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Letter from Rome: Amazonian myths, civilizational despair

We should be skeptical of conspiracy theories, mainly because they assume too much skill and intelligence from conspirators. Experience tells us ignorance and incompetence are much more common among those holding power and influence. Then again, some “coincidences” are equally hard to believe.

The ongoing hysteria about fires in the Amazon comes just ahead of October’s Synod of Bishops from the Amazon region is one such instance. Environmentalists and their celebrity friends wasted little time in spreading myths about the fires and the Amazon itself. Eventually, even the New York Times and CNN had to report on the many falsehoods that were spread. Yet the “news” was already made: a right-wing populist president of Brazil, multinational corporations and unsophisticated farmers – together with climate change, of course - are destroying the “lungs of the earth” (yet another piece of fake news).

Such a narrative conveniently prepares the way for the Synod, the working document of which is entitled “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology”. The “new paths” are rumored to include the possibility of allowing “proven” laymen (viri probati) to serve as priests in underserved areas of the Amazon, effectively decentralizing the Church’s rule of priestly celibacy. Pope Francis has denied this, instead taking the occasion to criticize nationalism and other evils in the context of his “green” encyclical Laudato Si’. The main cause of our problems, in any case, is usually obvious: pro-life, pro-market conservatives like you and me. If I were of a conspiratorial mindset, I would see Jeffrey Sachs and his friends in the Vatican behind it all.

Whether or not the Earth Institute secretly controls the Pontifical Academies, we can at least ask why the Amazon lends itself to such mythmaking. The image of exotic indigenous peoples in rainforests suffering at the hands of greedy Western imperialists remains a powerful one. On his first trip to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI suffered a fair amount of criticism for suggesting that the indigenous of Latin America were “silently longing” for the Christian faith brought to them by missionaries. Controversies about the Amazon extend beyond the historical record into contemporary politics.

Last summer, a bishop in the Brazilian Amazon invited me to see for myself, as he knew that there would be many myths about the Amazon circulating around the synod in Rome. Having never visited Brazil, I jumped at the opportunity and was very surprised by the social and religious realities I saw. Here are some of the admittedly non-scientific, purely anecdotal Amazonian myth-busters I discovered.

The Brazilians I met in Rio and from other major cities have never visited the Amazon. The flights from one end of Brazil to the other are long, often overnight, and expensive even for people from the United States and Western Europe. Beyond the cost in time and money, though, it is obvious that Brazilians do not regard the Amazon as something sacred and untouchable. Brazil is still a developing, at best an “emerging”, economy that does not have the luxury of treating the Amazon like a museum artifact.

To the degree that there is a problem of deforestation, it is often due to the lack of property rights. Establishing property rights in remote areas of the Amazon where indigenous peoples may have ancestral claims is no simple task, but the land grabbing and open grazing that takes place in their absence makes bad problems worse. (The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto wrote about the importance of property rights for development in The Mystery of Capital.)

Most of the people live in small- or medium-sized cities along major rivers of the Amazon, not the forest. The people who make up the Church in the Amazon are overwhelmingly of European or mixed descent, not the exotic tribal sorts of popular imagination. The bishop also told me the people of the Amazon are not complaining about the lack of priests or clamoring for the ordination of viri probati. Most seem able and willing to adapt to the circumstances of their time and place. In other words, they are ordinary Catholics, not Guinea pigs for the social experiments of Western progressives in the Church hierarchy.

Refuting such myths about the Amazon is relatively easy after just a brief visit. More difficult, however, is countering the persistent strains of liberation theology. Having lectured on the subject at Acton University for the past few years, I find Latin Americans to be the most strident opponents of liberation theology. Some of us Acton types may have thought liberation theology died during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Yet as my old friend Ed Pentin has reported, the tendency to blame capitalism for the ills of the region, the animus against a hierarchical Church, and the hopes for a socialist utopia are alive and well in the synod preparations.

On further reflection, perhaps the staying power of liberation theology is not that surprising. The environmental and social myths about the Amazon, exaggerated claims about the malignant influence of commerce, idealistic visions of a perfectly egalitarian society, these all remind me of the first and still greatest critic of modern commercial society, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Who is exotic indigenous of the Amazon if not the noble savage? For the defenders of Amazonian purity in the media and the Vatican, what is more corrupting, nature or society? Reading Rousseau and Plato, one learns that all societies, including our supposedly rationalistic one, need myths of one kind or another. Our concerns over the Amazon represent the “crisis of the West” in a nutshell. 

I don’t know about the synod, but I predict the hysteria over the Amazon fires will die down once Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro leaves office and is replaced by a leftist. The intellectual and spiritual critiques of traditional Catholicism and liberal democratic capitalism will not go away any time soon, however. We do not need elaborate conspiracy theories to explain what is already evident; political theology and political philosophy are surer guides to understanding our present discontents.

(Photo credit: arifnurrokhman/Shutterstock.com)

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Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.