Confirmation of celibacy – Pope Francis balks at a proposal to ordain married men in Amazonia | The Americas
THOUGH BRANDED a reckless radical by his conservative critics, when it comes to the rules and practices of the Catholic church, Pope Francis is anything but a revolutionary. In his handling of the clerical sex-abuse crisis, the pope’s instinct until very recently was to side with his fellow bishops, even when faced with compelling evidence that they had covered up for their subordinates.
On February 12th the pontiff gave fresh evidence of his resistance to ecclesiastical change. Faced with a recommendation from some of his own prelates that he ease open the door to the ordination of married men, Francis balked. Less unexpectedly, he also rejected a more contentious reform that would have admitted women to the clergy as deacons.
The pope’s response was contained in a so-called Apostolic Exhortation—his reply to a report from bishops and others who met at the Vatican last October to discuss the ecological, social and pastoral emergencies in the vast Amazon basin. Written in Spanish and entitled “Querida Amazonía” (Beloved Amazon), the document contains a powerful call for greater attention to be given to a region that contains 40% of the world’s rainforests; one plagued by increasing land invasions by illegal loggers, ranchers and miners, and by the weakening of legislation to protect the land and the people living on it.
Francis defies the wrath of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration in Brazil, which has encouraged the despoliation of Amazonia. He forthrightly condemns “businesses, national or international, which harm the Amazon and fail to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, and to self-determination and prior consent.”
The papal statement also encourages an accommodation of the spirituality of indigenous peoples that will dismay Catholic traditionalists, already shocked by the appearance at ceremonies in the Vatican last year of an Andean fertility goddess, Pachamama. “It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry,” the pope retorts. “A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error.”
But Francis’s latest missive to the faithful is strikingly short on substantive proposals for how to ensure that, in his own words, “the great missionary proclamation must continue to resound.” Speaking before the release of the document, Mauricio López, the secretary of REPAM, a Catholic network in the region, said that the pope’s decision on married priests was less important than increasing the number of permanent deacons, who can carry out many priestly functions, though not those of blessing the eucharist or hearing confession.
Francis says “there should be many more in the Amazon region”, but gives no indication of how their numbers can be boosted. Ordaining women as deacons is out of the question. With a reasoning that will baffle many of his followers, the Jesuit pontiff warns against the view “that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders.” Such an approach, he declares, would “diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.”
Equally puzzling is the pope’s studied silence on the recommendation that married men be ordained. There are already married Catholic priests, but they are either converts from Anglicanism or belong to so-called Eastern rite-churches, which have practices similar to the Orthodox. The synod’s majority recommendation would have restricted the practice to remote regions and men of proven virtue in their communities. But it would have set a precedent that traditionalists would have abhorred as a first step towards abolishing the requirement for priestly celibacy. Indeed, Pope Francis is about to feel the sting of the traditionalist backlash with the publication on February 20th of a book vehemently defending priestly celibacy, written by his ostensibly retired predecessor, Benedict XVI, and the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, an outspoken conservative.
The papal document notes “a need for ministers who can understand Amazonian sensibilities and cultures from within.” It goes on to stress the paramount importance of communion, which only a priest can celebrate, quoting a document from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s: “No Christian community is built up which does not grow from and hinge on the celebration of the most holy Eucharist.”
The solution? 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.”
Mr López said he suspected the pope had not taken further steps because of the extreme divergence of opinion between “fundamentalists who don’t want to change anything, and fundamentalists who want to change everything.”
Conservatives have got their way. The issue of married priests has been settled until at least the end of Francis’s papacy. Meanwhile, the Amazon’s more far-flung Catholics will lack the clergy on whom their faith depends.