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Pope has spoken, but celibacy debate is not finished

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 12, 2020

In Querida Amazonia, his apostolic exhortation concluding the work of the Amazon Synod, Pope Francis has surprised his supporters and critics alike by saying nothing about the topic that dominated public discussion during the Synod meetings last October: the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood.

However, the Pope’s silence on that issue does not mean that the question of priestly celibacy is closed. As Cardinal Reinhard Marx put it, the “discussion will continue.”

Moreover, while the new document does not resolve the most controversial issue discussed at the Synod, the Pontiff does directly address another issue that raised a furor during the October meeting: the reverence shown for the Pachamama, a native fertility symbol. He writes: “It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.”

Indeed the homage paid to the Pachamama image during ceremonies in Rome, and the Pope’s defense of those ceremonies, lie closer to the heart of the message in Querida Amazonia, a document whose 111 paragraphs are organized around four chapters, headed by the Pope’s “dreams” for the Amazon region.

Pope Francis presents those dreams early in the text (paragraph 7):

  • I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.
  • I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.
  • I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.
  • I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.

The celibacy question—still pending

The Final Document of the Synod, endorsed by the bishops at the October session, included a recommendation that married men of proven character, viri probati, be ordained to the priesthood, as a way of easing the acute shortage of priests in the Amazon region. Defying popular expectations—and some inaccurate last-minute reports that were supposedly based on leaked copies of the apostolic exhortation—Pope Francis did not endorse that recommendation. Nor did he reject it. He did not even mention it.

Thus the Pope sidestepped a debate that had continued through the October meeting and after, rising to a crescendo in January when Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, breaking his silence on ecclesiastical issues, joined with Cardinal Robert Sarah in a book entitled From the Depths of Our Hearts, strongly supporting the tradition of celibacy. Many of the Pope’s most stalwart supporters had excoriated the book, saying that it was an effort to undermine Pope Francis—clearly implying that the Pontiff was sympathetic toward the Synod’s recommendation.

Now, since Querida Amazonia is the official document concluding the work of the Synod, is the discussion of celibacy over? Not necessarily. Since the papal document is silent on the issue, the Final Document approved by the bishops appears as the last word on the subject. Pope Francis made a point to “officially present” that document in his apostolic exhortation, adding: “I would encourage everyone to read it in full.”

At a Vatican press conference introducing Querida Amazonia, Cardinal Michael Czerny underlined the importance of this papal gesture, saying that “this official presentation and encouragement confer on the Final Document a certain moral authority.” He conceded that the Final Document is not a magisterial document, yet he argued: “To ignore it would be a lack of obedience to the Holy Father’s legitimate authority.”

So then was the Pope, by his silence, giving his tacit approval to the Synod’s most controversial recommendation? Andrea Tornielli, who is the editorial director of the Vatican’s dicastery for Communications—and thus can presumably be trusted for an accurate reflection of the Pope’s intentions—wrote:

This topic has been discussed for a long time and may continue to be discussed in the future because, “perfect and perpetual continence” is “not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood”, as the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council stated.

In short, Pope Francis did not, as some journalists reported, “close the door” on the possibility of ordaining married men. He left the door precisely as it was: ajar.

’A true moral scourge’

The most impassioned prose of Querida Amazonia is found in the Pope’s condemnation of the exploitation of the Amazon region, which he attributes to rapacious “colonizing interests” (including some corporate interests based within the region itself). He laments “grave violations of human rights and new forms of slavery affecting women in particular, the scourge of drug trafficking used as a way of subjecting the indigenous peoples…” (14) These evils, he insists, reflect a desire for never-ending profits, an unspoken belief that corporate interests are more important than human lives.

The same greedy and materialist approach, “a true moral scourge” (14), has caused incalculable damage to the environment of the Amazon basin, the Pope writes. He pursues that subject at length, delving into details such as the loss of topsoil and the extinction of species—both of which he attributes primarily to exploitative development. “The land has blood,” the Pope writes, “and it is bleeding; the multinationals have cut the veins of our mother Earth.”

At the same time the Pope has little sympathy for environmentalists who would impose their programs and their ways of life upon the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He writes: “We do not need an environmentalism “that is concerned for the biome but ignores the Amazonian peoples.” (8)

Indigenous faiths and Catholic evangelization

In Querida Amazonia the Pope expresses an almost unbounded admiration for the indigenous cultures of the Amazon region. (In the Amazon, he says in one breathless passage (41), “daily existence is always cosmic”.) He lauds the people of that region for their simplicity, their communal way of life, their close connection with nature, and even their religious beliefs:

Certainly, we should esteem the indigenous mysticism that sees the interconnection and interdependence of the whole of creation, the mysticism of gratuitousness that loves life as a gift, the mysticism of a sacred wonder before nature and all its forms of life.

Still, while he emphasizes his respect for the native cultures, the Pope insists that Christians must bring the Gospel to the region. And in doing so, he adds, missionaries must bring the indigenous peoples into contact with Jesus Christ and the sacraments, not merely with the charitable works of the Church:

How sad it would be if they were to receive from us a body of teachings or a moral code, but not the great message of salvation, the missionary appeal that speaks to the heart and gives meaning to everything else in life. Nor can we be content with a social message. (63)

A watershed for the papacy?

Querida Amazonia does not bring any radical vision to the Church. “In fact,” Chris Altieri observed in the Catholic Herald, “Querida doesn’t do much of anything.” Pope Francis certainly calls for a radical change in attitudes—a change that he has already demanded in the past, particularly in Laudato Si’. But he does not inaugurate, nor even suggest, any change in Church teachings or discipline.

For liberal Catholics, who so eagerly awaited the papal document, fully confident that the Pontiff would endorse an end to mandatory celibacy in the Latin clergy, the document is a disappointment. And that disappointment is compounded by the Pope’s refusal to promote the ordination of women as deacons. That move, the Pope writes, would “clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.” (100)

The Central Committee of German Catholics—the lay group that has worked with the German episcopal conference on the “synodal path” to change Church teachings—was quick to express disappointment in Querida Amazonia. “We very much regret that Pope Francis did not take a step forward in his letter,” the group announced. “Unfortunately, he does not find the courage to implement real reforms on the issues of consecration of married men and the liturgical skills of women that have been discussed for 50 years.”

In 1968, when Pope Paul VI disappointed liberal Catholics with the publication of Humanae Vitae, he became a target of intense and protracted criticism from the Catholic left. If the Querida Amazonia does not provoke the same sort of critical reaction, it would show that despite their disappointment, liberal Catholics are still confident that Pope Francis remains sympathetic to their causes.

Additional documents & perspectives

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 13, 2020 7:15 PM ET USA

    #70. "...In the Amazon region, we have inherited great riches from the pre-Columbian cultures." Are mass sacrifices of children part of the "riches"?

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Feb. 13, 2020 3:33 PM ET USA

    Querida Amazonia does not do much of anything other than continuing the confusion that has characterized the current papacy.

  • Posted by: shrink - Feb. 13, 2020 7:57 AM ET USA

    The ode to Mary at the end of QA is strange, as if it were an after thought. It is also bizarre that Bergoglio makes no mention of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who was the principal of conversion of the native Americans 500 years ago. And perhaps it should be so, since our current pontiff does not believe in conversion, unless it is understood as nature worship (#56).

  • Posted by: filioque - Feb. 12, 2020 6:33 PM ET USA

    The Central Committee of German Catholics is disappointed that the Pope did not provide more cover for them. Now they will have to forge ahead on their own.