5 Observers Weigh In on the Amazonian Synod

The Synod Assembly’s instrumentum laboris cites the ordination of married men, the role of women in the Church, environmentalism and other topics

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

When the Special Synod of Bishops on the Amazon convenes this October in Rome, a number of controversial items will challenge the attendees. According to the instrumentum laboris, the working document which was released June 17, the bishops will consider such hot-button topics as the ordination of married men, identification of official roles for women in the Church, and environmental concerns such as climate change, deforestation and urbanization. Each of those important topics has drawn concerned commentary from Catholic priests and leaders, and from the faithful.

I asked a number of clergy and lay scholars to share their perspective regarding the Synod’s key issues.

Father John Wykes, International Director of Communications for the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, expressed optimism that the synod would address the needs of the people in the Amazon region, and he encouraged Americans to focus on the people of the Amazon, and not on Americans’ hopes for a married priesthood or other changes within the Church. Father Wykes, who lives and works at the OMV General House in Rome, said:

The Synod for the Pan-Amazonian Region, is set to begin in October. The instrumentum laboris, or working document, seems to be a very good attempt to address the spiritual and sacramental needs of that particular region. Personally, I find it interesting that the Western World, including the USA, often ignores news about Vatican efforts to reach out to those in remote parts of the world. However, since this document mentioned the possibility of married Catholic priests, suddenly the USA and other affluent countries have become very interested. Many people, though not all people, from these countries see not an effort to help people in remote parts of the world, but instead see a radical shift regarding married priests and hope (or fear) that such a reality may become true in the USA.

As with anything coming from the Vatican, context is very important. I would simply urge people to read the news as it comes directly from the Vatican News website, and to read it in a spirit of love and true concern for the peoples of the Amazon.

The working document and the synod is not about the Western World's obsession with the possibility of having married priests. Instead, it is about the peoples of the Amazon. The peoples of the Amazon should be at the center of our focus and concern when reading anything regarding the upcoming synod.

However, not all the respondents received the instrumentum laboris with Fr. Wykes' optimism.


Ordination of Married Men

One of the most controversial of proposals for discussion at the Oct. 6-27 Amazonian Synod is the ordination of older married men with families, to help resolve the priest shortage in the area. There is concern that the policy, if enacted in the Amazon region, would soon extend to other parts of the world, and that any policy relaxing the Church’s celibacy rules must be enacted not regionally, but throughout the Latin Rite.

Father Michael Joseph Monshau, professor at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, admitted that the conversation about married clergy is a difficult one. “We in the West have difficulty engaging in discussions like this,” he said.

...Our thought is rooted in individual rights, so that our discussions end up, “Who's got rights? Rights to what? How can you deny a request?”

Father Monshau talked about the married priests he knew personally, whom he called edifying, holy men, free of the taint of scandal, clear in their defense of Catholic doctrine. But despite their positive example, Father Monshau stopped short of endorsing the idea of a married priesthood for all. He explained:

I find myself wanting to say, I don't think it should become normative. I think the wisdom of the Church regarding the celibate priesthood is an enduring thing. At the same time, I think the Church should be as pleasant and agreeable as possible when a man with one of these complicated histories comes to us. I think we should be as lenient and accommodating as possible when someone comes to us in that circumstance. But in the long run, I think it would be absolutely wrong [to revise canon law to permit priests to marry in the Latin Rite].

Dr. Gerard Nadal is a scientist, author, and President of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer. He observed wryly that the instrumentum laboris includes a great deal of language that is going to cause a great number of people north of the equator to become dyspeptic. On a more serious note, though, Dr. Nadal added:

There is clearly a great deal that the Vatican is worried about, beginning with the reality that there is one priest for every 10,000 Catholics in the region, if I understand the numbers correctly.

Before people here in the U.S. get too vexed over the suggestion of ordaining older married men in the Amazon as a limited means of addressing the priest shortage there, we need to address the reality that the Church has ordained hundreds of Protestant converts who used to be ministers. When these men came into the Church, a great many were not from an Anglican background. There are former Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. This has been happening quietly since the 1980s, and the question is, why? Why are these convert laymen (without the possibility that they might have been validly ordained priests in their old communions) being ordained as Catholic priests, while cradle Catholics who are married have no such possibility of ordination? I have long surmised that this has been a test run for the moment we are at in the Amazon, by seeing how men who formerly managed marriage and ministry as Protestants would do with being married priests. So, this is hardly a suggestion without precedent.

Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and former professor of canon law at the Pontifical College Josephinum, offered his insights regarding married clergy. “Celibacy of priests in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church is a universal discipline,” he said.

... Wherever the Latin Rite is located, mandatory celibacy for priests is normative. The question of whether mature men of proven virtue could be ordained in the Amazon region goes back half a century. The question keeps coming up; it's been asked many times. Cardinal Hummes, the Brazilian cardinal who was Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy during the papacy of Benedict XVI, raised the question in an interview and endorsed the idea. When he got to Rome, he had to retreat and say he'd been misunderstood.

The question has been circulating for decades. There was a strong interest among bishops in South America to allow this. However, because it is a universal discipline in the Latin Rite, it seems to me that a synod of bishops in one region cannot be permitted to change the discipline that is universal.

Whatever the bishops in the Amazonian Synod enact must be approved for the entire Latin Rite. At the very least, this should be discussed at a meeting of the worldwide Synod of Bishops. You couldn't just make this exception for Brazil and then refuse requests from Germany, for example, and other parts of the world. It would create disciplinary chaos.

Imagine the effect it would have on men who are now in the seminary or considering going to the seminary.

Father Newman offered a historical perspective – citing three papal documents, each of which defended the tradition of clerical celibacy.

In the years immediately after the Council, the question of celibacy was raised not just for the Amazon, but for the whole Church. In June 1967, Paul VI answered that question in a beautiful encyclical on priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which was addressed to the bishops, priests and faithful of the whole Catholic world. Sacerdotalis Caelibatus restates the reasons for celibacy and reexamines the importance of the discipline for the universal church. Two years before that in December 1965, Pope Paul VI promulgated Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests. That document said, in part, that “Celibacy is to be embraced and esteemed as a gift.” And in March 1992, Pope John Paul II issued Pastores Dabo Vobis, a post-synodal exhortation to the bishops, clergy and faithful on the formation of priests in the circumstances of the present day, rooting and recommitting the Church to the discipline of celibacy as a gift of the Roman Rite for the priesthood.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who was ordained to the Catholic priesthood under the Pastoral Provision approved by Pope John Paul II. Father Longenecker, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and a prolific author and blogger, also has a wife and family. He was traveling to Italy this week and was not available for personal interview; but he has written about the issue of married priests on his blog:

How do I reconcile being a priest AND being married? … I see my commitment to Christ as a priest as primary. My marriage contributes to that and my commitment as a priest contributes to the strength of my marriage. If that is too much of a paradox for some people all I can say is that it works and somehow by God’s grace I think there is a complementarity there that is real, but which I find difficult to articulate.

Where do I personally stand on the issue? I think the Church should be open to the ordination of more older, tested married men. On a case by case basis according to local needs, I wish individual bishops had more possibilities to put forward men they know are tried, tested servants of the Church who are already married.


New Roles for Women in the Church

In a second area of concern, according to the instrumentum laboris, the Vatican hopes to identify the kind of official ministry that can be conferred upon women. “It is demanded that the role of women be recognized,” says the Vatican’s official press release, “starting from their charisms and talents. They ask to re-appropriate themselves of the space given to women by Jesus, ‘where we can all find ourselves.’” The proposal would guarantee women a leadership role within the Church, as well as “wider and more relevant spaces” in the field of formation: theology, catechesis, liturgy and schools of faith and politics.

For some, despite Pope Francis' statements to the contrary, the message seems a first step toward women's ordination. The Register asked Father Jay Scott Newman whether a woman might be appointed “pastor” of a parish, assuming administrative duties and thus freeing the priest to attend more effectively to his parishioners' spiritual needs. He responded with an emphatic “No”:

When a man is ordained to the priesthood, he receives the sacred authority to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. These are the three classic services or duties of the hierarchical priesthood. These correspond to the three offices in Israel of priest, prophet and king. In Israel, no one man could hold more than one office; every once in a while, one man would hold two. Christ the Lord concentrates all three in His own Person. He is the prophet who proclaims the Word of God; He is also king. Christ is priest, prophet and king; and in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, he shares that responsibility with the priests. Governance and teaching and sanctification are inseparably connected in the ministry of priests and bishops.

Father Newman went on to explain that how a pastor chooses to fulfill the triad responsibility is a matter for discussion. “I am the pastor,” he said.

...I hire the office manager, DRE, catechists and musicians. I am discharging my responsibility through the hands of dozens of other people. Just as a bishop does in the governance of a diocese. So the categories [of parish workers] are not “priests” and “women”; the categories are “ordained” and “lay faithful.”

I think that they want some kind of new degree of what's sometimes called “lay ecclesial ministers,” with a public administrative weight and new base of membership that creates a new class of clergy. That would be a grave mistake because it diminishes the distinctive role of the ordained priest in the community. It has a name; it is called “Protestantism.”


The Amazon Rainforest and Other Ecological Challenges

Dr. Nadal praised the Church for its concern for the environment, but then cautioned about how the synod proposes to make changes to the Mass, incorporating “popular piety” and indigenous customs. “As for ecology,” Dr. Nadal said:

While the region has seen a ghastly denuding of the rain forest, which is a vital piece of the earth's global ecosystem, the causes are many and highly political. It's admirable and enlightened for the Church to recognize that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon exist as humans with a connection to their land that touches on every aspect of the human person: physical, biological, political, psychological, and spiritual.

But as for incorporating popular piety, he offered this:

Adapting the Gospel to their reality is as old as St. Paul telling the men of Athens how he admired their spirituality, and that they even had a temple to a god unknown, and that he was there to tell them who that God was. If the Church is hoping to meet the people where they are and then bring them more closely into the heart of the Church and the Gospel, then they are being like Paul, who had hoped to flatter the men of Athens, identify the God to whom they had already erected a temple, and then assuage them of their false gods.

In adapting the Mass to local customs, the devil is in the details. Does the meaning of the Mass get watered down, or do the false gods get put to flight? It's certainly worth a synod looking at the matter.

With regard to environmentalism and social justice, Father Newman offered a general observation:

One of the reasons Protestantism has made such dramatic progress in South America in the last 60 years is that the energies of priests in very many places were distracted away from teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were directed away from that and toward political action – forming political parties, structures to advance the cause of justice in areas where structural injustice had been normative.

The unfortunate result of this emphasis on social justice, Father Newman added, was that native Amazonians came to understand that if you want to hear about Jesus, you see an Assembly of God minister; but if you want to join a labor union, you see a Catholic priest. “It is not the mission of the Church,” said Fr. Newman,

...to drain swamps, eradicate disease, cross the seas or build cities or send explorers to Mars. All those things are marvelous and are essential to the dignity of the human person – but they are not the Church's mission. They are specifically worldly tasks for unbelievers, for the whole human family to [message] to the world in a way that is just improper. The U.S. used to say that when it is not necessary for the bishops to speak, it is necessary for the bishops not to speak.

The most that any bishop should ever do is to say in a general way, from right reason and divine revelation, we know that the human race must be good guardians of the earth, behave in responsible ways, treat other people in keeping with their personal dignity. In other words, if necessary denounce specific evils like abortion, but without developing a program of public policy. They don't know how to do this – When the bishops expect to speak on a subject in which they have no authority and experience, they diminish their authority in the areas where they do have authority and expertise. So it's beyond saying that the Church reminds the human race that the good earth is for the whole human family, and therefore we need to provide care of the air, the earth and the environment for all of us.