VATICAN CITY — A three-week meeting on the Amazon region begins today at the Vatican, but even before the first debate, the gathering is turning into one of the more contentious moments in Pope Francis’s papacy.
The pressures of climate change and Amazon development — highlighted by recent fires ravaging the rainforest — add an urgency to the Vatican talks that cover the church’s struggles and efforts to safeguard one of the world’s most critical ecosystems.
But the outreach efforts to all corners of the Catholic world — a trademark of Francis’ tenure — have drawn criticism.
Some conservatives say the church is straying from its roots, acting more as an NGO than a religion. Others have zeroed in on a proposal mentioned in the event’s working document: ordaining older married men to ease the severe shortage of priests in the Amazon basin.
Traditionalists warn that if the proposal is adopted at the end of the meeting, it could open the door for other parts of the world to challenge the Catholic tradition of an unmarried and celibate priesthood.
Even a notable Francis ally, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, expressed skepticism this past week about the idea. “I think I’m not the only one,” he added.
This is the fourth time that Francis has convened the gathering of bishops, known as a synod. Such a meeting cannot set church policies or change doctrine on its own, but it offers guidance and recommendations to the pope and serves as a barometer for views around the Catholic world and within the church.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the synod’s secretary general, downplayed the relevance of the working document, telling reporters Thursday that participants will “start from scratch” once the event begins.
Still, that initial document conveys the pope’s thoughts, said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher and author of “The Loneliness of Francis.”
“It’s a watershed moment for his papacy,” Politi said. “Francis clearly has in mind a new model of church where lay people play a greater role. Either he scores a breakthrough, or he’s stopped in his tracks by conservative forces.”
Politi described the conservative backlash as similar to the Republican tea party movement against President Barack Obama. “They have become increasingly aggressive, so that it almost feels normal now that a bishop, or a cardinal, should call documents that have received the pope’s approval heretical,” he said.
Francis — the first pontiff from South America — has made environmental protection a major theme of his papacy. The Catholic Church for decades has faced an erosion as the evangelical movement spreads across Latin America.