VATICAN CITY–A group of Roman Catholic bishops voted on Saturday 128 in favor and 41 against a proposal to lift a thousand-year-old ban on married priests.
The 184 bishops ministering in the Amazon region voted that married “viri probati”—men of proven virtue—should be allowed to be ordained as priests for the purpose of delivering the major sacraments to Catholics in areas where no priests are assigned.
Now Pope Francis must decide whether to sign off on the proposal, which many believe he just might do, which would also open up a debate on celibacy in the priesthood.
The married men eligible for the priesthood would already have to be deacons which, for lack of a lengthy description, are a lighter version of priests. They can be married and they are allowed to perform many clerical functions, but not deliver holy mass. They can, however, deliver many of the sacraments including baptism, funeral and burial services, distribute holy communion known as the Eucharist, and preach the homily sermon so long as there is an ordained priest leading the mass.
Deacons are either ‘permanent,’ meaning devout, sometimes married men who serve the church throughout the world, or ‘transitional,’ meaning those preparing for the priesthood. At a briefing in Rome on Saturday evening, Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny pointed out that all men ordained into the priesthood must be deacons first.
With that in mind, what the Amazon synod fathers also decided is perhaps even more groundbreaking. On Saturday, they approved a proposal to open the long-closed door to the ordination of women as deacons by agreeing to study the matter. And if women are allowed to be deacons, that could one day pave the way to female priests.
Pope Francis, in spontaneous remarks closing the meeting ahead of a farewell mass on Sunday, promised he would keep an open mind . “I am going to take up the challenge that you have put forward,” he said, “that women be heard.”
“We still have not grasped the significance of women in the Church,” Francis said Saturday as nuns in attendance nodded their heads and the entire assembly erupted in applause. “Their role must go well beyond questions of function.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about the potentially groundbreaking decisions that might change the face of the church forever is that the two issues–the question of married priests and celibacy and that of women clergy—are based on a meeting about Catholics living in some of the most remote and poverty-stricken areas in the world.
But the decision to move forward on both of these issues is one that may also cause a schism in the church. Even before the final vote, conservative Catholic militants had made their message clear, that the Amazon region should not be a pacesetter on these issues. Those from the Amazon region in attendance at the conference had brought with them five so-called Pachamama wooden statues depicting a scene with a naked, pregnant woman at the center that many conservatives described as “false idols.”
Conservative Catholic Twitter exploded with comments about Pope Francis worshiping the “pagan” statues and how they represented a church in demise. The same critics scoffed when Francis opened the summit by telling the prelates they could leave their cassocks at home and wear suits to the working sessions.
Shortly before the vote, while those in attendance were finalizing their document, the statues were stolen from the church in Rome where they were kept during the synod meeting and thrown into the Tiber River.
Roman police fished out the statues on Friday and gave them back to the pope who apologized for the act. On Saturday, the Pachamama statues were front and center inside the synod hall, undoubtedly boiling the blood of those who sought to destroy them.
If the pope’s response to the stolen statues is any indication, he may well heed the vote of the bishops on two of the most important issues the Catholic church has faced outside of clerical sex abuse and, with it, change the face of Catholicism forever.