This fall’s Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian Region is already heightening tensions between the Catholic Church in Brazil and the populist, right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro. The national newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo reported on Feb. 10 that the government believes the gathering of bishops will promote a “leftist agenda.” According to the paper, military ministers “see the church as a potential opponent” and intend to “neutralize” eventual critiques to the government during the synod.
The synod on the theme “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology” was first announced by Pope Francis in 2017 and will take place in October in Rome. The gathering will include representatives from nine countries in the Amazon region: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana and Suriname.
According to O Estado de S. Paulo,the Bolsonaro government fears that “leftist” leaders of the Catholic Church will fill the void created by Brazil’s weakened political left, which lost popular support and institutional strength after last year’s presidential election. A conservative wave led by Mr. Bolsonaro swept many right-wing candidates into office last January.
Internal documents prepared by officials at the national intelligence agency and by Brazilian military commanders allegedly discuss recent meetings of bishops with Pope Francis at the Vatican in preparation for the synod.
The Bolsonaro government fears that “leftist” leaders of the Catholic Church fill the void created by Brazil’s weakened political left.
General Augusto Heleno, the chief minister of the National Security Office and one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s closest advisers, told the newspaper that there is, in fact, a strong concern. “There has long been influence of the church and of N.G.O.s in the [Amazon],” General Heleno said, according to the report. In his view, the government’s job is to “strengthen Brazilian sovereignty and avoid that foreign interests prevail in the region.”
One church source in Brazil told America that some members of the armed forces resent the influence and popularity of the Catholic Church in the Amazon.
Asked by journalists about the accuracy of the reports, the security office stated in a press release that “the Catholic Church is not the object of any kind of action” by national intelligence. It confirms, however, that the minister himself is concerned “with some points on the agenda of the Synod on the Amazon” because of issues of “national sovereignty.”
The statement continued, “We reiterate the understanding of the National Security Office that it is up to Brazil to take care of the Brazilian Amazon.” There are reports that different ministries will be involved in monitoring the bishops’ meeting, as well as Brazil’s embassies to the Vatican and to Italy.
In what is seen as an indirect response to news of the government’s dossier on the synod, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, the secretary general of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, recorded a short video for social media, describing the Synod for the Pan-Amazonian region as “a celebration of the church and for the church.”
The Vatican refused to comment on the matter. The secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, told America by email: “The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, through its secretary general, Bishop Leonardo Steiner, has already provided the necessary clarifications.”
In Brazil, references to “progressive clergy,” “red bishops” or “leftist” religious men and women are usually used to discredit Catholics involved in a variety of social justice movements. Priest, religious and lay people across the country work with small farmers, landless workers, migrants, the indigenous and the poor through groups like Comissão Pastoral da Terra and the Indigenist Missionary Council. While some activists are directly involved in politics, others adopt a nonpartisan approach.
Some members of the armed forces resent the influence and popularity of the Catholic Church in the Amazon.
Priests and religious people were among the founding members of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (known by its Portuguese abbreviation, P.T.) in the 1980s, years in which the country was governed by a repressive military dictatorship. Weakened over the years by systemic corruption, the P.T. lost the support of many Catholics who work for social justice. Mr. Bolsonaro, a champion of right-wing populism,defeated the P.T. in last year’s presidential elections.
According to Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the coordinator of the Center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and a religion commentator in Brazilian media, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration sees “the left” as their major enemy.
“In fact, there are many Catholics with leftist positions—as there are those on the right, too,” Mr. Ribeiro Neto said. But he pushed back on the idea that the Synod on the Amazon had a political agenda. Its aims, he said, “are anchored in the social teaching of the church.”
“A synod on the Amazon must focus on local challenges for evangelization. It is not an ideological invention of the moment but the recognition of a need for an evangelizing action that is well reflected and conscious,” he said.
Preserving the “peoples of the forest” is neither an exclusive mission of the Catholic Church nor a “leftist agenda” issue, he added. Mr. Ribeiro Neto noted that a large part of the population in the region “is excluded from the processes of human and socioeconomic development due to poverty and the geographic isolation imposed by the forest.”
“There is a techno-scientific consensus, rather than [an] ideological [one], that the occupation of tropical forests should not be done in the same patterns as the occupation of temperate zones,” the professor said. “The recognition of human rights and dignity of all populations, regardless of their economic and social status or ethnicity, is also accepted worldwide as a condition for democratic coexistence and peace. The problem is that the Bolsonaro government has put itself, ideologically, in opposition to these consensuses.”
In order to protect the “small ones”—the poor and those living on the margins—the church must engage in dialogue with all of the actors who hold interests in the Amazon.
The president of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network and Pope Francis’ close adviser in the Amazon, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes also stated in a video that it is not the church’s intention “to promote a new nation” in the Amazon.
He told America that, in order to protect the “small ones”—the poor and those living on the margins—the church must engage in dialogue with all of the actors who hold interests in the Amazon: international companies, scientists, the military, national and local governments—even if, at times, they are hostile to the church’s message.
“The church must always try the way of dialogue. Some [disagreements] will be irreducible, but we shall pursue a culture of encounter. The church does not wish to build a new Amazon. If someone sees it differently, we shall talk to them,” the cardinal said.
In a lecture to seminarians at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo on Feb. 19, Cardinal Hummes recalled that Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” is more than an explanation for why the church should engage on environmental issues.
“We shall form a network because we cannot act on our own. Only with the help of God we can join forces to care for our common home,” the cardinal said.
Cardinal Hummes supports Pope Francis’ idea that “money is the main obstacle on the road to the kingdom of God.” The archbishop emeritus of São Paulo and former prefect of the Congregation for Clergy has been a close friend to the pope since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
“We must find new models of development that respect the Amazon. It is currently a target for colonialism: People and organizations come and want to install their models without asking permission to local populations nor respecting their origins and traditions. Even the church has done that,” he admitted.
For the cardinal, the main goal of this synod is clear: finding new paths for the church in the Amazon. That includes situating the church in a global context of environmental issues and “saving the possibility of saving the planet.”
“Caring for the earth is a mission that God delivered to us. It is a mission of the church, and she cannot stay away from it—not only in the Amazon but let us think also of other places, for instance, the Congo Basin,” Cardinal Hummes said. The synod is also about overcoming a “technocratic paradigm,” he said, and promoting an “integral ecology.”
“We are a fruit of this planet, created by God. And God incarnated in Jesus Christ and made this interconnection permanent,” Cardinal Hummes said. “Everything is interconnected in our common home.”