For three weeks in October, hundreds of Catholic bishops and priests mostly from the countries of the Amazon River basin convened at a special synod at the Holy See. The meeting signaled Pope Francis’s deep concern for the indigenous peoples of the South American rainforest. In his own words, the pope sought “drastic measures” to avert further harm to these communities. “Every kind of injustice and destruction,” he said, “has been practiced upon these people.” Francis knew this synod would upset some traditional believers who have little patience for his moral investment in the protection of indigenous groups. Although his opponents created audacious distractions, the pope persevered in advancing an agenda that facilitates concrete gains for officials, activists, and community leaders dedicated to saving the Amazon.

The pope has significant cause for alarm. In Brazil, an 80 percent increase in fires this year has led to the greatest deforestation of the Amazon in more than a decade. Indigenous communities struggle to fend off the illegal encroachment of miners, farmers, ranchers, and loggers, among others, with governments and security forces often turning a blind eye. Protesting these incursions can be fatal. In Brazil, 57 defenders of the forest were murdered in 2017 and 20 in 2018. A Guajajara leader was shot earlier this month. Some of the victims were missionaries: after 39 years in the Amazon, Dorothy Stang was shot in Brazil for objecting to the expansion of ranches. The British priest Paul McAuley, who taught indigenous students about defending the environment, was burned to death this year in Peru.

The pope convened this synod—a mechanism for bishops to advise the pontiff on ecclesiastical matters—not just to discuss strengthening the church in the Amazon but to inspire the world to take the plight of indigenous groups seriously. The pope believes that the sustainable practices and lifestyles of indigenous peoples hold useful lessons for modern societies facing the threat of climate change. Scientists confirm that biodiversity is best preserved in regions of the forest reserved for native people (almost one-half of the Amazon rainforest is under some form of protection). In addition to bishops and priests, the pope invited “auditors” from the Amazon to serve as special observers of the synod, including religious sisters and indigenous women. 

As it happened, however, the meeting threw into relief the fault lines that have deepened within the church since the pope’s election in 2013. The synod infuriated a tribe of Catholic elites, who saw the accommodation of native peoples and their symbols as evidence that the current pontiff had taken the church in the wrong direction. Conservative commentators in North America and Europe accused the gathering of indulging in “neo-pagan” worship. The uproar attempted to distract from the pope’s ecological message, and it bared a deep philosophical rift: between the pope’s elastic, inclusive vision for the church and the view of militant Catholics who see their church as a bulwark against the secular, relativistic, increasingly hedonistic world. For Francis—who was well aware of the internal dissent swirling even before the gathering—weathering the media storm that greeted the synod was simply one of the costs of staking an outspoken position on the planet’s future.


In 2007, six years before he would become Pope Francis, the Argentinian Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio attended a meeting of Latin American bishops in Brazil. He heard wrenching stories from his colleagues about the ordeals of indigenous communities, echoing problems he had witnessed at home. For instance, in the Peruvian Andes, a U.S.-owned smelter polluted the land and water, causing extensive lead poisoning among the children of the Quechua people. Local clergy protested, but the authorities responded with indifference and intransigence.

Bergoglio was the lead author of the final document that emerged from this assembly of bishops. The document emphasized the importance of protecting the continent’s diversity, both ecological and cultural. The bishops described nature as a sacred gift and “common home” best protected through sustainable practices, including those that indigenous peoples had mastered over centuries. The bishops decried an economic system that prized profit over people and brought “ruin and death” to the environment and the social fabric of the region.

Church leaders in Latin America, including Bergoglio, were steeped in such critiques of ravenous capitalism. Although the future pope never embraced “liberation theology”—the Marxist-inclined doctrine that many Catholic priests espoused in Latin America during the late twentieth century—the spirit of its focus on social justice influenced him, especially as a Jesuit.

Church leaders in Latin America, including the pope, are steeped in critiques of capitalism.

Unlike his European predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis came to the pontificate from this more activist Latin American spiritual tradition. From the start, he took a serious interest in ecological issues and in the plight of indigenous peoples. He met with representatives of indigenous groups at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, where the church produced a video together with the World Wildlife Fund on the Amazon’s crucial role in stabilizing the climate. He recognized the use of two indigenous Mayan languages for the liturgy.

In May 2015, Pope Francis released his lengthy encyclical on climate change, Laudato si’ (Praise Be to You), the first Catholic teaching document on the environment. In it, the pope insisted that patterns of production and consumption must change to ward off the threat of global warming. Countries should allow indigenous peoples to maintain their communities and ways of life, the text asserts, because they are the best protectors of their lands.

In 2017, the pope announced plans to convene a synod of Catholic bishops from the Amazon River basin. Months later, he traveled to the Amazon rainforest to meet with around 4,000 indigenous representatives from Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. He reiterated the themes of the encyclical, acknowledging the problems that “strangle” indigenous communities—the incursion of miners and loggers, misguided conservation efforts, forced labor, and sexual violence—and insisted on the abiding importance of their lore and knowledge of the natural world. The synod would exemplify Francis’s papacy by centering some of the most marginalized people on the planet—indigenous communities that do not conform to technological modernity—and framing their ways as models for sustainable living.


From the first day, conservative Catholic media outlets in North America greeted Pope Francis’s unprecedented Amazon confab with hostility. One report labelled a tree planting in the Vatican Gardens, which the pope attended with a small group of indigenous people in native dress, a “pagan religious ceremony.” An online frenzy homed in on the presence of  wooden figures of nude, pregnant, native women in the garden and at a church procession.

Some traditionalist Catholic priests and a few prelates questioned the character of the assembly in Rome. Father Dwight Longenecker, a media-savvy convert from Anglicanism, argued that “neo-paganism” was more of a threat to Catholicism than was Islam. Crisis magazine, which helped cement an alliance between elite American Catholics and the Republican Party, blamed the “scandal” on the pope’s “post-modern mind,” which “tolerates contradictions.” In contrast to the pope, traditionalists seek comfort in an image of the church as a fortress, a bulwark against the world rather than a missionary enterprise to the world.

The Vatican mobilized experts to explain that the statues were neither idolatrous nor pagan and that spreading the Gospel requires accommodation of local symbols—in this case, a nonreligious image representing Mother Earth—but the controversy kicked up another notch. Alexander Tschugguel, a 26-year-old Austrian convert (Catholic for just 11 years), and a co-conspirator boldly stole the indigenous figurines and tossed them into the Tiber River. Francis apologized to his synodal guests for the act of vandalism.

Traditionalists seek comfort in an image of the church as a fortress, a bulwark against the world.

The other controversy at the synod that captured media attention was the possibility of ordaining mature, married men to serve as priests in order to bring sacraments to remote parts of the jungle. The core Catholic sacrament of receiving the Eucharist requires a priest. Many Amazonian Catholic communities see a priest only every few months at best. To serve these Catholics, the synod put on the table the idea of ordaining married priests as well as the longer-term possibility of elevating women to the role of deacons—two-thirds of indigenous Catholic leaders are women. These discussions sparked outrage in some traditional circles.


The uproar caused some distraction from the substance of discussions: the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the obliteration of its native people, and the steps necessary to ward off climate change. For example, the synod launched an 11-point framework for action, which included the contributions of renowned scientists, such as the Brazilian Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Carlos Nobre. But at the press conference introducing this plan, the international and Catholic media obsessed about hot-button ecclesiastical subjects instead.

The revolt of some Catholic elites sought to undermine the pope’s ecological project. In North America, for example, conservative Catholics do have the power to drown out Francis’ message through their own media outlets. Wealth facilitates influence over local bishops, who rely on donations to run programs and maintain expensive buildings and schools. Many bishops in the United States have been reluctant to vocally support the pope’s environmental initiatives. In Francis’s view, however, this opposition resembles the behavior of the self-righteous opponents of Jesus in biblical times. “How much alleged superiority, transformed into oppression and exploitation, exists even today?” he pointedly asked at the synod’s last Mass.

The pope takes climate change so seriously that he is even prepared to allow long-simmering tensions within Catholicism to spill into public view. The synod succeeded in elevating the plight of those who live in, and with, the rainforest. It strengthened transnational environmental groups, including the Global Catholic Climate Movement, helping church institutions divest from businesses that extract or produce fossil fuels. (Currently over $11 trillion in Catholic money has been redirected.) And it engaged with new political interlocutors: the day after the synod ended, Francis gathered state governors from Brazil and Peru to review their environmental plans and share practical ideas with each other. The elected governors, with significant local power, all committed to building green economies.

The pope is even incorporating climate concerns into Catholic theology. He plans to add ecological sins to the catechism, defined in the synod’s final document as “acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment.” That addition reflects the pope’s willingness to learn from indigenous peoples, even as his opponents choose not to listen.

CORRECTION APPENDED (November 25, 2019)

An earlier version of this article misnamed the Andean ethnic group whose children were victims of lead poisoning. It is the Quechua people, not the Wampis people.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now