By Catherine Pepinster
Pope Francis has decided against ordaining married men in the Amazon region.
The proposal came from the Pan-Amazon synod that met in October 2019, and brought bishops and lay people from the Amazon basin to Rome to discuss the difficulties of the region. These included a lack of priests and access to the sacraments, including communion, as well as problems caused by deforestation and climate change.
Another solution to the shortage of priests – the ordaining of women as deacons – was also rejected.
In a long-awaited “apostolic exhortation” – Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon) – in response to the synod, the Pope rejected the idea, deciding not to change the Roman Catholic tradition of allowing only celibate men to be eligible for ordination.
His conclusion is particularly controversial because the synod pleaded for reform: the bishops had voted by 128-41 to allow for the ordination of married deacons as priests in their region.
How the Pope would deal with it was the focus of intense speculation in recent weeks with conservative Catholics saying that allowing married clergy in one region would lead to the reform being implemented elsewhere.
But Pope Francis chose not to respond specifically to the synod’s request, nor did he mention the synod’s lengthy conversations about women deacons in the early church as evidence that this ministry could be restored.
Rather, the Pope says a solution must be found to enable people in the Amazon to receive communion more often.
The Amazon bishops, in their own synod document, had said it was urgent for the Catholic Church to be equitable in conferring ministries on men and women. But the Pope’s response was to warn against clericalising women which would “diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective”.
Most of the region’s Catholic communities are run by lay people, of which 60 per cent are women. Only a tiny proportion have resident priests.
The Pope’s response is to advocate that these women should be given leadership roles without ordination, and says “these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop”. This, he says, would also allow women to be effective in decision-making “while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood”.
Supporters of Pope Francis see this as him expressing his faith in the laity and the greater role advocated for them in the Second Vatican Council. But many women, including those who have previously supported Francis as a progressive pontiff, are deeply disappointed.
Querida Amazonia instead emphasised the Pope’s concern for the planet, when he denounced destruction of one of the earth’s most important ecosystems.
Pope Francis writes of the Amazon region facing an ecological disaster and warns that the needs of its people should not be separated from those of the environment, and that issues of justice are of paramount importance. He condemns the treatment of indigenous people, deforestation, the history of colonisation, and the imbalance of power that has left “the weak with no means of defending themselves”.
“The inescapable truth is that, as things stand, this way of treating the Amazon territory spells the end for so much life, for so much beauty, even though people would like to keep thinking that nothing is happening,” the Pope writes.
Austen Ivereigh, papal biographer; author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, and Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and his Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church. firstname.lastname@example.org