On Monday, the Vatican released the long-awaited working document for this year’s Amazon synod. Journalists immediately scanned the text for references to married priests: the proposal that overshadows the synod, which will take place in Rome on October 6-27.
It is widely believed that at the synod’s conclusion participants will appeal to the Pope to permit the ordination of married men in the Amazon region on an ad experimentum basis. It is thought that the Holy Father will approve the request.
The instrumentum laboris issued on Monday sheds light on the matter. The 45-page document says: “Communities have difficulty celebrating the Eucharist frequently because of the lack of priests … Therefore, it is requested that, instead of leaving communities without Eucharist, the criteria for selecting and preparing the authorised ministers to celebrate it should be changed.” The proposal is therefore still very much on the table.
The text, which will guide discussion in October, describes the pastoral situation in Amazonia, a remote and densely forested area that stretches across nine Latin American countries: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. The region is of global significance because it contains one in 10 of the known animal species on earth and encompasses the world’s largest stretch of tropical rainforest. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, “There is a clear link between the health of the Amazon and the health of the planet … Deforestation may release significant amounts of carbon, which could have catastrophic consequences around the world.”
Not surprisingly, the working document expresses grave concern about the exploitation of an area that Pope Francis has called “lung” of the world. (It is interesting to recall in passing that Francis himself lost part of a lung after a teenage infection.)
But the text is not only concerned with looming ecological disaster. It is also preoccupied with the plight of the Amazon’s indigenous population. The largest community is in Brazil, where there are an estimated 310,000 indigenous people, speaking a remarkable 195 different languages. Yet today they have legally guaranteed rights to only 20 per cent of the land in the Brazilian Amazon. The synod will discuss how the Church can deepen the Christian life of this remote community, without trampling upon their ancient traditions, and defend their land against commercial incursions.
The synod’s organisers appear to believe that the greatest obstacle to the evangelisation of the Amazon is a lack of local priests. The region is still heavily reliant on missionaries and indeed its bishops have in recent years come from across the world. The eye-wateringly wealthy German Church, for example, sends not only clergy but also generous sums of money to the region. Outspoken German churchmen hope that the synod will call for married priests, so they will be able to petition for them too, as Germany is suffering from a similar dearth of vocations. Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, head of the German bishops’ Latin America commission, predicts that the synod will lead the Church to a “point of no return” and that “nothing will be the same as it was” after October.
But it would be a pity if the synod were driven by European agendas. Married priests are, in any case, unlikely to be a magic bullet for the evangelisation of a region as remote and complex as the Amazon. The synod fathers must assess whether the Church’s traditional approach to mission, which has served it well in Africa and parts of Asia, is unsuitable for the Amazon. Is it truly impossible to cultivate sufficient celibate vocations among indigenous peoples? Is the ordination of married men only a regional matter, or a universal one that should be discussed by bishops from all over the world?
Charities active in the region are worried that the married priests debate will dominate proceedings. They hope that the synod will result in an urgent appeal to put environmental protection ahead of profits. They believe that such a message would help to shape the global ecological debate.
Proponents of married priests may believe that there will never be a more propitious time to advance their cause. That may be so. But if they make a concerted push at the synod, then whatever else they say about the environment or evangelisation is unlikely to make the news bulletins.
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