Bishop McElroy on the Amazon’s ecological crisis and what’s next for the women’s diaconate

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego talks with Father Bernardo Estrada as they arrive for a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 15, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

“It’s important to save the Amazon because that’s emblematic for the future of our world, because as the Amazon goes, so goes the whole of the world,” Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego told America after participating in the three-week-long synod on “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”

He was one of only three bishops from the United States at the synod. He spoke with America on Oct. 27, the day it ended, and shared his reflections on the main topics addressed by the synod and the proposals made in its final document. Pope Francis had appointed him to the synod together with Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston, while the third American, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, participated in the synod ex officio as head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.

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Ecological Question

Bishop McElroy said the synod discussed “the various ways in which degradation of the environment is occurring in the Amazon region.” It pointed to “specific areas that are outrageous. For example, the fact that fires are lit purposely as a matter of, some would say, approved national policy, economic policy, to burn parts of the Amazon forest to provide land to raise cattle to ship to foreign countries such as China, and the disappropriation of peoples from their land.”

He said, “this is not something of the past;” rather, this is “an ongoing reality of great injustice.” He recalled that mining was another of the issues discussed and how “in many countries, such as Canada—which has many of the corporate headquarters of companies that do mining in this region—there are laws that govern how they mine, relating to safety and so forth, but they are not applicable with any teeth down in the Amazon.” Listening at the synod, he said, “you felt the land crying out because it is being systematically destroyed in ways that are planned for economic gain.”

Given this reality, Bishop McElroy said, “the rest of the world should be assisting the Amazon not only to preserve this treasure for the Amazon but for the world as a whole because it has an instrumentally very important role in assisting the environmental quality of the whole of the world. We’re not only not doing that..., we actually [are] contributing more to the problem.”

What Can The Church in the United States Do to Help?

Bishop McElroy said, “If ‘Laudato Si’’ made one thing clear it is that the Earth, which is our home, is in terrible danger.” He said, “It was proposed during the synod—and I think it was a very appropriate step—that we should really forge a coalition between the religious communities of the world, the young people of the world and the scientific community to really bring together a program to educate people about the realities of the destruction of the environment, and how they will come to a point of irreversibility.”

He said “the rainforest of the Amazon is about 17 percent gone, and when it gets to 40 percent it will be irreversible, according to the experts. We can’t be waiting until we get to near-irreversible” because of “the forces of inertia in all of our economic and political systems” and “of the greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.” Noting that already “there’s a momentum” toward that irreversible point, he said, “My great concern is the world is not paying much attention to this. We’re only [giving] sporadic attention.”

Bishop McElroy: The rest of the world should be assisting the Amazon not only to preserve this treasure for the Amazon but for the world as a whole because it has an instrumentally very important role in assisting the environmental quality of the whole of the world.

He hopes the synod will move the U.S. church “to amplify the message of ‘Laudato Si.’’” He recalled that there was a passage in the final document that says, “Later is too late.” He believes that is true: “We tend to put things off if they cause us to have to change lifestyles in certain ways or make sacrifices. We often do so in American society, and particularly at the level of decision-making where people don’t look at the long term; our political leaders don’t, often our socioeconomic and business leaders don’t. But on this issue, we can’t put things off a long time, particularly in the area of climate change.” He pointed to the dramatic situation in California right now.

A Martyr Church

As he listened to the interventions, Bishop McElroy was profoundly struck by the fact that “martyrdom is a reality for this church. It’s not just something honored in the past; there have been so many martyrs in the last 50 years that it is a current reality and the regional church in the Amazon carries that with them in their hearts.”

He said, “it’s a reality that is stunning for those of us in the United States to encounter: the fact that your parishioners might be killed, specifically for standing up for land rights, or standing up for the Gospel in the current moment.” But beyond that is the fact that “this church carries that [martyrdom] with them as part of who they are. As people of faith, they carry the notion of martyrs with them as a living presence.” In the United States , he said, “we think of ourselves as built on the church of the martyrs, but we don’t think of ourselves in any real sense as a martyred church, that our people are being killed.” He recalled how delegates brought pictures of some of their martyrs into the synod hall and placed them in front of the dais where the pope and presidents of the synod were sitting, and the pictures remained there throughout the synod.

Women’s Roles and Ministry in the Church

Bishop McElroy was also struck by the “tremendous support for the ministry of women in the region among the bishops who were here, among the indigenous leaders, among the women themselves who were participating, among the communities that were represented. And part of it is that within the indigenous cultures, women take the leadership roles in general, religiously anyway.” He recalled that “there was tremendous support for enhancing women’s roles in every possible way in the life of the church and thinking creatively, how on the ground especially in these communities which see a priest maybe once a year. How can women’s roles be expanded so that they can serve even more effectively than even they are at the present time?”

Bishop McElroy recalled that there was a passage in the final document that says, “Later is too late.” He believes that is true: “We tend to put things off if they cause us to have to change lifestyles in certain ways or make sacrifices." 

At the synod, he said, “one of the parish leaders got up and said what she does: She does everything in the parish except saying the Eucharist and hearing confessions. She baptizes, she celebrates the weddings… she preaches, when there is the Eucharist, she has the communion service, she presides at weddings.” He saw “broad support at the synod for that” and commented, “that reality has already expanded there beyond what we do in the United States.”

He said that the document requests some form of official recognition by the church of the work women in the Amazon churches are doing. It mentions the role of lector and acolyte, but “they’ve already gone beyond that,” he said. But he liked “the official recognition” in the final document “that the local bishop has the authority to appoint people as heads of parishes for particular periods of time—that includes liturgical leadership,” and remarked that “one of the interesting things in the indigenous cultures is that leadership tends to be rotational. It’s not that the same person does it for many, many years, they rotate it as a way of sharing gifts so that the leadership isn’t personalized in that sense, and there’s a hint of that in there too.” The Amazonian bishops that he talked to favored this.

Putting The Hot-Button Questions in Perspective

Bishop McElroy went out of his way to emphasize that while the two hot-button questions—the ordination of “viri probati” and the women’s diaconate discussed throughout—“are important questions,” it should be understood that:

they are subsets of the much larger question of how do we expand the pastoral outreach of the church in the Amazon at this moment to effectively reach our young people, to effectively reach those who are drifting away from the Catholic community, partly because they don’t have the Eucharist. How do we catch those who have become Pentecostals, or are moving toward Pentecostals because we haven’t given them enough of the Scripture and how the Word plays in their life and in the Gospel in terms of the Catholic church?” He repeated, “that’s the overarching question, and I think it’s important to keep that perspective.

He told America that to understand the synod proposal regarding the ordination of married men,“it is very important to note how this proposal was framed.” He recalled that around 50 of the 200 four-minute interventions at the synod mentioned the issue and “most were in favor of it,” and with perhaps 4 exceptions, “everyone” stated clearly “they were in favor of celibacy, and believed that celibacy should continue to be the norm, and that the first priority of the church in the region is to find celibate priests and to try to hope that other regions of the world will help them to find celibate priests who will work in the region.”

In addition, he said “they felt that because there is such a need for the Eucharist to be present in the life of these communities which are so many, and they so seldom get the Eucharist, that the viri probati should be ordained.” Bishop McElroy underlined the fact that the proposal “is restricted to men who are already permanent deacons and who have been effective as permanent deacons, are in a stable marriage, and have the maturity.” A number of bishops told him that if the proposal gets papal approval, then “they would be looking at their permanent deacons and reckoned that maybe half of them might fit those criteria.”

He was “not surprised” that 128 voted in favor and 41 against, because “it seemed clear to me” that while “the great majority were in favor…some who were opposed to it in any form, and that was not a small group.”

Commenting on the subject of women's diaconate, Bishop McElroy remarked, “this is very much part of the substantive esteem that was both conceptual and affective throughout the synod, that women are undertaking so much of the pastoral work effectively, very effectively, in the Amazon and those roles need to be expanded. We need to have the structures that enable women to do that more effectively. The permanent diaconate is one of those.”

When Pope Francis referred to this in his comments after the vote, the bishop said, “really he was speaking directly to the women in the hall, who had spoken out as a group at that point, and who had been speaking through their own interventions.” The pope said “he was going to move this commission forward,” and Bishop McElroy considered this significant “because there was a lot of feeling that this commission was just moribund,” but “when he said he was going to appoint new members and moving it forward, he didn’t say how it would come out but he certainly signaled that it would have a new perspective and new people looking at it to see is there a way that this can be accomplished.” The American bishop said, “it was clear to me that the majority of bishops at the synod were in favor of recommending women to be in the diaconate.”

While the commission has up to now been searching for evidence concerning the women’s diaconate in the early church, Bishop McElroy felt perhaps it should adopt a different approach. He told America, “I feel women should be invited into every ministry and liturgy we have in the church except if it is clearly precluded by doctrinal tradition, which is a different thing. It’s not ‘can you find a warrant for women as permanent deacons’—though there are some arguments for such a warrant. My point is that in justice women should be invited into those ministries unless there is a categorical preclusion doctrinally which prohibits it.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Lochner
3 weeks 1 day ago

The nature of Jesuit training and the change from "teaching people how to think" to "obedience" is profoundly disturbing. When I now read a Church opinion I am forced to research ever more to find a Truth/Reality. For a scientific viewpoint on Amazon fires :
https://relay.nationalgeographic.com/proxy/distribution/public/amp/environment/2019/09/ancient-humans-burned-amazon-fires-today-entirely-different

JR Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

Maybe this Synod had nothing to do with the Amazon.

Jim Smith
3 weeks ago

You may have seen this already, it explained a lot more to me that had been puzzling.

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/10/letters-from-the-synod-2019-1

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 6 days ago

Thanks for the reference. I noticed they used the word "gobbledygook." It was the word I used to describe the description here about the outcome. So it looks like gobbledygook in and gobbledygook out.

Nora Bolcon
3 weeks ago

Blah Blah Blah Blah -How can women’s roles be expanded so that they can serve even more effectively than even they are at the present time?”

Until we treat women the same as men, and there is nothing in the bible which says we cannot, including ordaining women priests and bishops and making them cardinals and popes, while there is in existence, in the Gospels, from Christ, a commandment that declares it is sin to treat women differently than men since it is sin to treat anyone differently than you wish to be treated yourself - Bishop! , the answer should be clear. Stop worrying about changing celibacy rules and concern yourself with being a real martyr for justice and start demanding women be given exact same sacraments in our church as they always should have been allowed them.

There is evidence not only of women deacons (ordained) in our church history but also of women priests and bishops (likely ordained as well). Our hierarchy lies to us when it pretends this is not true, and then also pretends these dignity abusing doctrines keeping women from same sacraments can't be changed. Bull! This church has changed various doctrines in the past and must stop the hate and bias against women now or watch itself self-destruct as it has been continually doing.

Women should not accept anything less than exact same ordination and sacraments and opportunities as men at every level of our church and neither should any other group of human beings. This a matter of basic human justice.

Our willingness, as Catholics, to continue to treat women differently has caused us to be an enormous supporter of sexism throughout the world. One of the reasons the Amazon is in trouble, and the world to a larger degree, is overpopulation. This overpopulation is worse in Catholic run countries because our Church condemns birth control and has tried for decades to keep it out of the hands of the poorest women of the world. Now that overpopulation issue is devouring the world's resources at a rate our world cannot sustain. But sure Bishops, Tell us again how much you care, while you lift continually misogyny above everything else, and then have a synod to discuss how to fix the problems you caused but still will not own up to your part in creating.

Crystal Watson
3 weeks ago

So tired of these expressions of wonder ... "look, women can nearly do everything we men can do - gasp! It's almost like they're people! Maybe someday, like after the apocalypse when there are only women and cockroaches left surviving, women can be deaconesses. Maybe."

Jim Smith
3 weeks ago

Put another way - As goes the whole world, so goes the Amazon.
Should we have left the continent of Australia to the less than one million Aborigines who have suffered multiple thousands of years staying in the Stone Age while Christendom developed houses and clothes and reading and writing and effective medicine and good nutrition bringing about plunging maternal mortality rates, plunging infant mortality rates, prevention of blindness and vitamin deficiency disorders, marriage, monogamy and vicious tribal warfare?

Now, about acting like the three wise monkeys, again, as with sexual predator priests.
Is it possible that this bishop, and the Pope, has no idea of the high rate of concubinage amongst the Catholic priests in the Amazon?

Leo Sprietsma
1 week 5 days ago

What we really need is to use our seminaries to train Laity, and to start thinking about Ordaining Laity.

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