Michael Higgins is distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, a senior fellow of Massey College and an award-winning biographer.
The octogenarian and the adolescent. The elder and the youth. Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg make for a marvellous duo, united in their shared concern for the planet, Indigenous peoples and the ramifications of political inertia.
Ms. Thunberg is a novice in these things – though an impassioned one with an agile mind – while Francis has been about the business of moral prophecy for at least the duration of his pontificate, and much longer as the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The sagacious pontiff has his synod on the Pan-Amazonian region (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana and French Guinea) scheduled for Oct. 6 to 27 in Rome. This event, one of a series of periodic synods, is unique in that it is not limited to ecclesiastical concerns or parochial challenges, but rather the larger and comprehensive matter of our “common home.” As he wrote in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional aspect of our Christian experience.”
In saying this, the Pope pledges the full weight of his authority behind humanity’s shared stewardship of the planet and all its occupants. He situates papal teaching within the context of the environmental crisis and abjures the dualistic thinking that insists on the separation of religion and politics. The Gospel demands no less than the repairing of what we have damaged and the cultivation of an oversight of compassion as opposed to exploitation.
What Francis has done with his encyclical and is about to do with his synod is an attempt to address the problem posed by American writer and savant Barry Lopez: “how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself.”
The Bishop of Rome knows the human capacity for sin but he also knows humanity’s capacity for a graced existence, for a life of natural harmony in contrast to the rapacity that marks our relationship to creation.
But the synod, years in the making, has become a lightning rod for opposition to the pope. Ultraconservative prelates are all aligned in their resistance to a pontificate they perceive as too accommodating to contemporary trends, too obliging in watering down sound doctrine in the interest of compromise, too unsure of the absolutism of thought and behaviour they find comforting and orthodox.
They see the synod as a smokescreen for broader initiatives than merely those driven by social-justice imperatives. They see further evidence of Francis’s efforts to diminish papal authority and alter tradition they view as sacral.
Take, as a case in point, the matter of ordaining mature married men, viri probati. Such men would serve in areas so vast with priests so sparse that access to the sacraments is a rarity. Yet this is seen as a portal to universal change: the ushering in of a married clergy and the ushering out of a universally celibate one. The discussion point is not nearly so draconian. There is plenty of room for nuance, and Catholic practice is much more diverse than it is given credit for.
But deep suspicion of Francis’s motives and the toxins of disloyalty and disobedience are no longer subterranean. They are out in the open, and the synod could well be a battleground for Catholic factionalism.
The pope, however, will remain concentrated on the primary objectives: conscientization around the consequences of deforestation, the disruption of Indigenous life, the economic inequities that drive brutal land-use practices, the continued aftershocks of environmental degradation, community violence and political polarization.
How does one work to achieve an “integral ecology” that weighs human socioeconomic needs with the right nurturing of the environment? And how does one do that in a respectful way without condescension and in keeping with the demands of the Gospel while at the same time remaining open to the spirituality of Indigenous peoples?
These are the key questions. And Francis believes the work of the synod – conducted with transparency and with freedom of mind and heart – can help determine a path that can restore the world to rightful integrity. At the end of this, as he said in Laudato Si, “we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God.”
That’s not hugely different, I wager, from Ms. Thunberg’s more secular dream.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.