VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - An assembly of bishops to discuss the future of the Roman Catholic Church in the Amazon, including the possibility of introducing married priests, has deepened faultlines between Pope Francis and conservatives who say it is heretical.
The three-week synod opens on Sunday at a time when the region - made up of eight countries and the French territory of Guiana - is in the world spotlight because of recent devastating fires in Brazil.
About 260 participants, mostly bishops from the Amazon, will discuss spreading the faith, protection of the environment, climate change, deforestation, indigenous people and their right to keep their land and traditions.
The Church’s small but vociferous hardline conservative wing has drawn up battle lines.
Despite being led by only three cardinals among some 230 in the Church and just one bishop out of more than 5,000, they have parlayed their savvy use of social media and their access to conservative Catholic news outlets to pillory the synod’s working document.
They say it is bursting with doctrinal errors, including what they say is an implicit recognition of forms of paganism and pantheism practiced by indigenous people, such as nature worship. Many of the conservative hardliners are also skeptical about climate change science.
Last week, about 200 conservatives gathered near the Vatican and prayed silently “with the purpose of forming a united army against the enemies of God and of the Church”, they said in a statement.
The synod will be “a battle between good angels and demons”, one participant said.
German Cardinal Walter Brandmueller wrote that the synod could mark “the self-destruction of the Church or its transformation from the mystical body of Christ into a secular NGO with an ecological-social-psychological mandate”.
“What do ecology, economy and politics have to do with the mandate and mission of the Church?” he asked.
Plenty, answered Pope Francis’ defenders. They have rejected conservative criticisms that the Church should concentrate on saving souls and not get involved in issues such as climate change and social and economic injustice.
“Every Christian has a prophetic commitment to justice, peace and dignity for every human being,” said Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno, vice president of REPAM, a grouping of the Catholic communities in the Amazon.
Barreto said this included protecting people and the environment from the excesses of a “dominant model of society that leads to exclusion and inequality”.
While Francis’ defense of the environment has been widely praised, including by the United Nations, conservatives, mainly in the United States, have attacked him. Many are aligned with conservative news outlets and well-funded political foundations skeptical of climate change science.
Conservatives are also angry with Francis over other issues, such as a more welcoming attitude towards homosexuals and moves to allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the Church to receive communion.
“There is no doubt that there is a political battle going on in the Church today,” said Father Arturo Sosa, the Venezuelan head of the Jesuit order to which Francis belongs.
Sosa said the attacks are a way of “trying to influence the election of the next pope” by destabilizing Francis’ papacy so cardinals picking his successor after his death or resignation lean towards a conservative who won’t rock the boat so much.
One of the synod’s contentious topics is whether to allow older married “proven men” with families and a strong standing in local communities to be ordained as priests in the Amazon.
This solution to the shortage of priests, backed by many South American bishops, would allow Catholics in isolated areas to attend Mass and receive the sacraments more regularly.
At least 85% of Amazon villages cannot celebrate Mass every week. Some see a priest only once a year.
Opponents of the change, even only on a regional basis, fear it would be a doctrinal Trojan horse.
U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, de-facto spiritual guru for many of the pope’s critics, said the shortage of priests in the Amazon was a “pretext” that would lead to “the practical abolition of priestly celibacy” in the rest of the world.
Burke and Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan issued an appeal for “a crusade of prayer and fasting to implore God that error and heresy do not pervert” the synod.
The pope’s backers point out that the Church in the West already has a small number of married priests and say the fears are exaggerated.
They say there was little or no criticism when Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both revered by conservatives, ushered in changes that allow married Anglican clergymen who convert to Catholicism to continue to serve as priests.
The synod does not make decisions. Participants vote on a final document and the pope will decide which recommendations to integrate into his future rulings.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones