In his review of the American author Barry Lopez’s “interrogative autobiography” Horizon in the September 26, 2019, issue of the New York Review of Books, Verlyn Klinkenborg praises the graceful way in which Lopez “relates to traditional, indigenous wisdom and the people who sustain it in their own lives.” With Horizon, Klinkenborg writes, Lopez has centered a question that is threaded throughout his body of work: “How can we keep the future from crushing the wisdom of the past altogether?”
In the wake of the Amazon synod that concluded on October 27 in Rome, it is a pertinent question for Catholics to be asking. Among the major themes discussed at the synod was the special place of indigenous cultures within the church and the world. While much attention has been paid to the shortage of priests in the Amazon region, and the synod’s discussion of ordaining married men as a way of addressing the lack, the broader issue of how the church plans to integrate with indigenous communities also deserves attention.
Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the lead organizer of the synod, touched on this idea of integration during his opening address on October 7. The global church, he said, can no longer “remain inactive within her own closed circle, focused on herself, [and] surrounded by protective walls.” Instead it “needs to throw open her doors, knock down the walls surrounding her and build bridges, going out into the world and setting out on the path of history.” Cardinal Hummes’s comments at the outset of the synod were complemented by Pope Francis’s at its close, when the Holy Father warned of the danger of shutting ourselves up behind the protective wall of self-righteousness: “To consider ourselves righteous is to leave God, the only righteous one, out in the cold.”
The desire to break through, to establish new contacts with our brothers and sisters in the Amazon and to stand with them in solidarity against economic and environmental exploitation, is obviously a good one. But in so doing, we must be attentive to the complicated history of the Catholic Church, including its complicity—either directly or indirectly—in a legacy of colonialism throughout Latin America. Too often for the church, “going out into the world” has meant engaging in well-intentioned (at times) but ultimately oppressive missionary projects that resulted in enslavement, land theft, and other forms of subjugation of native peoples.
Franciscan friar and priest Daniel Horan made this clear in his piece on the expectations for the synod (“The decolonial and intercultural hopes of the pan-Amazon synod,” National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 2019). Horan offered two quotations from the “working document” that preceded the synod as evidence that the church was ready to acknowledge and begin to atone its sins of colonialism: “Christ was often proclaimed in connivance with the powers that exploited the resources and oppressed the populations” (paragraph 6); and “There were moments when the Church was complicit with the colonizers, and this stifled the prophetic voice of the Gospel” (paragraph 38).
These statements, Horan claimed, signaled a new attitude on behalf of the church toward indigenous populations—one of “decoloniality” that “value[s] and prioritize[s] sources of wisdom and experience that do not simply come from the geographic contexts of Western Europe or North America. . . . The very same traditional wisdom of the diverse communities of the Amazon region that European colonizers rejected as inferior or worthlessly ‘pagan’ in previous generations is now proposed as the very locus of insight from which the universal church can and should learn.”
Horan was writing before the synod began, but its final document, released by the Vatican on October 26, proves that his hopes were well founded. A summary of the document is available on the Vatican website, where a section entitled “Indigenous theology and popular piety” states the following:
The proclamation of the Gospel is not a process of destruction, but of growth and consolidation of those “seeds of the Word” in the [indigenous] cultures. From here, there is an emphatic rejection of “colonial-style evangelization” and “proselytism,” in favor of an inculturated proclamation that promotes a Church with an Amazonian face, with full respect for and parity with the history, the culture, and the lifestyle of the local populations. In this regard, the synodal Document proposes that centers of research in the Church should study and collect the traditions, languages, beliefs and aspirations of the indigenous peoples, encouraging an education based on their own identity and culture.
While there is still a hint of paternalism in that phrase “encouraging an education,” this turn toward “inculturation” is a marked step forward. As scientists such as Mark J. Plotkin have documented, the botanical diversity of the Amazon region coupled with the deep knowledge of its indigenous peoples could help cure many of our modern ailments. We would do well to open ourselves to this wisdom; we are already finding that our present ecological crisis will not be solved by technology alone, and that we will have to adopt practices and lifeways that have been refined by indigenous cultures for centuries.
In a Catholic context, this might mean moving beyond a missionary or evangelical framing—i.e., “promot[ing] a Church with an Amazonian face”—and actively seeking to learn from the peoples of the Amazon. An encounter rooted in true Gospel humility would allow the infusion of indigenous wisdom into our Catholic worldview, expanding our perspective on the relationship between nature and Spirit, the importance of oral tradition as a means of uniting us through generations, and the practical, sacral, and metaphysical revelations that can only come from grounding ourselves in the rhythms of a specific place as they reverberate over time.
One area where there is great potential for an indigenous renewal of Catholic perspective is in our attitude toward the priestly vocation. For many of us, our sacramental reality is compartmentalized, set off in a church we drive to one day a week; we do not allow it to permeate our public and private spaces and so transform the materiality of our everyday lives. Part of this has to do with the way we view our priests—as a class apart, in our communities but not entirely of them, differentiated by subtleties such as the Roman collar or more pronounced distinctions such as living arrangements in isolated rectories.
How foreign this is to indigenous cultures, where the priest or shaman is the facilitator of a spiritual reality that cannot be separated out of or sealed off from the daily life of the tribe. Describing Barry Lopez’s admiration of the “formal elders” of traditional cultures, Verlyn Klinkenborg states that “their wisdom isn’t personal, unique to themselves. It’s ‘part of the fabric of a community,’ shared by all its members.” One imagines what new dimensions of Catholic spirituality we might discover if we began to look at our priests through indigenous eyes: not only in the depersonalizing of wisdom and de-hierarchizing of holiness, but also in viewing the work of the priest as just that—work—and, as such, an elemental contribution to our common life as we draw together toward the sacred.
Editor, Today’s American Catholic