Francis avoids question of married priests in document on the Amazon
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis refused Wednesday to approve the ordination of married men or women as deacons to address a shortage of priests in the Amazon, sidestepping a difficult issue that has divided the Catholic Church and emboldened his conservative critics.
In an eagerly awaited document, Francis didn’t refer to recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider married priests or women deacons. Rather, the pope urged bishops to pray for more priestly vocations and to send missionaries to a region where faithful Catholics in remote areas can go months or years without hearing Mass.
The pope’s move disappointed liberals, who had hoped he would at least put both questions to further study. It outraged progressive Catholic women’s groups. And it relieved conservatives who had used the debate over priestly celibacy to heighten their opposition to the pope, and saw his ducking of the issue as a victory.
Francis’ document, “Beloved Amazon,” is instead a love letter to the Amazonian rain forest and its indigenous peoples from the first Latin American pope. He has long been concerned about the violent exploitation of the Amazon’s land, its importance to the global ecosystem and the injustices against its peoples.
Quoting poetry as frequently as past papal teachings, Francis addressed the document to all peoples of the world “to help awaken their affection and concern for that land which is also ours and to invite them to value it and acknowledge it as a sacred mystery.”
Francis convened bishops from the Amazon’s nine countries for a three-week synod in October to debate how the church can help preserve the delicate ecosystem from global warming and better minister to its people.
According to Catholic doctrine, only a priest can consecrate communion elements. For Catholic communities in the Amazon, some of which date from the time of the Spanish colonization, the priest shortage coupled with the spread of evangelical churches risks the very Catholic nature of the communities.
In the synod’s final document, most of the bishops called for establishing criteria so that “respected” married men in their communities who have already served as permanent deacons can be ordained as priests. The bishops also urged the Vatican to reopen a study commission on ordaining women as deacons.
Francis didn’t mention either proposal in “Beloved Amazon” and didn’t cite the synod’s final document in his text or footnotes. But he did say he wanted to “officially present” the synod’s work and urged the faithful to read the final document in full, suggesting he valued the input.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, a synod organizer, said its proposals “remain on the table” and have their own “certain moral authority.” But the fact the pope didn’t expressly approve the final document, and only presented it, means the proposals do not form part of his official teaching, said Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, another organizer.
Conservatives rejoiced that he refused to approve married priests.
“It is a great success, a great success for the faithful,” said conservative Austrian activist Alexander Tschugguel, who was so alarmed at the “pagan” proceedings of the synod that he stole three wooden statues of a pregnant woman that were featured in the Vatican meetings and threw them in the Tiber River in Rome.
A conservative U.S. blogger, Thomas Peters, tweeted: “Deo gratias. The Holy Spirit has spared the Church.”
The omission disappointed German Catholics. The issue of married priests is on the official agenda of a dialogue between their bishops’ conference and a powerful lay group, the Central Committee of German Catholics.
“We regret very much that Pope Francis does not dare to move a step forward,” said the head of the committee, Thomas Sternberg.
Francis has dismissed suggestions that ordaining women would serve the church. While agreeing that women should have greater decision-making and governance roles, Francis argued that they must find “other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women.”
Women’s advocacy groups blasted the document.
“This post-synodal document is a betrayal of women by denying them the grace of holy orders to do a ministry they are already carrying out,” said Miriam Duignan of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, a Britishbased progressive Catholic think tank.
The Catholic Church retains the priesthood for men, holding that Christ and his apostles were male. While Eastern rite branches have married priests, and Anglican and Protestant priest converts can be married, the Roman rite church has had a tradition of priestly celibacy since the 11th century, imposed in part to ensure that priests’ assets pass to the church, not to heirs.
Cardinal Michael Czerny (left) an organizer of the October synod, said its proposals concerning the ordination of married men as priests and women as deacons “remain on the table.”