Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology”

Catholic leaders in the Amazon are talking about

‘ecological conversion.’

The Catholic Church wrapped up its three-week Amazon Synod in Rome on Oct. 27. The pope convened the conference — officially, a “special assembly” of the Holy See’s deliberative council of bishops — to develop recommendations for church policy in the nine-country Amazon region. Most news media focused on a controversial proposal from the Working Document that summarizes the synod’s results: to allow married deacons in the region to become priests.

The media have paid less attention to the synod’s central theme: care for the Amazonian environment and its people. Environmental concerns have gained increasing relevance with a recent spate of devastating fires in the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon forest.

Before convening in Rome, the synod conducted a months-long process of “listening to the peoples” of the Amazon “and to the earth.”

The Working Document uses complex language that weaves environmentalist ideas into Catholic theology. For example, the document’s introduction discusses “the cry that is provoked by destructive deforestation and extractivist activities and that demands an integral ecological conversion.”

What do terms such as “integral ecology” and “ecological conversion” mean? And why is the church using them? Here’s what you need to know.

The new Catholic ecological theology: a short glossary

“Integral ecology.” This term, which appears dozens of times in the Working Document, comes from Pope Francis’s 2015 treatise “Laudato Si’.” In short, it means recognizing that everything on Earth is closely tied to everything else. For humans to flourish, we have to understand how vast systems connect and interrelate. As Father Thomas Reese explains, “Relationships take place at the atomic and molecular level, between plants and animals, and among species in ecological networks and systems.” Hence, ecology must be integral, meaning recognizing how everything fits together to create a whole system.

“Ecological conversion.” This is another term the Pope first put forth in “Laudato Si’,” arguing that people need to awaken to nature, just as they convert to Christianity.

“Ecological sin.” This introduces the idea that people can sin against nature, just as they can sin against human beings. The term didn’t make its way into the final Working Document. However, the idea was a hot topic at the synod. We see traces of it throughout the final document, in passages such as, “A fundamental aspect of the root of human sin is to detach oneself from nature and not recognize it as part of the human and to exploit nature without limits, thus breaking the original covenant with creation and with God (Gen 3:5).”

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