In Depth

Pope Francis steps back from allowing married priests

Progressives hoped the pontiff would make an exception to the 1,000-year-old tradition in the Amazon region

Pope Francis has refrained from opening the priesthood to married men in the Amazon rainforest region, side-stepping a decision that would have heartened liberal Catholics and proved a watershed moment for the church.

A Vatican summit - or synod - of 180 Amazon bishops, indigenous people and activists in October last year called for the Pope to loosen the millenia-old celibacy rule in response to dwindling clerical numbers. Catholics in the region, they said, were experiencing “enormous difficulty” receiving communion or absolving sins - rites that require a priest.

Traditionalists were relieved, however, when the 94-page Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, or Beloved Amazon - the Pope’s summary of and response to the synod - neglected to directly address the proposal, focusing instead on the need for regional clergy to confront the environmental plundering of the rainforest.

What did the Pope say?

“After praying and reflecting”, the Pope “decided to respond not by foreseeing changes or further possibilities of exceptions (to priestly celibacy) from those already provided for”, said Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican’s communications office.

Tornielli, however, had some words of encouragement for Catholic liberals hoping for change, pointing out that priestly celibacy is a Catholic tradition, not immutable dogma. “This topic has been discussed for a long time and may continue to be discussed in the future,” he said.

Among the October summit’s other proposals was one that would have allowed the ordination of women as deacons - again to raise the number of church representatives in the area. Francis did address this contentious idea in his letter, but, as with the celibacy question, disappointed progressives by indicating he was not ready to break with tradition.

“For centuries, women have kept the church alive in those places through their remarkable devotion and deep faith,” wrote Francis in Beloved Amazon, “But a move to ‘clericalise women’ would not enhance their value.”

The solution to the shortage of religious officials on the ground, the Pope wrote, is missionaries.

“This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America... to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region,” Francis wrote.

He also criticised the ravaging of the rainforest and the abuse of indigeounous people by domestic and international businesses for profit, calling it “injustice and crime” to which the appropriate response was “outrage”.

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What was the response?

“Today our Holy Father Pope Francis offers us a hopeful and challenging vision of the future of the Amazon region, one of the earth’s most sensitive and crucial ecosystems, and home to a rich diversity of cultures and peoples,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles on Wednesday.

The question of whether priests can marry has become an increasingly contentious issue within the Church in recent years. Many Catholics had anticipated Pope Francis - a leader who has promised many kinds of institutional reform - would have been more amenable to allowing married priests. He has spoken before about the need to make the Church less centralised, and allow regions more control.

“Hopes for a change in the Amazon had heartened advocates for married priests in other parts of the world, including Germany, where the question is on the agenda for a two-year series of meetings of Catholic bishops and laity that began last month,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

The Washington Post adds: “Some theologians and church pundits have argued that celibacy has contributed to the clerical abuse crisis, by promoting a culture in which sexuality, of all kinds, is plunged beneath the surface. But that viewpoint has little traction among church leadership.”

Conservative Catholics feared the change, although it would have been regional and allowed only in limited circumstances, would have shattered a norm and led, inevitably, to the end of priestly celibacy. Indeed, Francis himself has shown his support for the tradition, calling it “a gift to the church” only last year.

The pressures on the pontiff as he seeks to pursue a policy of modernisation and reform without alienating swathes of the widely conservative institution, are huge. In this instance, he decided on the path of least resistance.

Marco Politi, author of The Loneliness of Francis, concludes: “Francis was afraid to split the church.”

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