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The introduction of Catholic Christianity to the tropical mountains and forests of the Amazon river basin was not universally good news for the indigenous peoples there. Nor have all the wrongs done to them in the past been righted. But the programme for this autumn’s synod of bishops from the region – encompassing Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela – offers exciting possibilities for a new beginning. Media attention has highlighted the proposal, apparently smiled upon in the Vatican, that the law of celibacy might be relaxed to address the severe shortage of clergy in the region, and that married men of mature years and good standing should become eligible for ordination. Yet no less significant is the proposal for a heightened church engagement with, and challenge to, the causes of the exploitation and oppression that are such a burden among the poor of the Amazon, where indigenous peoples predominate. The depredations of the natural environment in unprincipled pursuit of profit – whether for timber, oil, monocrop farming or minerals – have often proved devastating. The Church must stand with them, but to do so, first of all, it has to be among them.

There are remote Catholic communities in the region who see a visiting priest only monthly, others not even yearly. This deprives those communities of sacramental participation in the life of the Church. When a remedy for this deprivation is near to hand, not to adopt it becomes an act of injustice crying out for correction. As the preliminary synod document puts it, “the Church lives from the Eucharist and the Eucharist builds the Church”. And the Church it builds is, in Pope Francis’ words, of and for the poor.

There are shortages of priests elsewhere in the world, not least in the Pacific Islands and parts of Central America, and Pope Francis has already declared his willingness to consider requests from local bishops for some relaxation of the celibacy rule so that married men can be ordained. In fact it is not such a novelty. There are Greek Catholic communities with a long tradition of a married priesthood; and in England and elsewhere, married clergy from the Anglican tradition who have been received into the Roman Catholic Church have been allowed to continue their vocation, after ordination, as priests. Nor was this innovation, agreed by the bishops and approved by Rome, resisted by the Catholic parishes to which they were sent to minister; on the contrary, it has in general been a success.

The preliminary document also asks whether the leadership role and the sacramental role of the priest should be as closely bound together as they have been. Could a parish have a lay chief administrator, while a local elder provides religious services? It is a good question, but many of those who would become eligible for ordination are already assumed to be leaders of their communities. It is essential, however, that they should not be treated as second class by the rest of the Church; and when they raise their voices, in political, moral and religious matters, they should be heard. This by itself would energise the Church as a powerful agent of reform and social justice.





Iran is undoubtedly a source of instability and conflict in the Middle East, and a real danger to Israel. But present United States policy to deal with these issues is misconceived and likely to make them worse. President Donald Trump has initiated a programme of severe economic sanctions designed to bring Tehran to heel. In so doing he has undermined the agreement negotiated by his predecessor in alliance with the European Union, which was working, and replaced it with a policy of confrontation, which is not.

The agreement had persuaded Iran to wind back its nuclear ambitions, in particular the production of enriched uranium which would be a key component of Iranian nuclear weaponry. Tehran has announced that unless the other parties to the agreement can make good the harmful effects of American sanctions – which realistically they cannot – enrichment is to be stepped up. It is a form of nuclear blackmail.

It is also becoming apparent that the harassment of shipping in the Gulf of Oman is being used as an extra pressure point, though the Iranian government implausibly denies being responsible. The intention is apparently to have the rest of the world knocking on Mr Trump’s door, demanding that he reverse his sanctions policy because it is hurting their interests. Yet Tehran’s policy is as unlikely to succeed as Washington’s. The Iranians see the United States as a bully, and standing up to a bully has become a matter of national pride. This could conceivably include armed attacks on American military assets in the region – or at least Washington appears to think so, hence its despatch of extra troops. Thankfully, the worst-case scenario does not include a full-scale ground war between the US and Iran. But sporadic armed clashes in the Gulf, by sea or by air, are more likely. Each side seems intent on provoking the other. If anything, this increases the threat to Israel.

Confrontation may appeal to Mr Trump’s selfregard, but proud Iranians would sooner suffer than be humiliated by him. So the situation is heading for a bloodstained stalemate, and the world economy will have to absorb the shock of a likely spike in fuel prices. But given that the world is waking up to the harmful effects of its reliance on fossil fuels, this will reinforce the search for alternative energy sources. The less the world depends on Middle Eastern oil, the better.

States like Iran do not always act in their own economic interests, as US neo-conservatives imagine they do, but have higher ideological and religious goals. The Obama-EU deal with Tehran that Mr Trump has tried hard to destroy did not threaten the Iranians’ national pride as his policies now do. This is not to deny that Iran is a regional troublemaker nor that hardline elements in its government want it to be even more so. But Mr Trump’s approach, or more exactly that of John Bolton, his belligerent security adviser, is playing into their hands. US hardliners versus Iranian hardliners: that is hardly a prospectus for peace, nor an optimistic basis for mediation.

2 | THE TABLET | 22 JUNE 2019

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