Pope Francis sidestepped the question of married priests and women deacons. (AP: Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis has refused to approve the ordination of married men to address an acute shortage of priests in the Amazon, reaffirming the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries-old commitment to celibacy among priests.
- Pope considered proposal was to ordain some deacons in Amazon
- Some had feared a weakening of celibacy rules
- Pope’s dismissal seen as a boost for Church conservatives
The decision, one of the most significant of his papacy, saw him sidestepping a fraught issue that has dominated debate in the Catholic Church and even involved retired Pope Benedict XVI.
The move appeared a victory for conservative senior clergy, who had feared a slippery slope towards a married priesthood throughout the Church if the recommendation was approved.
Pope Francis, in an eagerly awaited document, did not refer to the recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider the ordination of married men as priests or women as deacons.
Instead, 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 even years without Mass.
“This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America … to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region,” he wrote.
The papal dodge disappointed progressives, who had hoped he would at the very least put both questions to further study. It outraged liberal Catholic women’s groups, but was a relief to conservatives.
Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the Vatican’s former chief doctrinal official and a leading conservative critic of the pope, called it “a document of reconciliation”.
He and others had branded synod documents that included the proposal as heretical.
Francis’ 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.
Pope Francis has long been concerned about the violent exploitation of the Amazon’s land, its crucial importance to the global ecosystem and the injustices committed against its peoples.
Benedict book controversy
The issue of married priests has been a focus of deep divisions within the Church, and Vatican sources say it is now likely to languish for the rest of Francis’s papacy.
That marks a setback for the progressives who have welcomed his reformist stance on some social issues, such as being more welcoming to divorced Catholics and homosexuals and — with caveats — his willingness to confront a legacy of sexual abuse within the Church.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI broke his silence to reaffirm the value of priestly celibacy in a book, but later distanced himself from it. (AP: L’Osservatore Romano)
In what some viewed as a strategically timed appeal to Francis not to approve the Amazon proposal, a book published last month by Church conservatives defended the tradition of priestly celibacy.
“From the Depths of Our Hearts” was co-authored by Cardinal Robert Sarah and Former Pope Benedict, though Francis’ predecessor subsequently disassociated himself from the project.
Vatican officials said the pope completed the document on December 27, before the book controversy, and handed it in for translations. They said no changes were made after that.
Deacons v Priests
Cardinal Michael Czerny holds a copy of “Beloved Amazon” written by Pope Francis. (AP: Gregorio Borgia)
Deacons, like priests, are ordained ministers. They can preach, teach, baptise and run parishes, but they cannot say Mass. Married men can become deacons.
Because only priests can say Mass, people in at least 85 per cent of Amazon villages cannot attend the liturgy every week and some cannot do so for years.
At a news conference presenting the document, Cardinal Michael Czerny, who was the synod’s secretary, acknowledged the Pope had listened to some of the solutions proposed by his critics.
“Yes this [document] is reconciling, this is challenging, this is stimulating,” he said.
The issue of celibacy has been discussed in other countries with a shortage of priests, including developed ones such as Germany, and some Eastern Catholic rites already allow married men to be priests.