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No mention of priestly celibacy in Amazon synod exhortation

Pope Francis accepts offertory gifts as he celebrates the opening Mass of the Amazon synod (CNS)

The document does not rule on married priests or on female deacons – but it also rules nothing out

Pope Francis released his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Wednesday. Titled Querida Amazonia, the document is an official encouragement to the participants in October 2019’s Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology. It is also addressed to the whole Church.

People looking for revolutionary change in the Latin Church’s long-standing discipline regarding priestly celibacy — or even an opening to possible exceptions — are disappointed, as will be people who were looking for a disciplinary fix to thorny doctrinal questions, including the possibility of ordaining women to the Diaconate as it currently exists.

The document does not rule on either of those hot-button issues, which occupied a significant amount of discussion time, column space, and energy both before and after the synod assembly. Querida rules nothing out. Francis’s words on the role of women, however, will not be likely to encourage advocates of admitting women to the Diaconate or restoring the Order of Deaconesses. His exhortation in any case offers no mechanism for further specific practical consideration of any question. 

In fact, Querida doesn’t do much of anything. 

It is, in Pope Francis’s words, “a brief framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region a synthesis of some of the larger concerns that I have expressed in earlier documents, and that can help guide us to a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process.”

Francis does address the appalling shortage of ordained priests. He places that urgent practical concern within the broad context of crisis in the priesthood — a crisis not merely, nor even primarily numerical — that weighs on the whole Church, everywhere in different ways. “The laity,” Pope Francis writes, “can proclaim God’s word, teach, organize communities, celebrate certain sacraments, seek different ways to express popular devotion and develop the multitude of gifts that the Spirit pours out in their midst.” Nevertheless, they need — the Church and the world need — “the celebration of the Eucharist, because that is what, in Pope St John Paul II’s words, “makes the Church.” 

“We can even say that ‘no Christian community is built up, which does not grow from and hinge on the celebration of the most holy Eucharist.’ If we are truly convinced that this is the case,” Pope Francis went on to say, “then every effort should be made to ensure that the Amazonian peoples do not lack this food of new life and the sacrament of forgiveness.”

Pope Francis went on to call all bishops, and in particular the bishops of Latin America, to foster and encourage prayer for priestly vocations and to adopt a more generous posture toward men who show signs of a calling to missionary work, and encourage them to choose the Amazon region as their missionary field. “At the same time,” Francis wrote, “it is appropriate that the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation be thoroughly revised, so that priests can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures.”

Francis devoted five short, very dense paragraphs to the role of women in the life of the Church.

“For centuries,” Francis noted, “women have kept the Church alive in those places through their remarkable devotion and deep faith.” He recalled how women who took part in the synod assembly offered deeply moving testimony. “This summons us to broaden our vision,” Francis wrote, “lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures.” He said that such reductionism “would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders.” That approach, however, “would in fact narrow our vision,” Francis explained. “[I]t would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.”

Francis went on to say that the women, who have so crucial a role in Amazonian life, ought to have some official recognition of their place in the Church and should have access to positions of leadership-service “that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.” He noted that any such scheme would entail a number of specific elements, including “stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.”  

Pope Francis said that a disposition reflecting these realities “would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood.”

Querida Amazonia is a brief document, coming in at 32 pages, block set and single-spaced. It is divided into four chapters, spread over 111 continuously numbered paragraphs. The document is organised around four “dreams” Pope Francis has for the Amazon: Social; Cultural; Ecological; Ecclesial. The fourth and final chapter is by far the longest. It constitutes nearly half the document, drawing on the observations he made in the earlier chapters and integrating them.

One of the more interesting notes in Chapter 3 — “An Ecological Dream” — comes during a discussion of the extremely fraught circumstances of the Amazonian theatre of the global crisis in ecology, with its confluence of political, economic, social, cultural and civilizational factors. 

Pope Francis believes that international organisations and non-governmental actors certainly have their roles to play. Quoting his encyclical letter, Laudato si’, Francis said, “[W]e cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues.” He noted how such organisations “offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.”

Critics of what they saw as Pope Francis’s enthusiastic support for a sort of globalism disguised as internationalism will perhaps be surprised to hear Francis say, in paragraph 50: “Indeed, in addition to the economic interests of local businesspersons and politicians, there also exist ‘huge global economic interests’,” at work in the Amazon. “The answer is not to be found,” Francis continued, “in ‘internationalizing’ the Amazon region, but rather in a greater sense of responsibility on the part of national governments.”

That is another surprising turn in a document that has many of them, and that is bound to occupy the attention of the public both inside and outside the Church for some time.