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Three Errors in the Synod’s Approach

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Facing the Amazon Synod, we need to pay attention in order to avoid making three errors.

InstrumentumThe first is to consider the Synod, its themes, and the theological approach of the Instrumentum laboris (IL) as deriving from the needs of our times, something which has no previous history and is unaffected by a long period of theological innovations. The Synod is supposedly born of today’s needs like a mushroom that springs up in the woods overnight. Therefore, it would be devoid of any presuppositions, and no retrospective is required to evaluate it. Trying to retrace its erroneous underlying theological assumptions would mean cultivating ideological prejudices. One avoids this error by examining how the Amazon Synod is the terminal point of a long theological period, or better yet, of a new theological framework which, humanly speaking, seems to prevail in the theological struggle between two competing realities.

The second error consists in thinking that the theological perspective emerging from the synod was born in the Amazon or Latin America. It would be an original, native, popular, non-academic work, not imported from Europe. We avoid this error by evaluating how on the contrary the Synod’s theological perspective is entirely European, elaborated on professorial chairs of German and Central European universities. Behind the Synod’s theological perspective are Liberation Theology, the Theology of the People, and the new eco-spirituality of Leonardo Boff. But behind these theologies lies the political theology of Johann Baptist Metz, and behind Metz lies the anthropological turning point of Karl Rahner, and behind Rahner lies the nouvelle théologie, and so on. Neither Metz, Rahner, nor their teacher Heidegger taught in Latin America, but rather in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, and Innsbruck, Austria.

The third error one can make about the synod is to be surprised by it and to wonder how it was possible to write an IL with so many unacceptable doctrines from the standpoint of the Catholic and apostolic faith. The right attitude should not be one of astonishment, as if facing an instantly-born mushroom, but of finding that the setting of this synod is perfectly consistent with the new theology developed in the past decades. Amazement would mean not having understood the two previous points, namely that this synod is the result of a long and erroneous theological path, one of theological colonization by European avant-gardes. Today, they are no longer simple avant-gardes but forces that have steadily occupied space and power in the Church. If one is surprised, it will be difficult to effectively present adequate answers that go beyond the themes of the Synod itself and address a very profound and articulated theological revolution.

Therefore, I would like to help us avoid these three errors in defining the problem of the Synod. I intend to show: a) how the IL is a consequence of the new theology; b) how this new theology was developed in Europe and exported to Latin America; c) how this outcome was widely predictable given the premises and, therefore, we must address and act upon the premises, not only on the outcome.

Why must the Church give itself an Amazonian face rather than the Amazon give itself a Catholic face?

A Church with an amazonian face

I will concentrate on a single point of the synod, which is precisely this question because it seems to me that all others derive from it. The synod’s main slogan is: “a Church with an Amazonian face.” That is not just a pastoral choice but also a doctrinal choice since it is opposed to having an Amazon with a Catholic face. The conflict between the two theologies plays out in the alternative between the two expressions. At stake is the role of the historical-cultural situation not only for the communication of the Christian message but for its very constitution. If one wants an “Amazon with a Catholic face,” one must assume that the Church has its own message, which remains the same and does not depend on a reading of the Amazon situation, which indeed helps to understand more deeply that situation precisely because it sheds a light on it that comes from beyond. The culture and social and economic situation of Amazonian peoples are not co-authors of the Christian message; they are made into a gift of salvation unable to give itself. Here two great principles apply: “no one gives what he does not have,” and “more does not come from less.” The Amazon can only experience the gift and gratuity of God’s salvation.

Instead, if we want a “Church with an Amazonian face,” it means that the announcement of Christ lacks original, founding, transcendent, and absolute resonance but communicates itself through history and depends constitutively on a worldly premise, in this case, that of Amazonian peoples. It would be like saying that knowledge of His message is always conditioned by one’s life situation, from which one always starts to interpret Christ, whose message is given to us only within a context that helps to constitute it, determine it, and also relativize it historically.

“A Church with an Amazonian face” means that the Church must not think that she has her saving truth to give to the world, but that the communication of God and his grace is already operating in the world – in this case, in the historical and social situation of the Amazon. For this reason, the Church should not have evangelization as its objective but rather dialogue, because the Church is in the world just as the Amazon, and there is equality between the Church and the world (according to moderates), or predominance of the world (for the most radical): The Church must listen, learn, accompany, and no longer teach. The Instrumentum laboris is very clear on this approach.

The Amazonian point of view says how the Gospel is to be read, but this how is constitutive of the thing. Historical contextualization – usually and surreptitiously called inculturation – concerns not only assuming local cultures and how to transfer the thing more effectively but also defining the thing, i.e., the contents of the doctrine of faith. If the how is constitutive of the thing, the approach becomes fully historicist, procedural, and evolutionary.

Some historical-theological premises

Just by examining one of the slogans of the synod – “A Church with an Amazonian face” – we noticed a revolution in theological approach and a historicist relativization of the deposit of faith. Implicit in the synod is an evolutionary vision of tradition that does not originate from Latin America, but from Europe. It rises from displacing the locus theologicus from the apostolic faith and into the world and history, in an existential “situation” or praxis, according to Hegelian and Heideggerian categories. This aspect designates the whole progressive European theology, crowned in the formulation of the synod. As we mentioned above, this is not surprising. In my opinion, the three main stages of the process are as follows.

The problem of “pure nature”

In 1946, the Jesuit father Henri de Lubac published his book Surnaturel, re-published in 1965. His approach characterized the entire nouvelle théologie and was preceded by the book Une école de théologie, by Father M.-Dominique Chenu, condemned by the Holy Office in the early forties. Chenu argued that the theological place is the “life of the Church,” which consists of pursuing what the Spirit of God inspires in the world. For Father Chenu, the Church must “go out” of itself to listen to what God is already doing in the world. Therefore, the theological place had already changed from apostolic tradition to the world. In Surnaturel, Father de Lubac reconsidered the relationship between nature and supra-nature to make the supra-nature constitutive of nature, to the point of making nature predisposed to salvation as if there were a natural right to salvation. The danger is that supernatural grace was no longer free, and Pius XII dedicated a passage from Humani generis to condemn this position.

Let me point out, concerning our discourse on the synod, that according to de Lubac’s approach, grace is already present in every natural situation, the Spirit is found in every historical context, and God and his salvation communicate themselves in every human situation. For de Lubac, a “pure nature” does not exist; nature is already in [the state of] grace. Given these assumptions, we understand how the Church can and indeed must learn from the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

Fr. Garrigou-LagrangeAlso in 1946, the Dominican Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange examined these new theological perspectives with concern. He saw the danger of historicism and evolution in the doctrine of the faith, and wondered if it would still be possible in the future to consider as true any theology not updated along these lines or whether the actual being had become the fundamental criterion of the truth of Catholic theology. The synod also understands as true the theology which, to be current, is fertilized by Amazonian culture.

Garrigou-Lagrange also raised another question about the form of expressing the truths of faith. The acceptance of history and the world as a theological place also meant changing the form of expressing the truths of faith, which he considered very harmful because it would also change their content. He already saw the danger of the how replacing the thing. The language of the Instrumentum laboris runs this danger.

Christian personalism

A second moment saw a Christian personalism with the concepts of giving priority to the person and having theology listen to the human. Here the theological place becomes the human person, so that every expression of the doctrine of the faith must take on human language since God communicates himself to man. Anthropology becomes primary knowledge, putting theology in the background. Indeed, the new theologians say that theology is anthropology—which is essentially what Ludwig Feuerbach used to say. We talk about God by talking about man; we meet God in man. The synod’s Instrumentum laboris refers to pre-religious humanism as a theological place of revelation, and to post-religious humanism (ecological, eco-spiritual) as the ethics of the world in which all cultures and religions converge.

The anthropological turning point of Karl Rahner

Karl RahnerHowever, with Karl Rahner and his “anthropological turning point,” the process is accomplished, and the Synod’s Instrumentum laboris is fully explained. Every man who hears the Word is in a situation in which he listens to the Word. The result is always a construct – the word is not heard but interpreted, not in the sense that God first utters his Word and man interprets it, but in a much more radical sense: the Word resounds only within an existential context that also constitutes it. Therefore, we could say that it is already born situated and historically interpreted. That supposedly happens at the Amazon Synod, and it is the profound meaning of the expression “A Church with an Amazonian face.” God’s communication to man takes place in the a priori context of his existence; God’s grace is present wherever there is human existence because it is the perspective that makes such existence possible. Rahner develops De Lubac’s notion of a nature that already contains a debt of salvation as it is already grace in a decidedly more radical way: the grace of God is in the world in the sense that it is a transcendental experience of man, experience whereby he is a man, but which precisely, for this reason, cannot be reduced to any particular moment in human life. Grace is also present in the anonymous Christianity of indigenous cultures’ animism and pantheism, so the Church must “go out.”​

Heresies and schisms at the synod

Accusations of “heresy” and predictions of “schism” at the Amazon Synod have come from various quarters.[1] I do not know how much these denunciations take into account that the synod’s theological matrix has a vision of heresy and schism very different from that of those who denounce heresies and fear schism. Preceding the heretical contents of the Instrumentum laboris is a heretical vision of the heresy that feeds those contents.

Heresy requires a non-procedural or dialectical view of tradition. The dialectical conception of tradition means that what is taught as part of the depositum fidei at a certain moment can be denied by new historical needs that have developed, and the magisterium will have to make it rise towards a new synthesis. This happens when one does not understand historical existence as the terrain of an absolute and transcendent message, but as a co-producer of the message itself. If it is a co-producer, then the message evolves because the story changes, and the revelation has not ended but continues. Discontinuities in teachings about the deposit of faith are therefore admitted, indeed are seen as physiological and healthy. When a doctrinal position is questioned by history, we are faced with a positive fact because it will be followed by the achievement of a more mature phase. The deposit of faith is not considered first of all in its contents but in the self-awareness that the Church has of it: revelation takes place there, in the ever-evolving self-awareness. Thus, heresy must not be understood as the negation of an absolute Christian truth but as a negative moment of a process that is useful to the same process. Whoever starts from this vision of heresy will consider the above-mentioned cries of alarm as inadmissible and even incomprehensible. Of course, this view of heresy is against Catholic doctrine. We can say that it is heretical because it supports the impossibility of heresy: according to it, doctrinal error exists only to be surpassed dialectically in truth.

A similar argument can be made about schism. This concept presupposes a unity of doctrine seen as flawed in the evolutionary and dialectical view. It also presupposes “limits” and “conditions” to be able to call itself Catholic. But the new theology present in the Instrumentum laboris of the synod maintains that the grace of God is present everywhere, in every human situation, because God reveals himself in man. Rahner said that the atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, believer in other religions, animist or pantheist are also part of the Church. Today they say that the Church is everyone’s home. Now, if the Church has no borders or porous borders so as not to distinguish itself from the world, one can enter or exit it without ever really leaving or entering it. The Church has sliding doors like those of banks and hotel lobbies. Only God knows who “really” is inside the Church. But the Church has an ecclesiological doctrine derived from the Revelation that tells us what needs to be done to enter and remain in it. To those who think so, a schism is scary. It is not scary to those who see it with the eyes of the new theology.

[1] For example, the document of the Coetus Internationalis Patrum Working Group highlighted four expressions considered heretical. Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider, when launching an appeal for a period of fasting and prayer during the work of the synod so that it would not approve errors and heresies, listed six theologically points to be rejected. In his numerous interventions on the Amazon synod, Cardinal Müller expressed great concern. Cardinal Sarah said he was “shocked and indignant at the fact that the spiritual distress of the poor in the Amazon is used as an excuse to support projects typical of bourgeois and worldly Christianity.” Cardinal Brandmüller spoke of “apostasy” and “heresy.” According to Most Rev. José Luis Azcona, bishop emeritus of the prelature of Marajó in the Brazilian Amazon, the synod threatens to produce a schism.

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