ROME–In October 2017, when Pope Francis announced a Vatican synod on the Amazon region “to identify new paths for the evangelization of God’s people in that region,” few people beyond those who had to attend marked it on their calendars. But over the course of the last two years, as the church prepared for the synod, which will run from Oct. 6 to 27 in Rome, it’s become clear there may be no more important meeting in Francis’ entire papacy.
One item among the 146 topics on the agenda listed in the 45-page working document has eclipsed all others–including the pope’s focus on climate change and poverty. That is whether or not to allow married “viri probati”–men of proven virtue–to be ordained as priests for the purpose of delivering the big sacraments: baptism, confession, weddings and funerals, in far flung areas where no priests are present.
Bishop Rafael Cob, apostolic vicar of Puyo, Ecuador, who will be attending the synod in Rome, said that the Church must “respond to a concrete challenge in a concrete reality.”
“The Amazon is a geographically difficult region to evangelize, first because of its distance, its inaccessibility,” he told reporters at a press conference in Rome. “But there also is a lack of candidates who can or want to be priests with the issue of celibacy. So, logically, the Church is looking for new methods to respond to concrete challenges.”
But a phalanx of conservative Catholic clerics, led by American Cardinal Raymond Burke and a host of other traditionalists, are ready to demand the resignation of the pope if he signs off on such heretical matters. By allowing married men to become priests in remote areas, they fear, the church could pave the way to the abolition of celibacy. Their slippery slope concern is that next, ordained priests will be able to marry. Then, God knows what could happen, maybe even women would be allowed into the priesthood.
German Cardinal Gerhard Muüller of Germany is vehement: he doesn’t even want the topic brought up and has condemned the synod working document. He says it has “triggered fears of a pending change to Church doctrine.” He warns that it could actually cause a schism, leaving conservatives with no choice but to leave the church under Francis.
Muüller says the Amazon working document “lacks theological reflection” and creates “great confusion” for Catholics. He says that it puts the focus on “human ideas to save the world” rather than Jesus.
The great schisms of the Catholic Church have been few and far between, but hugely momentous. The most significant is the so-called East-West schism that divided Christendom into the Western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox branch. The Eastern Orthodox church, for the record, does allow married priests. The Eastern Catholic church as well as the Latin rite church also allows married men to be ordained as priests while still being recognized in Rome.
Francis, as his papacy has proven, believes humans should have a say in all matters relating to, well, humans. Still, even as he entertains the idea that married devout Catholic men could be ordained to deliver the sacraments, Pope Francis has been clear that he is not willing to bend on celibacy, per se. On a recent papal voyage, he told journalists that he “would rather give his life” than reverse the celibacy rule which, for the record, is a rule he could easily change.
“If the bishops agreed through mutual consent to ordain married men–those called viri probati–it’s my judgment that the pope would accept it,” German Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of Francis’ closest theological allies, told Crux, a Catholic news site, recently. “Celibacy isn’t a dogma, it’s not an unalterable practice.”
On his way back from Africa in early September, Francis told reporters that he did not fear a divided church, which has led many to question whether in some small way he would like the conservatives to leave. "I pray that there will not be schisms,” he told reporters on board the papal plane. “But I am not afraid.”
Maybe he is banking on the theory that elderly married viri probati won’t have a huge issue with the matter. After all, early on in his papacy he compared Europe to an ageing women, who he described as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” Perhaps he is sure that a man of virtue won’t sin for the sake of sexual satisfaction after a certain age.
On the face of it, the issue seems rather banal. At the moment, many of the 2.8 million mostly Catholic people who live in the Amazon region, which skirts Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Suriname, don't have access to ordained priests. If they want to baptize newborns or bury their dead they have either to wait until a traveling priest shows up, which could be once a month or longer in some cases, or travel for miles to see the closest one which, as one can imagine, is almost as difficult with a newborn as it would be with a corpse.
Weddings are often scheduled to happen one after another when the priest will be in town, but things like last rites are impossible to administer and vitally important to devout Catholics who believe they must be anointed at death to rise to Heaven. Nuns are aplenty in the area and while they have done much of the heavy lifting like reading the Sunday liturgy in lieu of mass, they just don't have the power that deacons and priests have because of their gender.
The Catholic bishops in the Amazon region have long insisted that there are two options to deliver the faith to the faithful. First, the Catholic Church could give the nuns more power, but opening that door seems one that Rome doesn’t want to go anywhere near for fear that the precedent might spark a global stampede. Francis has, in fact, slammed the door on that a number of times.
So they are left with the option of ordaining married men who qualify as viri probati and giving them full powers to conduct priestly duties. The synod’s working document clearly suggests studying “the possibility of priestly ordination for elders, preferably Indigenous, respected and accepted by the community, even if they have an established and stable family.”
And Francis has stacked the synod deck of voting clerics to include the bulk from that region and the rest from his advisory group, including three Americans who are often classified as liberal, including Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who is one of his closest advisers, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego. Francis has also invited 12 “special” guests to weigh in, inducing former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to deliver a talk on a yet undefined topic.
The pope’s trusted adviser Cardinal Kaspar says he hopes the pope does sign off on ordaining married men in certain situations. “Personally, I’m very much in favor of maintaining celibacy as an obligatory way of life with a commitment to the cause of Jesus Christ,” Kaspar said. “But this doesn’t exclude that a married man can carry a priestly service in special situations.”