Right now, the Roman Catholic Church leaders are in the midst of a three-week long meeting discussing the future of their ministry in the Amazon. Among the issues the synod is investigating are how church leaders should respond to chronic priest shortages, the role of women in official church leadership, and environmental degradation.

Under the previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict the XVI, synods—or meetings convening all of the top brass of the Catholic church—were largely symbolic, says Christopher White, the national correspondent for the Catholic publication Crux. Not so with Pope Francis.

“His two synods on the family wrestled with, among other issues, communion. And in the end, after two synods and two years of deliberation, Pope Francis issued a document that allowed for a cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, which did move forward the Church's pastoral teaching on that particular issue,” said White.

White suggested that the Amazon synod may conclude with similar progress.

“Among the many issues that they're going to be discussing in Rome over the next three weeks is perhaps relaxing the celibacy requirement for priests because there is such a shortage of priests in the particular region of the Amazon. And they're grappling with what to do about it,” he said.

White joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss the real or symbolic importance of synods, what makes the Amazon region particularly vexing to the Church, and why Protestants should stay abreast of an important Catholic meeting.

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Highlights from Episode #181

What is a synod? And what role do they play in the Catholic tradition?

Christopher White: A synod is an advisory council or body to the Pope. The synods date back to a second Vatican Council, which took place between 1962 and 1965, in which the Church was really trying to grapple with how we engage ourselves in the modern world. And one of the byproducts of that was the idea of synods, which are convened at the behest of the Pope. They take place every few years sort of at the Pope's initiation, typically to advise on a particular topic or particular region.

Pope John Paul II in the 80s held a number of special synods to focus on regions of the Church. So he had two synods on Africa, two synods on Europe, one on Asia. They've also been topical; so we've had synods on the priesthood or communion in the Eucharist.

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This is Pope Francis's fourth synod. He's had two on the family and then most recently last October he convened a synod on young people and the future of the church. This is his first special synod focused on a particular region, which is the Amazon.

If you want to put it in a U.S. context, let's say it's sort of a House of Representatives, gathering people from particular regions of the country and convening them all in one location. But the synod has no real authority. Any final decisions that come out of the synod are made by the Pope and the Pope alone.

This synod will take place over the course of three weeks in Rome, where about 300 bishops will be fine-tuning a final document. In the document, they will make certain recommendations on the topic at hand, but then the pope will take that to himself and then perhaps six months from now, we'll get a final document from the Pope himself. This will either come in the form of an apostolic exhortation or what's known as an encyclical, which is the Pope's major treatise on a topic of concern.

When you say that "the Pope and the Pope alone" is the individual that is going to be making the actual decision or final doctrine on the issue, does that mean the synods are just symbolic? Or do they actually have real teeth when it comes to affecting what the Pope ends up deciding?

Christopher White: Under Pope Francis, the synods have become quite interesting, high-profile events. This isn't a judgment by any means on the synods that took place under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but I think you know most observers would say those were largely symbolic—giving a chance for leaders from Africa to get to know one another better and for the global Church to get a greater understanding of that particular region—but they didn't grapple with real root of doctrinal issues. They didn't take up issues that could substantively change the practice of the Church.

Now under Pope Francis, that's been different. His two synods on the family wrestled with, among other issues, communion. And in the end, after two synods and two years of deliberation, Pope Francis issued a document that allowed for a cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, which did move forward the Church's pastoral teaching on that particular issue.

The same here with the synod on the Amazon, where among the many issues that they're going to be discussing in Rome over the next three weeks is perhaps relaxing the celibacy requirement for priests because there is such a shortage of priests in the particular region of the Amazon. And they're grappling with what to do about it.

And so I think under Pope Francis, we've seen sort of a new interest in synods because of what they may achieve.

Let's talk about this particular synod that is happening. What has led to this synod been convened for this particular location?

Christopher White: This synod was announced by Pope Francis about two years ago in October 2017. Now before that in 2015, he had already commissioned a special office that focused on the Amazon.

The celibacy requirement, or the question of married priests, is what's become the dominant storyline. But that's not ultimately what Pope Francis was motivated by here. What he's motivated by a number of things, but perhaps chief among them is the fact that this is a remote area of the world where there are a number of Catholics—depending on how you do the math, you could say anywhere from 3 million to 20 million. Often these communities are isolated, and they lack priests. The pope is effectively trying to have the global Church wrestle with how we attend to this remote region of the world and provide them with greater pastoral care.

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At the same time, this is an area of the world that is experiencing tremendous ecological destruction, often at the hands of the First World. For Pope Francis, I believe he believes this requires a global response. Beyond that, I think he thinks that the Amazon region and the faith of those indigenous people in the Amazon have a lot to teach the global Church. One of the major themes of his papacy, from the time he was elected in 2013, is how to reorient the global Church to be what he has termed "a poor Church for the poor," and I think he's wanting to draw on the tradition of the Amazon to help carry that forward.

Why it's so important for Catholics to have a priest?

Christopher White: For Catholics, it is only the priest who is allowed to administer certain sacraments within the church. Most specifically, administering the Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council says the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Catholic faith."

And in these particular areas of the Amazon, where priests are largely itinerant, some of these regions are used to only seeing a priest once a year, maybe twice a year. It really is considered by many Catholics spiritual deprivation to deny Catholics communion. And when it's only the priest that has that authority or that capacity in the Catholic tradition, then it's a real issue of spiritual well-being. The pope is trying to put that front and center.

Is this issue of priests shortages in the Amazon a new issue or problem?

Christopher White: The number of priests has certainly been in decline for a number of years. The general demographics of the Amazon have changed rapidly. If you think of Brazil as sort of the center of the region, 50 years ago pretty much everyone was Catholic. And now some of the most recent polls put that number at closer to 60-65% of the population as being Catholic. So with the general decline of Catholicism more broadly, you can also trace a priest shortage as well.

In the U.S., it's roughly one Catholic priest for about a population of every thousand, but in the Amazon that soars to fifteen to thirty thousand depending on the region. There's quite a disparity there.

Let's talk about the married priests situation that is going to be raised by the Synod. What type of precedent is, therefore, having a discussion about the possibility of married priests?

Christopher White: Let's just rewind a bit. The tradition of celibacy in the Catholic Church is something that is part of the Church's tradition, but it is not a part of the Church's doctrine.

So it's important to remember and to state clearly that should the synod allow for the possibility of married priests, it is not changing what would be considered Church doctrine, but that of practice or tradition.

It was only in the 12th century when the Catholic Church formally enacted the celibacy requirement for priests, and then I believe it was about 300 years later that another Vatican Council affirmed that and that's been the tradition since then in the vast majority of cases, but there are exceptions.

In 2010 or 2011, Pope Benedict XVI , who was certainly not a squishy theological type figure, allowed for married Anglican priests who wanted to come into the Catholic fold to continue to serve as priests as married men. The Eastern-rite Catholics as well, they have married priests under certain circumstances. So there is room for this within the Catholic tradition.

And what Pope Francis has said in recent years when asked about this is that he doesn't want to throw out the tradition of celibacy within the Catholic tradition entirely, but he does think it needs to be up for discussion in particular regions where the pastoral concern trumps that of common practice.

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The whole idea of priestly celibacy is something that stems from the idea that the priest is to act in Persona Christi, in the person of Christ. And in the same way for Christ, his bride was the Church, the Catholic tradition has largely upheld that that is sort of the model for the priesthood throughout the world.

What do you think will be discussed when it comes to the role of Catholic women?

Christopher White: In yesterday's opening remarks there was talk about the need for enhanced Catholic ministry for women. The church isn't considering ordination, that's not up for debate at the moment in this synod, but yesterday at a press conference at the Vatican there was a nun from the region who was asked this very question. And she said there are lots of roles in which women can and should be allowed to act, and the Church needs to think through what that looks like in an official capacity.

Things like women being Eucharistic ministers, women that can hear confessions but not offer absolution, and then I guess the real hot-button issue within the Catholic Church of women deacons. Which there's been some historical debate over the fact that the Church did have women deacons in the early Church, what that looked like, and if it served the same role of an ordained minister is a matter of theological dispute.

Pope Francis himself has commissioned a study on this very question. There are some in the Church that are pushing for greater role of women who are hoping that the synod will allow the Pope to get concrete when he talks about women's leadership, for him to perhaps spell out what that can actually mean.

Is there a current part of the world where women have a more robust presence in Church leadership or Catholic life and liturgy?

Christopher White: It's really Catholic religious women, the sisters, our nuns, who are responsible for running so many of the church's institutions. From its schools and hospitals, to even serving as parish administrators in many places around the globe. I don't think there's anywhere I've been in the world where it hasn't been the sisters on the front lines really doing both the grunt work and also exercising real authority.

The global Church is indebted to that of religious women. The frustration for some of some critics would be that the Church is simply relied on them without formalizing their role in any official sort of way.

This is not the first time that the church has address climate change and the environment even under Pope Francis. What is going to make this particular conversation unique?

Christopher White: In 2015, Pope Francis issued an Encyclical on climate change called Laudato si', which was largely seen as his effort to rally governments around the world and other institutions to address the challenge of climate change. If you look at the working document that is the foundation for discussion for this synod on the Amazon, Laudato si' is peppered throughout. So this synod is drawing deeply on that. And it's really a call for the Church to better understand our relationship with the world around us.

The idea is that if you know if we under understand our relationship with the world as that of a gift, it will sort of help us in our task of stewarding the environment. It's taken on particular urgency in the Amazon region where we've seen a major uptick in forest fires. The Amazon rainforest provides so much of the world's oxygen, so even though it's a particular area of the world, it's arguable that so much of the world depends on what happens in that rainforest.

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For Pope Francis, one of the phrases that he's echoed throughout the six years that he's been Pope has been, "let us hear the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor." And he sees these two as connected. So whether it's Laudato si' or this synod, he is trying to use the Church's vast global network and moral authority in the public square to put this issue front and center.

On a local level the idea of addressing climate change, and in particular calling attention to the Amazon region, is getting pushed back on the ground particularly by the current Brazilian government and other governments in the region because the Brazilian rainforest could be a huge moneymaker with the vast resources there. So there is skepticism of the church intervening.

From a U.S. perspective, Pope Francis wrote in 2015 that the church is not there to play science, but it accepts the science of climate change. And he upset a lot of oil and gas corporations in this country and beyond, who wanted to see the Church either step out of the way or stay quiet when it comes to this issue.

But the Church has a long tradition of speaking out on different issues. Whether it's labor rights, that abortion and life issues to other human rights issues. And this isn't new to Pope Francis. Pope Benedict XVI became known as "the Green Pope" for his own emphasis on ecological matters. John Paul II spoke out on ecological concerns. The fact that Pope Francis has put a major spotlight on it does not mean that this is not part of the Catholic tradition.

What kind of opposition, if any, will the Catholic community have about the topics to be addressed during this synod?

Christopher White: Among the bishops from the Amazon region, they're all fairly united in the fact that something has to be done to provide greater pastoral care and access to the sacraments for those from the region. Where the controversy comes in for this synod is of those watching from the outside.

So what's at stake here? Well for lack of a better term, those who are more traditional and who have voiced skepticism or opposition to Pope Francis, they say that the Church is just getting too caught up in being social actors.

One cardinal wrote a document some months ago sort of saying, what does economics and politics have to do with theology? To which one of Pope Francis's closest advisors in this synod said, " It has everything to do with it." So there is just sort of this real difference in understanding of what the church should be focused on.

Secondly, I think you know for those that are more progressive, or at least on board with what would be termed as Pope Francis's reform efforts, the push toward allowing married priests would be taken as a sign of victory. That the church can sort of change and modify some of its core practices to sort of accommodation for the time.

So in some respects, it's being set up as sort of this modernist versus traditionalist battle.

There’s been a steady decline of Catholics in South America, with many of them turning to Pentecostalism and other forms of evangelicalism. Will this be something that will be addressed during the synod?

Christopher White: It's obvious that that's part of what's motivating this synod. If you look at the numbers—the drop to 60 to 65 percent of Brazilians identifying as being Catholic now and 50 years ago it was nearly a hundred—that is a motivating factor.

It'll be interesting to see if that is addressed in explicit terms. Whether you have some bishops and priests standing up saying, "we're losing our people to other faith traditions" or whether the language is a bit more nuanced.

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I'll be curious to see how Pope Francis himself navigates that. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, he enjoyed strong relationships, particularly with the Pentecostal community. It's rare that you hear Pope Francis framing this type of conversation as this competition between Catholics and other Christians in the region. But for others, they won't mince words about the fact that you know Catholics are losing ground to predominantly Pentecostals in Brazil and elsewhere.

What you can tell us about the ways that you imagine the Church talking about contextualization of the Catholic faith, particularly for the different indigenous communities in Brazil?

Christopher White: The synod officially started on Sunday with a mass and then yesterday on Monday and was the first major day of discussions. But in the lead-up to that, over the weekend at the Vatican, there was a big indigenous ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, where the Pope and a number of cardinals and a number of indigenous people from the region planted a tree.

If you look at some of the images that have come out of Rome in the past few days, what you see are a number of folks in these colorful outfits and headdresses. They had a procession from St. Peter's Basilica over to the synod hall, playing various instruments and dancing. Not your typical scene that you would see at a Papal liturgy. And I think one of the things that the organizers of this synod that they've tried to do is show this is a different way of being the Church that is still valid. There was the intentional message that this is our church, too.

This is something that dates back to Pope John Paul II when he visited the indigenous communities in Canada or out in the southwest of this country. He made it very clear that the global Church has a lot to learn from about the passion and dynamism of the Church in these particular regions and areas. And I think this is again another area in which the current Pope is saying we need to learn from you here.

To be honest that is causing others to bristle, saying this isn't what we are as Church. And over the weekend in Rome, there was a big counter-protest event where a very notable Catholic traditional historian referred to those from the region as savages. So you're seeing some conversations that are tinged with racism. There could be some ugliness in the weeks ahead as the church tries to navigate this.