VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis refused Wednesday to approve the ordination of married men or women as deacons to address a shortage of priests in the Amazon, sidestepping a fraught issue that has divided the Catholic Church and emboldened his conservative critics.
In an eagerly awaited document, Francis didn't refer to recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider married priests or women deacons. Rather, 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.
The pope's dodge disappointed liberals, who had hoped he would at least put both questions to further study. It outraged progressive Catholic women's groups. And it relieved conservatives who had used the debate over priestly celibacy to heighten their opposition to the pope, and saw his ducking of the issue as a victory.
Francis' document, “Beloved Amazon,” is instead a love letter to the Amazonian rain forest and its indigenous peoples from the first Latin American pope. He has long been concerned about the violent exploitation of the Amazon's land, its importance to the global ecosystem and the injustices against its peoples.
Quoting poetry as frequently as past papal teachings, Francis 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.”
Francis said he has four dreams for the Amazon: respecting the rights of the poor; celebrating their cultural riches; preserving its natural beauty and life; and showing the indigenous features of its Christian communities.
Francis had convened bishops from the Amazon’s nine countries for a three-week synod in October to debate how the church can help preserve the delicate ecosystem from global warming and better minister to its people.
The Argentine Jesuit has long been sensitive to the plight of the Amazon, where Protestant and Pentecostal churches are making gains in the absence of vibrant Catholic communities where Mass can be regularly celebrated.
According to Catholic doctrine, only a priest can consecrate the Eucharistic hosts distributed at Mass, which the faithful believe are the body of Christ. Given the priest shortage, some remote communities only see a priest and attend a Mass once every few months or years. For Catholic communities in the Amazon, some of which date from the time of the Spanish colonization, the priest shortage coupled with the spread of evangelical churches risks the very Catholic nature of the communities.
In the synod's final document, most of the bishops called for establishing criteria so that “respected” married men in their communities who have already served as permanent deacons can be ordained as priests.
The bishops also urged the Vatican to reopen a study commission on ordaining women as deacons, which allows for preaching, celebrating weddings and baptisms, but not consecrating the Eucharist. Francis had created such a commission in 2016 at the insistence of nuns who want larger 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 footnotes. But he did say he wanted to “officially present” the synod’s work and urged the faithful to read the final document in full, suggesting he valued the input.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, a synod organizer, said its proposals “remain on the table” and have their own “certain moral authority.” But the fact the pope didn't expressly approve the final document, and only presented it, means the proposals do not form part of his official teaching, said Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, another organizer.
Francis did echo some 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 can better minister to indigenous peoples. He said “every effort should be made” to provide access to Mass.
“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.
Dom Erwin Kräutler, an Austrian bishop who has spent the last 55 years in the Brazilian Amazon, said the situation is dire: more than 70% of Catholic communities in the Amazon don’t receive a weekly Eucharist, and some have it once or twice a year.
“These communities are stripped of the Eucharist, the core of our faith,” Kräutler said.
Conservatives rejoiced that Francis had refused to approve married priests.
“It is a great success, a great success for the faithful,” said conservative Austrian activist Alexander Tschugguel, who was so alarmed at the “pagan" proceedings of the synod that he stole three wooden statues of a pregnant woman that were featured in the Vatican meetings and threw them in the Tiber River.
A conservative U.S. blogger, Thomas Peters, tweeted: “Deo gratias. The Holy Spirit has spared the Church.”
The omission disappointed German Catholics. The issue of married priests is on the official agenda of a new process of dialogue between the German bishops' conference and a powerful lay group, the Central Committee of German Catholics.
“We regret very much that Pope Francis does not dare to move a step forward,” said the head of the committee, Thomas Sternberg.
German Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, a progressive who is rumored to be in the running to head the German bishops conference, said he “would have been happy" if Francis had allowed for married priests. His reluctance to do so, he told the German daily Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger, “is perhaps an expression of the hesitancy of a 2,000-year-old church.”
Francis dismissed suggestions that ordaining women 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.”
Women's advocacy groups blasted the document. Francis justified his refusal to consider ordained ministry for women as sparing them the risk of being “clericalized,” or placed on a pedestal.
“This post-synodal document is a betrayal of women by denying them the grace of holy orders to do a ministry they are already carrying out," said Miriam Duignan of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, a British-based progressive Catholic think tank.
Kate McElwee, executive director of Women's Ordination Conference, concurred.
“Recognizing women’s work with diaconal ordination would be the first, most basic step towards righting the wrong of institutional sexism that hobbles our church as it attempts to respond to the moral crises of our time,” McElwee said in a statement.
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 to ensure that priests' assets pass to the church, not to heirs.
In the weeks before the document’s release, the question of a celibate priesthood made headlines after the publication of a book written by retired Pope Benedict XVI, and a conservative Vatican official, Cardinal Robert Sarah, reaffirmed its “necessity.”
Benedict’s participation in the book created controversy since it appeared he was trying to influence the thinking of the current pope, despite promises to remain “hidden from the world” when he resigned seven years ago. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni noted that Francis finished his document in December, before the book came out, making clear he wasn't swayed by Benedict's intervention.
Francis avoided the issue altogether, dedicating the entire first half of the document to the “injustice and crime” committed against the Amazonian peoples and their environment by local governments, foreign corporate interests and illegal mining and extraction.
“We cannot allow globalization to become a new version of colonialism,” he wrote, adding that the church in the Amazon must have social justice at the forefront of its spirituality.
Clare Dixon, Latin America chief for the British Catholic aid agency CAFOD, said its environmental emphasis might help influence the climate change debate.
“But Francis is also imploring us to listen to the wisdom of the people of the Amazon, insisting that we learn from the way they live with the environment rather than in competition with it," she said.
AP writers Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Diane Jeantet in Rio de Janeiro contributed.