Pandemic Letter 4 – Power Without Law (15/05/2020)

Many of those with whom I have come into contact in the course of my work, came to Australia, fleeing abuses of power in the countries of their birth.  I have friends who fled from Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, China, Columbia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Rumania, Syria, Uganda, the former USSR, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, and so on.  Each of them can tell of abuse of power in their own countries.

Querida Amazonia
Pope Francis’ recent Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia: The Beloved Amazon Region (2020) has significance for areas of the world other than the Amazon.  We might think of Australian aborigines, living in remote places.  Querida Amazonia may be seen as a response to the abuse of power.  And, in that sense, Querida Amazonia, is relevant to all societies, for wherever there are human beings, there is the risk of abuse of power.  There is the risk that, so caught up are we in our own situation, our own interests, our own pursuits, we are blind to our involvement in abuse of power inconsistent with the human dignity.

Querida Amazonia is to be read in the context of the history of Latin America; in the context of the Church’s teaching about the human person, as Genesis says, created in the image and likeness of God; in the context of Christ’s concern, recounted in the Gospels, for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick and imprisoned.  Pope Francis’ Querida Amazonia follows the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region in 2019.

Nothing Better than Reading the Pope’s Words
To understand why there was a Synod on the Amazon, is best answered in Pope Francis’ document.  Read Querida Amazonia, instead of the commentators. Read Querida Amazonia in the context of Catholic Social Teaching, in the context of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, in particular, the fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching:

Each and every person is the living image of God himself.This image finds, and must always find anew, an ever deeper and fuller unfolding of itself in the mystery of Christ, the Perfect Image of God, the One who reveals God to man and man to himself.

Post Columbian History
Querida Amazonia has a history, to be found in the abuses, ancient and modern, which followed Columbus’ discovery of South America in 1492.  The Spanish destroyed Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilization. Hernan Cortes, who conquered the Aztecs of modern-day Mexico, and Francisco Pizzaro, who conquered the Incas of modern-day Peru, were not explorers but criminals.  Bernal Diaz captures the destruction: ” … the earth, the lagoons, and the buttresses were full of corpses and the stench was more than any man could bear”.  The native population of Peru fell from 1.25 million in 1570 to 500,000 in 1621. Between 1519 and 1605 about 24 million Mexican natives died.  According to the Dominican Bishop, Bartolome de Las Casas OP (1484-1566), himself a reformed conquistador, in The Destruction of the Indians: “There is nothing more detestable or more cruel than the tyranny which the Spaniards use towards the Indian”.

Thinkers such as Francisco de Vitoria OP (1483-1546), and Francisco Suarez SJ (1548-1617) challenged the immorality and lawlessness of the conquistadors -defending the rights of the natives, expanding the sense of natural law, and laying the foundations of modern international law.

Our Lady of Guadalupe
The appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a Mexican Indian, Juan Diego, in 1531 at Guadalupe highlighted that, in the sight of God, all persons are equal, and possessed of human dignity, and human rights. 

The Spanish encomienda system was a means of enslaving the Indian population on plantations, the Indians dying in vast numbers to be replaced by African slaves.  Illustrative is the following account of the sufferings of the indigenous people during the “rubber age” in the Venezuelan Amazon region quoted by Pope Francis:

They gave no money to the indigenous people, but only merchandise for which they charged dearly and the people never finished paying for it…They would pay for it but they were told, ‘You are racking up a debt’ and the indigenous person would have to go back to work…More than twenty ye’kuana towns were entirely razed to the ground. The ye’kuana women were raped and their breasts amputated, pregnant women had their children torn from the womb, men had their fingers or hands cut off so they could not sail…along with other scenes of the most absurd sadism.

Native Peoples Possess Human Dignity
Pope Paul III in Veritas Ipsa (1537) condemned racist theses and recognised that the native peoples, whether Christian or not, possess the dignity of the human person, enjoy the right to their possessions, and may never be reduced to slavery.  Pope Paul III declared the native population of what became Latin America as “truly men.”  Pope Paul III declared the Indians were “by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they may be outside the faith of Jesus Christ.”  This magisterial teaching was reaffirmed by Popes Gregory XIV (1591), Urban VIII (1639), Benedict XIV (1741), Gregory XVI (1839), Leo XIII (1888), St John Paul II (1992).

From the beginning of Spanish and Portuguese incursion into Latin America, the Church, although its record has been imperfect, has been a protector of the native population.  The Jesuits and the Franciscans sought to protect the Indians from the conquistadors by establishing missions.  Jesuit resistance to the abuses of the conquistadors, the high degree of autonomy of the Jesuit reductions and their economic success, were factors in the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Americas in 1767, and, indeed, in the suppression of the Society of Jesus.

St Oscar Romero
Illustrative of the best of the Catholic tradition in Latin America is St Oscar Romero (1917- 1980).  St Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador from 1977, was murdered while celebrating Mass.  In 1979 the Revolutionary Junta came to power, committing human rights abuses which led eventually to civil war.  Romero, at the University of Louvain Belgium in 1980, criticised the persecution of Catholics who worked on behalf of the poor:

In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs-they were murdered. Some have been tortured and some have been expelled…Nuns have also been persecuted.The Archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided. If all this has happened to persons who are most evident representatives of the Church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands…But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the Church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defence. Here again we find the same key to the understanding of the persecution of the church: the poor.

Each week Romero spoke on the Church radio station-except when it was bombed. Romero listed imprisonment and torture of alleged opponents of the Junta, “disappearances”, and murders.  73% of the rural population and 47% of the urban population listened regularly. Romero was the most important source of news in El Salvador.

Despite efforts to capture Romero’s reputation following his death for ideological purposes, Romero’s liberation theology is consistent with the Church’s understanding, not Marxist ideology.

As Romero finished his homily on 24 March 1980, a red car stopped at the church. A gunman emerged to fire one, possibly two, shots.  The gunman leapt back into the car.  The car sped away.  Romero was dead.  Six days later Romero’s funeral was attended by 250,000 mourners.  The army, in an attempt to disrupt the funeral, killed between 30 and 50 mourners.  St Oscar Romero was canonized on 14 October 2018.

The Amazon encompasses 30% to 50% of the world’s flora and fauna, and 20% of the world’s freshwater.  The Amazon constitutes more than one-third of the world’s primary forests.  But 17% of the Amazon forest has been lost to deforestation.  Water is the organising element of the Amazon.

The Amazon covers more than seven and a half million square kilometres, and embraces nine countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.  Within the Amazon there are 2 to 2.5 million indigenous people, representing 390 ethnic groups, as well as 33.6 million total inhabitants.  The Amazon region has within it over 110 indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.  In a sense there are many Amazons.

Amongst the challenges to the Amazon are indiscriminate logging, contamination of the water system (as a result of agro-toxins, oil spills, legal and illegal mining, etc), drug trafficking. Loss of Amazonian rainforest may accelerate global warming- and may be accelerated by global warming.

Early Civilisation
Querida Amazonia is to be read in the context of pre-Columbian civilization in the Amazon.  Contemporary archaeology suggests a sophisticated pre-Columbian civilisation. Recent studies give lie to the proposition that the Amazon was unfarmable, and suggest mass ancient civilisations in the Amazon (as well as elsewhere in Latin America).  Early accounts from Spaniards describe dense populations, white shining cities, and extensive roads.  These accounts were dismissed by archaeologists as untrue until recently, but they are increasingly accepted.  Archaeological studies at Beni in Bolivia, in the Xingu River basin in Brazil, in Guyana on the northern edge of the Amazon basin, at Majoro island at the mouth of the Amazon, suggest a sophisticated pre-Columbian civilisation.  This disappeared from ready view sometime following the arrival of Europeans.  More broadly, archaeologists suggest that the places where early civilisation developed include China, the Indus Valley in India, Mesopotamia in modern Iraq, Egypt and Latin America.

Catholic Social Teaching
Querida Amazonia may be seen as primarily concerned with social justice-and hence may be viewed from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching (albeit it also deals with other matters).  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the Church receives from the Gospel the full revelation of the truth about man. When she fulfills her mission of proclaiming the Gospel, she bears witness to man, in the name of Christ, to his dignity and his vocation to the communion of persons. She teaches him the demands of justice and peace in conformity with divine wisdom.

Fundamental Rights of the Person
The Church makes a moral judgment about economic and social matters, when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it.  In the moral order she bears a mission distinct from that of political authorities: the Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end. She strives to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and in socio-economic relationships. The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society, and its new forms of labor and ownership.

Profit Cannot be the Exclusive Norm
Any system in which social relationships are determined entirely by economic factors is contrary to the nature of the human person and his acts. A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. A system that subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production is contrary to human dignity.  Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Reasonable Regulation of Market Place
The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated with communism or socialism. She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of capitalismindividualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labour.   Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.  Reasonable regulation of the marketplace, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and with a view to the common good, is to be commended.

Broken Institutions
In Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis speaks of the problem of broken institutions. A number of countries have a relatively low level of institutional effectiveness.   Where do the institutions of civil society in the Amazon region stand?  In the Amazon there is a culture that poisons the state and its institutions, permeating all social strata, including the indigenous communities. There is a loss of confidence in institutions and their representatives, which totally discredits politics and social organizations. The Amazonian peoples are not immune to corruption, and they end up being its principal victims.

Preferential Option for the Poor
Pope Francis urges what he calls social dialogue.  The Amazon region ought to be a place of social dialogue, especially between the various original peoples.  The rest of us are called to participate as “guests” and to seek out with great respect paths of encounter that can enrich the Amazon region.  If we wish to dialogue, we should do this in the first place with the poor. They are not just another party to be won over, or merely another individual seated at a table of equals. They are our principal dialogue partners, those from whom we have the most to learn, to whom we need to listen out of a duty of justice, and from whom we must ask permission before presenting our proposals. Their words, their hopes and their fears should be the most authoritative voice at any table of dialogue on the Amazon region.  Dialogue must not only favour the preferential option on behalf of the poorthe marginalized and the excluded, but also respect them as having a leading role to play.

Legal Boundaries
Pope Francis urges what he calls legal boundaries.  In addition to the economic interests of local businesses, persons and politicians, there also exist huge global economic interests.  The answer is not to be found, then, in internationalizing the Amazon region, but rather in a greater sense of responsibility on the part of national governments. Pope Francis praises the commitment of international agencies and other organisations which seek to ensure that government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.

Preserving Lifestyle and Values of Amazonians
To protect the Amazon region, it is good to combine ancestral wisdom with contemporary technical knowledge, always working for sustainable management of the land while also preserving the lifestyle and value systems of those who live there.  They, particularly the original peoples, have a right to receive – in addition to basic education – thorough and straightforward information about projects, their extent and their consequences and risks, in order to be able to relate that information to their own interests and their own knowledge of the place, and thus to give or withhold their consent, or to propose alternatives.

Legal Framework
The powerful are never satisfied with the profits they make, and the resources of economic power greatly increase as a result of scientific and technological advances. For this reason, all of us should insist on the urgent need to establish a legal framework which can setclear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems.

Rule of Law 
Without law there can only be power, indeed, the abuse of power.  Without respect for each and every person, but especially the poor, and without justice, law is mere technicality, at the disposal of the rich and powerful. 

Michael McAuley