “the Holy See would send other ecclesiastical territories a message of implicit support for an alternative ecclesial model.” In the second, the cardinal ordered him to suspend ordinations for five years and reiterated that continuing this type of ordination “is tantamount to continuing to maintain an ecclesiological model alien to tradition and the life of the Church.”[22]

To defend himself of that last accusation, in May 2002 Bishop Arizmendi published a text titled “Autochthonous Church”, addressed to the annual Diocesan Assembly and entirely based on the final document of the Third Synod held by his predecessor.

Citing the final document of the said Synod, which affirms that the diocesan reality should not be “a Church that comes from outside, that belongs to another culture,” the bishop pointed out: “This is to be understood in the sense that in order to be an autochthonous Church, we have to incarnate ourselves in this reality in which we are, in the history and culture of our people. But we must be aware that the Church is not born of the people but of the loving design of God the Father, manifested in Jesus Christ and concretized by the Holy Spirit. In this sense, it comes from outside, from above. In addition, our Church was born in the Jewish culture, which spread to the Greek, Roman, and the most varied cultures of the world. The Church arrived in Mexico through the Spanish culture. It came from outside and through another culture. Had it not been so, we would still be in paganism and would not enjoy the treasure of our faith.”

Likewise, it relativized the value of culture: “Cultures and their traditions or expressions have no absolute value, nor are they the ultimate norm of truth and good. For Christians, the definitive criterion for knowing what is good or bad, what gives life or death, is Jesus Christ, the fullness of revelation.”[23] And above all, he insisted that “autochthonous should not be confused with autonomous,” stating that “this distinction and clarification is very important, because we always run the risk of falling into excesses of autonomy, with the best intention of becoming an autochthonous Church.”

However, Archbishop Arizmendi ratified everything that had been done up to that point in terms of “inculturation” and, in particular, “the diocesan process of the Permanent Diaconate.”[24]  In fact, in 2004 he published a new Diocesan Pastoral Plan that essentially maintained the controversial principles and pastoral options.

On October 26, 2005, in response to a request for reconsideration of the Vatican prohibition of new diaconal ordinations, Cardinal Francis Arinze, the new Prefect of Divine Worship, sent him a letter containing a summary of what was concluded at another interdicasterial meeting convened to analyze the situation in Chiapas. The prelate states that “it cannot be ignored that, even after five years of the departure of H.E. Bishop Samuel Ruiz from San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the ideology that promotes the implementation of the project of an Autonomous Church remains latent in the Diocese”, and that the suspension of ordinations must be maintained “until the underlying ideological problem has been resolved.” He also reiterates the need to “open the Diocese to other ecclesial realities typical of the universality of the Catholic Church, to help it emerge from the aforementioned ideological isolation.”[25]

As the Vatican letter became public,[26] Bishop Arizmendi and his assistant Enrique Díaz published a statement affirming that they accepted the measure with pain but trying to refute its motivation: “We are concerned that our effort to become anautochthonous Church is defined as ‘ideology’…We would fall into an ideology, into ‘ideological isolation’ if our autochthonous Church project were to be confused with that of an autonomous Church. We are not, nor are we trying to be, an autonomous Church.”[27]

Denying that last assertion, on March 24, 2006 the two bishops organized a demonstration in which ten thousand indigenous people paraded through the downtown streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas with banners that read “Long live the autochthonous Church!” and cheered bishops Samuel Ruiz and Raúl Vera López and the two of them, present at the march. In addition, on behalf of the various parishes of the diocese and the diocesan diaconal council, they addressed an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to reconsider the situation and authorize the ordination of new permanent deacons.[28]

On the contrary, six months later, Cardinal Arinze wrote again to Archbishop Arizmendi, ordering him to rewrite a paragraph from the 2004 Pastoral Plan that ordered “to listen carefully and discern the request that some communities are making for married indigenous deacons to be admitted to priestly ordination” and, above all, by declaring the Diocesan Directory for the Permanent Diaconate “suspended and without possibility of being applied in the diocese” because it contains “serious doctrinal and pastoral ambiguities.”[29] Indeed, the Vatican dicastery considered that “it does not fulfill its function well needs to be thoroughly corrected,” adding that “if it is confronted with the proposals of liberation theology of the indigenist type, one notices a clear influence of the latter.”[30]

The impasse was resolved only after the election of Francis I and the private audience he granted to Bishop Arizmendi and his auxiliary Díaz in December 2013, in which they pointed out that the diocese needed the ordination “of a little more than 100 deacons”. At the end of the audience, they sent a communiqué to the local press in Chiapas informing they were granted the approval of the Directorate of the Permanent Diaconate of Indigenous Peoples and that the Pope “offered [them] to do as much as possible for a good solution.”[31]  In fact, four months later, Cardinal Cañizares, on behalf of the Congregation for Divine Worship, again authorized diaconal ordinations.[32] And in February 2016, Pope Francis himself went to San Cristobal de Las Casas to gather before the tomb of Bishop Samuel Ruiz and celebrate a Mass ceremonially attended by numerous indigenous deacons.

This opening to the pioneering experiment of Chiapas was followed by the convening of the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region, which apparently intends to extend the experiment to the communities of that area and other similar regions on other continents.[33]

According to the Preparatory Document, the new paths for pastoral care in the Amazon call for “delving deeper into the ‘process of inculturation’ and requires “the Church in the Amazon region to make “courageous” proposals, that is, the “daring” and “fearless” attitudes that Pope Francis asks of us.” Indeed, the document continues, “The prophetic mission of the Church is today carried out through its inclusive ministerial action, which allows indigenous peoples and Amazonian communities to be its “principal interlocutors” regarding all the territory’s pastoral and socio-environmental matters.”[34] Even more, “Our new paths will impact ministries, liturgy, and theology (Indian theology), since “We are called as a Church to strengthen the leading roles of the peoples themselves. We should refine an intercultural spirituality to help us interact with the diversity of peoples and their traditions.”[35]

In order to prepare the Special Assembly, the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops sent a questionnaire to consult the rank and file because the next synodal meeting “requires a great exercise of reciprocal listening.” Some of its questions show an intention to replicate and even radicalize the Chiapas experiment in the Amazon:

– “Are there spaces for indigenous expression and active participation in the liturgical practice of your communities?”

– “What are the services and ministries with an Amazonian face that you think should be created and promoted?”

– “One of the great challenges in the Amazon is the impossibility of celebrating the Eucharist frequently and in all places. How to respond to it?”

It is not necessary to have a lot of imagination to figure out what the answer will be. To clear up any doubts, after a meeting of ecclesial communities neighboring the threefold Amazonian border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, the Spanish missionary Luis Miguel Modino wrote that the participants showed that “it is urgent to recognize the role of leadership and protagonism of the woman, the permanent diaconate, the priesthood of married couples, the active participation of the laity through the diversity of ministries, healing the wounds and reconciling with the life and history of the Amazon.”[36]

In short, it is a radicalized carbon copy of the indigenous Church of Chiapas, repeatedly condemned during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

This perspective reminds us of an interview granted by Olivier Clément, a renowned theologian of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to the magazine Il Regno – Attualità under the expressive title “The demonic Seduction of Ethnicity”. In it the French writer regrets that, when they were liberated from the Ottoman Empire, the Balkan peoples of Orthodox religion “developed the tendency to consider the church – which blessed their culture – as an element of national life, a component of local culture,” hence they arrived “little by little at a completely false vision of the church, an ethnic ecclesiology.” The patriarchs of Constantinople severely condemned this error under the name of “ethnophileism”, because it transformed religion “into a dimension of culture, of national identity, of ethnic belonging.”

It was precisely this “ecclesiological heresy” that Cardinal Walter Kasper denounced in an article for the magazine Civiltà Cattolica, in which he criticized the “identification of the Russian Orthodox Church with a certain ethnic culture.” This heresy is said to have underpinned the rejection by the Moscow Patriarchate of the erection of four Catholic dioceses within Russia in the name of an ethnic conception of “canonical territory”.[37]

We believe there are well-founded fears that the next Pan-Amazon Synod, by centering the organization of ecclesial life on the ethnic factor, may incur in this “heresy” that plagues the autocephalous schismatic churches.

As the document Communionis notio recalls, the universal Church “is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church. Indeed, according to the Fathers, ontologically, the Church-mystery, the Church that is one and unique, precedes creation, and gives birth to the particular Churches as her daughters. She expresses herself in them; she is the mother and not the product of the particular Churches. Furthermore, the Church is manifested, temporally, on the day of Pentecost in the community of the one hundred and twenty gathered around Mary and the twelve Apostles, the representatives of the one unique Church and the founders-to-be of the local Churches, who have a mission directed to the world: from the first the Church speaks all languages.” [38]

Instead, communities with such an “Amazonian” face as to make the particular prevail over the universal may merit the reproach the Apostle addressed to the faithful of Corinth: “For, if one says, I indeed am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollo; are you not proceeding in a purely human way?” (I Cor 3:4).


[2] In mission countries, the Church always endeavored to arouse priestly vocations among natives in order to constitute an autochthonous clergy. Especially after the instruction of Gregory XVI to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, in 1845, asking mission seminars to impart to the students a complete and high level training from which an indigenous hierarchy could emerge. The encyclical Maximum illud of Benedict XV, in 1919, once again insisted on this program.
However, the expression “particular autochthonous churches” was first used officially in the conciliar decree Ad Gentes on the missionary activity of the Church (no. 6). But the decree does not understand it primarily in a cultural but rather theological sense, saying they they must grow throughout the world so that, “endowed with their own maturity and vital forces. Under a hierarchy of their own, together with the faithful people, and adequately fitted out with requisites for living a full Christian life, they should make their contribution to the good of the whole Church.” Instead, the Pastoral Plan of the Third diocesan Synod of San Cristóbal de Las Casas (1994) emphasized that “it develops by assuming the local culture and not a Church that comes from outside, that belongs to another culture, that makes only external adaptations” (

[3] “We present, then, with simplicity and humility, this Directory, normative for our Diocese; indicative, perhaps, for other Dioceses of Mexico; possible guidance for a National Directory for the Permanent Indigenous Diaconate; eventual service for other similar Directories in the Latin American Continent. If the effort we make to formalize an experiment we feel significant within the Church contributes to a step in the process of the emergence of Indigenous Churches, we will feel rewarded for these efforts” (p. 4).

[4] V. “La Teología India: entre sincretismo y retorno del paganismo” aquí y aquí.

[5] N° 107.

[6] N° 102.

[7] N° 110.

[8] N°113.

[9] N° 114.

[10] N° 116.

[11] N° 115.

[12] N° 118.

[13] This vision of the universality of the Church clearly falls into the error the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had denounced in 1992 in its document on some aspects of the Church considered as communion: “Sometimes, however, the idea of a ‘communion of particular Churches’ is presented in such a way as to weaken the concept of the unity of the Church at the visible and institutional level. Thus, it is asserted that every particular Church is a subject complete in itself, and that the universal Church is the result of a reciprocal recognition on the part of the particular Churches. This ecclesiological unilateralism, which impoverishes not only the concept of the universal Church but also that of the particular Church, betrays an insufficient understanding of the concept of communion”

(Communionis notio, n° 8 –

[14] N° 120.

[15] N° 254.

[16] N° 255.

[17] N° 256

[18] N° 122.

[19] In a forthcoming article devoted specifically to the question of ministries in the Pan-Amazon Synod, we will address the other aspect of the Directory of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de la Casas that most contradicts the apostolic tradition of the universal Church: it is to associate the wifes of deacon to their ecclesial ministry and to promote married priests. But the above suffices to make it clear that the indigenous church project of San Cristóbal de Las Casas implements the heterodox principles of Leonardo Boff’s “ecclesiogenesis” condemned by the Holy See, which we analyzed in the previous article.

[20] That massive ordination raised to 344 the total number of deacons ordained in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, while in the other dioceses of Mexico the average was 10 deacons.


[22] “Acepta Arizmendi suspender ordenación de diáconos”, La Jornada, Feb. 16, 2002.




[26] On the initiative of the ACI Prensa news agency, because the bishops of Chiapas remained absolutely silent about it.


[28] Ibid.





[33] “The Special Synod’s reflections transcend the strictly ecclesial-Amazonian sphere, because they focus on the universal Church, as well as on the future of the entire planet. We begin with a specific geographical area in order to build a bridge to the other important biomes of our world: the Congo basin, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the tropical forests of the Asia Pacific region, and the Guarani Aquifer, among others” (Preamble to the Preparatory Document).

[34] Doc. cit. n° 14.

[35] Ibid. n° 15.




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