Pope Francis declined Wednesday to approve the ordination of married men to address the priest shortage in the Amazon, sidestepping a fraught issue that has dominated debate in the Catholic Church and even involved retired Pope Benedict XVI.
In an eagerly-awaited document, Francis didn’t even refer to recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider the ordination of married men and women deacons. Rather, he urged bishops to pray for more priestly vocations and send missionaries to the region, where the faithful living in remote communities can go months or even years without Mass.
Francis’ dodging of the issue disappointed progressives, who had hoped he would at the very least put it to further study. And it relieved conservatives who have used the debate over priestly celibacy to heighten opposition to the pope, whom some have accused of heresy.
The bulk of the document, “Beloved Amazon,” is instead a love letter to the Amazonian rain forest and its indigenous peoples, penned by history’s first Latin American pope who has long been concerned about the violent exploitation of the land, the Amazon’s crucial importance to the global ecosystem and the injustices committed against its peoples.
He 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.”
It is in many ways a synthesized and focused version of Francis’ 2015 landmark environmental encyclical, “Praised Be,” in which he blasted wealthy countries and multinational corporations for destroying the world’s natural resources and impoverishing the poor for their own profit.
Francis said he has four dreams for the Amazon: that the rights of the poor are respected, that their cultural riches are celebrated, that the Amazon’s natural beauty and life are preserved, and that its Christian communities show Amazonian features.
Francis had convened bishops from the Amazon’s nine countries for a three-week meeting in October to debate the ways the church can help preserve the delicate ecosystem from global warming and better minister to the region’s people, many of whom live in isolated communities or in poverty in cities.
The Argentine Jesuit has long been sensitive to the plight of the Amazon, where Protestant and Pentecostal churches are wooing away Catholic souls in the absence of vibrant Catholic communities where the Eucharist can be regularly celebrated.
In their final document at the end of the October synod, the majority of bishops called for the establishment of criteria so that “respected” married men in their communities who have already served as permanent deacons be ordained as priests.
In addition, the bishops called for the Vatican to reopen a study commission on ordaining women as deacons, a type of ministry in the church that allows for preaching, celebrating weddings and baptisms, but not consecrating the Eucharist. Francis had created such a commission in 2016 at the insistence of religious sisters who want more say and roles in church governance and ministry, but the group ended its work without reaching consensus.
Francis didn’t mention either proposal in “Beloved Amazon” and didn’t cite the synod’s final document in his text or in a single footnote. But he did say in his introduction that he wanted to “officially present” the synod’s final document and urged the faithful to read it in full, suggesting that he at least valued the input.
Francis did echo many of the synod’s recommendations, calling for greater lay participation in the life of the church and saying the training of priests in the Amazon must be overhauled so they are more able to minister to indigenous peoples. He said “every effort should be made” to give the faithful access to the Eucharist.
“This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region,” he wrote.
Francis dismissed suggestions that ordaining women to any ministry would serve them or 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.”
The Catholic Church retains the priesthood for men, arguing 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 for financial reasons to ensure that priests’ assets pass to the church, not to heirs.
In the weeks leading up to the document’s release, the question of a celibate priesthood made headlines after the publication of a book penned by the retired pope, Benedict, and a conservative Vatican official, Cardinal Robert Sarah, reaffirmed the “necessity” of a celibate priesthood.
Benedict’s participation in the book sparked controversy, since it appeared the retired pope was trying to influence the thinking of the current one, despite his promises to remain “hidden from the world” when he resigned seven years ago.
Francis dodged the issue altogether, dedicating instead the entire first half of the document to the “injustice and crime” committed against the Amazonian peoples and its environment by local governments and foreign corporate interests, illegal mining and extraction industries.
“We cannot allow globalization to become a new version of colonialism,” he wrote.
He said the church in the Amazon must have social justice at the forefront of its spirituality, saying ministry that focuses excessively on discipline and rules will turn people away when in fact they need “understanding, comfort and acceptance.”
He called for the church to incorporate indigenous traditions and cultures into its ministry, including song and dance, myth and festivals, and urged patience when confronted with apparently pagan practices and symbols.
It was a reference to the controversy that punctuated the synod over the appearance in the Vatican of wooden statutes of a pregnant woman that critics said were pagan idols. At one point, a conservative activist stole the statues from a Vatican-area church and threw them in the Tiber River in a videotaped stunt that galvanized traditionalist opposition to Francis and the synod itself.
In his document, Francis said indigenous practices and symbols should not be written off immediately as superstition, paganism or idolatry.
“A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality,” Francis wrote.