Last year, Pope Francis called for “bold proposals” to meet the spiritual needs of Catholics in the Amazon, a vast region with a scarcity of clerics.
But in a papal document released Wednesday, Francis ignored the boldest one: allowing married priests.
Instead, Francis’ highly anticipated document on the Amazon region, Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon) focuses mostly on cultural and environmental issues. Francis spices the 32-page document with plenty of poetry, but offers few, if any, pragmatic changes for the church.
The lack of an opening for married priests, or women deacons, is expected to disappoint the Pope’s liberal supporters, particularly in the Americas and Europe.
“People are starting to adjust their expectations,” said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “The major reforms they were expecting of him may never come.”
American bishops who met with Pope Francis this week got the impression that he personally opposes the idea of married priests, saying that people who had pushed for the reform would likely be disappointed, Catholic News Service reported.
(The Catholic Church already allows some married priests who have converted from other Christian traditions.)
Instead of structural reforms, the 32-page document released Wednesday, known as an Apostolic Exhortation, is filled with flowery language, including the Pope’s prose poem of his “dreams” for the Amazon.
“I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor…” the Pope begins. He then devotes the first three chapters of the four-chapter document to his social, cultural and ecological ideas, which call for respect for the people, land and culture of the Amazon.
The final chapter, on the Catholic Church’s role in the Amazon, outlines the spiritual needs of the 32 million people in the region. But Francis stops well short of endorsing some of the changes requested by the Amazon’s bishops in order to meet those needs.
Opposition from conservatives
At the Vatican’s synod — a meeting of bishops — last October, one of the most controversial items on the agenda was the question of ordaining some married men in the Amazon as priests to overcome a shortage of clergy in the region. In the end, the synod proposed “to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community.”
After the synod approved the measure, which would allow married priests, many Catholics expected the Pope to follow suit. Instead, he ignored the issue.
The proposal received the highest number of “no” votes at the synod: 41, although 128 participants were in favor.
The synod’s proposal to change the Catholic Church’s long tradition stirred unease throughout the Catholic world last year, particularly in conservative circles, causing several cardinals, including the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to write articles and books in favor of celibacy.
On this Francis seems to have sided with conservatives, though it’s hard to tell. He does not mention the proposal in his document. Instead, the Pope reiterates that only a priest can preside at the Eucharist and that saying Mass is a “non-delegable function.”
The Pope also said it is a “narrow aim” to be concerned only with “a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist.”
Instead Francis called on nuns and lay Catholics to assume “important responsibilities” in their church communities and urged bishops in Latin America to pray for priestly vocations in the Amazon.
What about ordaining women?
Another bold proposal from the synod participants was allowing women to be ordained as deacons.
This, too, would have been a revolutionary change for the Catholic Church.
Deacons are considered part of “ordained ministry,” much like priests, and if the Pope had allowed women to be ordained deacons, it would be one step closer to ordaining them as priests.
Francis also calls this suggestion “narrow,” and one that would “clericalize” women by trying to give them the same function as men instead of recognizing their specific female gifts.
“Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders,” the Pope writes.
Instead, the Pope says women “should have access to positions” that do not require them to be ordained priests or deacons and “other forms of service…that are proper to women.” Again, though, he does not specify what those might be.
The document highlights Francis’ unique papal style. The church’s leader remains attuned to the problems of the world — in this case the ecological destruction of the Amazon — while raising unresolved debates within his church about doctrinal and dogmatic matters.
“The greatness of this pontificate is that the spiritual intuition he has on our world — in politics, on the environment — he is truly a spiritual leader,” said Faggioli, the church professor.
“But the price of that is that he doesn’t believe in institutional changes.”
Why the Pope might have blinked
Several factors may have caused Pope Francis not to bless his bishops’ bold proposals.
“I suspect the pope ducked the married priests question for several reasons, beginning with the fact that he thinks the real issues in the Amazon pivot on the survival of the rainforest and its peoples, and he wants the focus to be there,” said John Allen, CNN’s senior Vatican analyst.
“Beyond that, he’s obviously aware of the strong opposition a weakening of the celibacy requirement has stirred up, including from his predecessor Benedict XVI, and is probably also concerned about where it might lead, including in Germany, which is presently preparing its own synod where debate over celibacy is expected to be front and center.”
Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico spoke to Francis in a private meeting together with other US bishops about the document just a few days before its publication. He told Catholic News Service that Francis’ own explanation for why he wasn’t backing the bolder proposals was that the Pope discerned that it wasn’t the moment for change.
“I don’t even think at this point that it’s something we’re going to move on because I haven’t sensed that the Holy Spirit is at work in that right now,” Wester quotes the Pope as saying.
Bishop Oscar A. Solis of Salt Lake City, who also participated in the private meeting, told CNS that his impression was that Francis was leaving the door open for future decisions.
“He said he didn’t actually believe in the ordination of married men, but what are you going to do with all those people who are deprived of the Eucharist?” Solis claimed the Pope said.