Pope Francis has appointed prominent supporters of married priests to the organising council of next year’s Amazon synod.
The Pope named 18 members of the pre-synod council and announced the synod’s theme as “The Amazon: New paths for the Church and for an integral ecology”.
The council works with the synod’s secretary general in preparing for the assembly. It usually draws up an outline and list of questions which bishops’ conferences and other interested groups in the Church respond to. The responses are then compiled and analysed before a synod working document is produced.
Among the council members are Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a friend of Pope Francis and president of the Pan-Amazonian Church Network, and retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler, an Austrian-born prelate who served as Bishop of Xingu, Brazil. Both have called for the ordination of married men. In a 2014 interview with Die Presse Bishop Kräutler appeared to back women’s ordination too.
Pope Francis said last year that the synod would seek to hear the voices of those living in the Amazon region and identify new paths of evangelisation, especially for indigenous people who are “often forgotten and left without the prospect of a peaceful future, including because of the crisis of the Amazon forest”.
During his visit to Peru in January he said: “We have to break with the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.”
The 18 council members include three cardinals, 13 bishops, one nun and a layman. The majority of them are from countries in the Amazon region.
Among the other members are Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico City; British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister; Sister Maria Lopes Dos Santos, a member of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St Therese of the Child Jesus; and Archbishop Roque Paloschi, who has written of the “disastrous consequences” of “indifference, the advance of large agri-business projects, construction of large hydro-electric plants, mining and devastation of the environment in general”.
Analysis: Strange proposals may overshadow the event
The presence of Bishop Kräutler on the pre-synod council is likely to mean that the proposals of Bishop Fritz Lobinger will be front and centre when the bishops meet in Rome in 18 months.
Bishop Lobinger, whom Bishop Kräutler has cited with approval, has pioneered the idea of viri probati – older men, respected within their communities, who could be ordained to carry out a special ministry. According to Bishop Lobinger’s proposal, they could be married, would not go to seminary, and would be “as distinct as possible” from priests.
If this sounds radical, that’s because it is. And its antecedents make it look even more so: the notion of viri probati has been a favourite concept of theologians who wish to rewrite the idea of priesthood.
Leonardo Boff, who claims to have helped Pope Francis write Laudato Si’, has argued that the Church “simply may not … maintain its traditional prohibitions” on women priests.
Notably, the “reconstitution” of the priesthood on a viri probati-style model is seen as a prelude to women priests. Boff has quoted with approval a fellow theologian as saying: “Only when it has been transformed from within, and reconstituted in relation to the community as a whole, might it become something transferable to women.”
(Pope St John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger condemned some of Boff’s writings because they “endanger the sound doctrine of the faith”.)
It is significant that Bishop Lobinger has written: “Because the majority of proven local leaders are women, it is unavoidable that the question of their inclusion among ordained elders will arise, though present Church law does not permit it.”
The reference to “present Church law” might be said to understate the binding nature of Church teaching on this question.
Just as the 2014-15 synod was dominated by questions about divorce and Communion, it may be that some very strange ideas about the priesthood will overshadow the 2019 meeting.
Analysis by Dan Hitchens