Francis has released Querida Amazonia, his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation following the 2019 Synod of Bishops meeting on Amazonia. Despite the extensive speculation during the Synod and afterward, Francis did not provide an obvious opening to married priests or deaconesses. The disappointment of his liberal interpreters, by and large self appointed, has been palpable. However, Francis did return to the themes of Laudato si’, his social encyclical, which dealt at great length with technology and ecology. Indeed, Querida Amazonia builds upon Laudato si’ in interesting ways, evoking not only Fr. Romano Guardini, long known as one of Francis’s most important intellectual influences, but also the hugely influential German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. The focus, therefore, on the questions of married priests and deaconesses is, therefore, missing a valuable opportunity to reflect on Francis’s serious philosophical and theological challenge to modernity, especially technology and globalization’s pernicious effects on tradition and traditional ways of life.
For the most part, the ecclesiastical-political dimension has driven the reaction to Querida Amazonia. It cannot be denied that Querida Amazonia is a disappointment: progressives in the Church have been agitating for some time for openings for married priests (sometimes referred to by means of the phrase viri probati) and deaconesses. The problem concerning deaconesses has been a long-running one for Francis. I think his commission studying the historical sources went through one round, issued a report, and then has been reopened in some dimension. The question of married priests—and the concomitant effect on priestly celibacy—predates Francis’s pontificate. However, because Francis is widely believed to be a progressive, there is renewed vigor in the demands.
Based on the Synod’s final report, there were very definite notions that he would open up the question of deaconesses in a broader way. Obviously the memories of Amoris laetitia are still fresh. (Of course, precisely why residents of Amazonia clamored for the two things that have lately been controversial in liberal Catholic spheres is a little unclear.) And reports in the press stoked this expectation. Indeed, shortly before Querida Amazonia was released, there was a definite report that Francis would endorse the ordination of married men. The report went so far as to allege that a draft exhortation had been sent to various prelates in advance of its release. But shortly before the document was released, there were other rumors that Francis would not even address the proposal. These latter rumors turned out to be true: Francis did not open the door to the ordination of married men. He did not even discuss the proposal in any detail.
Querida Amazonia is a second major bust for progressives. The first, Christus vivit, was Francis’s response to the 2018 Youth Synod. It was widely anticipated that this would provide an opening for reconsideration of the Church’s teaching about homosexuality in particular. Much was made, in pre-Synod surveys and in the working document for the Synod, of the fact that young people have difficulty understanding (or even outright disagreements with) the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. When Christus vivit was issued, however, no such opening appeared. Indeed, it was another entry in a long line of papal statements aimed at young people that are wholly uncontroversial.
It has been suggested that Robert Cardinal Sarah and, possibly, Benedict XVI’s intervention—a book in favor of priestly celibacy—had some effect on the Pope’s ultimate decision. Certainly, the book became a significant controversy, with the exact nature of Benedict XVI’s contribution challenged. The book seems to have had consequences for Francis’s government of the Church, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, heretofore prefect of the Papal Household and Benedict’s personal secretary, being reassigned pretty much permanently to the latter duty. This appears to be Francis’s sanction for Gänswein’s murky role in the whole controversy over Benedict’s involvement. However, in recent weeks another possibility has emerged.
On February 19, Sandro Magister published a lengthy piece arguing that Francis’s decision was motivated by the ongoing issues with the German Church. Magister notes that the German Church’s ongoing “Synodal Way” is aimed—at least in the minds of some of its most prominent voices—at loosening the celibacy requirement for priests, finding some mechanism by which holy orders could be conferred on women, and blessing same-sex relationships. Magister details the series of interventions taken by Francis and his deputies in the Curia to rein in the “Synodal Way,” all of which have been politely received and subsequently ignored by the German authorities. Magister suggests that the silence of Querida Amazonia on the issues of viri probati and deaconesses is part of Francis’s attempt to deflate the German process.
An interesting sidenote: if Magister is correct, Walter Cardinal Kasper has been an important advocate against the German “Synodal Way” as it has developed. Kasper was more or less the villain of the 2014-2015 Synod that produced Amoris laetitia, though his profile has not been so high since the document was released. Magister suggests that Kasper raised the alarm in a way that other German prelates, such as Cardinal Müller or Cardinal Brandmüller could not, and subsequently helped Francis get a handle on the situation in the Church in Germany. It was with the assistance of Kasper’s consultation that Francis wrote his letter to the German Catholics, calling for caution and deliberation.
Whatever the reason for the decision, the self-appointed interpreters of Francis’s pontificate swung into action almost immediately. Francis’s apparent decision not even to refer to the final report of the Synod means that all of the issues in that document remain open. Francis, we are told, meant to present that document and guide its reception by the Church. Of course Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, let the cat out of the bag at the press conference presenting Querida Amazonia: in Episcopalis communio, Francis’s 2018 document reforming the Synod, there’s a mechanism for endorsing the final report and incorporating it into the pope’s ordinary magisterium (art. 18). Francis has not done so, which means that it has the weight of a Synod final document, whatever that may be.
Yet it is a disservice to the Pope’s vision to talk about Querida Amazonia in the narrow, concrete terms of what Francis approved or did not approve. As Matthew Walther has explained, Querida Amazonia is an extraordinary document. Francis returns to the themes of his great encyclical, Laudato si’, but this time by means of poetry and reflection. One is hard pressed to think of another papal document that contains phrases such as “this dream made of water” and “a dance of dolphins,” much less the copious references to poetry. Throughout the document, one detects the influence of Fr. Romano Guardini, who has long been an influence for Francis. One also detects other influences, such as Martin Heidegger.
I have often wanted someone who has a profound knowledge of Francis and Heidegger to write about the connections between the two. Both Laudato si’ and Querida Amazonia seem deeply influenced by Heidegger’s Essay Concerning Technology and his 1966 Spiegel interview, more commonly known as “Only a God Can Save Us.” Francis’s meditations on the traditional Amazonian way of life, affected by technology and exploitation, seem to have roots in Heidegger no less than Guardini. Even the turn to poetry in Querida Amazonia seems as though it is influenced by Heidegger, especially Heidegger’s emphasis on the poetry of Hölderlin. It is true that Francis does not explicitly cite Heidegger, either in Laudato si’ or in Querida Amazonia. In contrast, Francis has explicitly cited Guardini, especially The End of the Modern World. However, it seems strange—to me at any rate—that Francis would be familiar with Guardini’s writings on technology and man without also having some familiarity with Heidegger’s influential writings on the same topics.
A few examples may suffice. Consider the passage from the Spiegel interview: “Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is awesome, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.” Compare this with Francis’s assessment of the historical situation in Querida Amazonia: “It is well known that, ever since the final decades of the last century, the Amazon region has been presented as an enormous empty space to be filled, a source of raw resources to be developed, a wild expanse to be domesticated. None of this recognizes the rights of the original peoples; it simply ignores them as if they did not exist, or acts as if the lands on which they live do not belong to them.” Francis appears to be describing in particularly evocative terms the same phenomenon Heidegger is describing. Indeed, in the Spiegel interview, Heidegger used similar terms to describe the process that took place in Provence.
Heidegger went on to say “I know that, according to our human experience and history, everything essential and of great magnitude has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition.” This statement could well be a summary of chapter two of Querida Amazonia, which includes Francis’s dire warning: “The globalized economy shamelessly damages human, social and cultural richness. The disintegration of families that comes about as a result of forced migrations affects the transmission of values, for ‘the family is and has always been the social institution that has most contributed to keeping our cultures alive.’” In this dimension, we see Francis’s profound conservatism. The globalized economy, for Francis, attacks directly the home and tradition in which man is rooted. Indeed, it attacks the most central element of the home and the tradition as Francis sees it: the family. By reducing individuals to mere economic variables and forcing them to migrate for various reasons, globalization (i.e., late-liberal capitalism) destroys those things that produce “everything essential and of great magnitude” as Heidegger would say.
One could go on in this vein, especially by means of the Essay Concerning Technology. It would be an interesting exercise to consider the similarities between Francis’s treatment of the Amazon and Heidegger’s treatment of the Rhine, especially by means of the poet Hölderlin. Of course, there have been attempts in the past to draw connections, especially via Guardini, between Heidegger and Francis. But I am not sure that I have seen a good, concise presentation, especially drawing upon Francis’s thought about technology. Given that the discussion about Querida Amazonia has been mostly about the concrete questions about what Francis did or did not do, I am pessimistic about whether anyone will take the opportunity to use the springboard presented by Querida Amazonia to write such a presentation.
The unedifying nature of the debate over Querida Amazonia becomes obvious though. Francis has offered the whole Church—indeed, the whole world—an opportunity to discuss issues that are at the very heart of the theological and philosophical tradition, both inside and outside the Church, since the Second World War. His contribution here, especially as a ground for further thought, is no less rich than the philosophical and theological contributions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To take this opportunity and reduce it to a polemical, ideological confrontation about who did or did not “win” the Synod or who will or will not receive the prize of ordination is, therefore, a superficial response. Worse than that, it is a sign that it no longer really matters what Francis says.