Vatican Sends Mixed Signals at ‘Querida Amazonia’ Launch

Officials at a news conference said the Pope’s post-synodal document affirmed the discipline of priestly celibacy, but also said the door is still open to ordaining married men.

(photo: YouTube)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis did not endorse the possibility of ordaining married men in the Amazon, nor does the synod’s final document, in which that proposal appeared last October, have magisterial authority.

And yet Cardinal Michael Czerny, one of the Amazon Synod’s two special secretaries, told the media Wednesday the matter is not “closed” and remains “unresolved,” part of the “synodal process,” which is a “journey” along a “long road.”

This was the contradictory message communicated today at the Vatican press launch of the Pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia — a document in which, contrary to many people’s expectations, the possibility of ordaining married men in the region, to help deal with a shortage of priests, and ordaining female deacons failed to materialize.

Most of the journalists’ questions were about the precise authority of both Querida Amazonia and the synod’s final document — a text that records that the synod fathers’ voted by over two-thirds to support a proposal to ordain married permanent deacons in the remote Amazon Basin.

Cardinal Czerny, a Jesuit who serves as the Pope’s main representative on issues relating to migrants and refugees, appeared to give considerable weight to the final document during his press conference presentation, saying it has a “certain moral authority” and that to “ignore it would be a lack of obedience to the Holy Father’s legitimate authority.”

He also said the Pope asks the whole Church in the Amazon to “strive to apply” the synodal work (inferring the inclusion of the final document), and called the final text a “diptych companion” (i.e. something of equal size) to Querida Amazonia.  

Veteran Vaticanist Sandro Magister therefore asked if, by including the final document as a “kind of magisterial document,” bishops’ conferences could use that document’s support for ordaining married men to allow such a change in their own dioceses.

Cardinal Czerny said that unlike Querida Amazonia, the final document is not in the Pope’s magisterium but that the “Holy Father presents the final document” in his exhortation and “encourages everyone to read the whole document.”

“So the particular proposals, on many different levels, different scopes and even of different kinds of importance, remain on the table as proposals of the synod which he encourages the Church in the Amazon and the Church everywhere to read and appreciate, to benefit from and apply, in proportion in the reality in which they find themselves,” he said.

Reading from prepared remarks, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said: “Some proposals were made, not all of them were picked up in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The final document is a precious document, it is authoritative, its authority derives from the Synod of Bishops. Pope Francis recognizes this role that’s associated with it, to the point that he presents it officially and does ask us to read it, but it doesn’t become magisterium.”

He said anything in the final document “should be read through the lens of the apostolic exhortation” which is “the lens to read the final document of the synod.” And he added that “even the application or implementation” of the final document, which the Pope requests in paragraph four of Querida Amazonia, “should be done in the light of the exhortation itself.”

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, was then asked whether Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution on the Synod of Bishops is valid in this case. In Article 18 (1) of that document, called Episcopalis Communio, it states that “if it is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the final document participates in the ordinary magisterium of the Successor of Peter.”

Francis seemed to have given his strong backing to the final document in Querida Amazonia, particularly in Paragraph 3 where the Holy Father states he “would like to officially present” it.  But had he thereby given it his “express approval” and thereby raised it to the level of the ordinary magisterium — a step that could allow the introduction of married priests in the Latin rite through the backdoor?

Cardinal Baldisseri replied by saying the Pope had not done that. The apostolic exhortation “does not speak about the approval of the final document,” he said. “It speaks about presentation, but not approval.”

He also stressed that while Article 18 speaks about “express” approval, it did not say “indirect or thought approval,” which he implied was relevant in this case. He then echoed what Cardinal Czerny had said earlier: that the final document “has a certain moral authority but it does not have magisterial authority.”

In view of the final document taking a clear second place to Querida Amazonia, did this therefore mean that Pope Francis had closed the door to the possibility of married priests?

To this question, Cardinal Baldisseri referred to Cardinal Czerny whom he called a “specialist in this case.”

Cardinal Czerny’s response was instructive — essentially, “No.”

“The best way to understand this is part of a process and part of a journey,” he said. “That’s why it’s called a synod, and we’re at a very important point in the synodal process. There’s a long road ahead as well as road already travelled, so the questions you are returning to are questions of the road, and the Holy Father has not resolved them in any way beyond what he said in the exhortation.”

He added: “If there are questions which you feel are open or which the Church feels are open thanks to the exhortation, they will continue to be debated, discussed, discerned, prayed over, and when mature presented to the appropriate authority the decision.”

The cardinal then appeared to answer Magister’s earlier question about whether this matter could end up being resolved at the level of a bishops’ conference.

“These are decisions that can be made in a diocese, in a conference, and decisions made here,” Cardinal Czerny said, “so if you’re looking for a kind of closure so you can write an article with a punch, I’m afraid there isn’t that kind of closure.”

He also said after the press conference, in comments to journalist Diane Montagna, that the issue of holy orders for women also remains “unresolved” and subject to further study. 

Writing in La Civilta Cattolica, close papal adviser Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro also appeared to leave each matter open.

The exhortation “does not go beyond the Final Document, nor does it simply intend to give it its seal,” he wrote. “Francis accepts it entirely and accompanies it, guiding its reception within the synodal journey, which is in progress and certainly cannot be said to be concluded.”

Father Spadaro added: “The Pope has written this because he wants to give an impetus to the synodal process. Indeed, Francis decides this time not to quote the [final] document at all because that would give the impression of a selection of contents. Instead, his aim is to invite a complete reading so that it may enrichchallenge and inspire the Church: these are the very three verbs used by the pontiff.”


German Church Reaction

Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of leading Jesuits to indicate the debate remains open, the reaction among German Church leaders — who invested so much in this synod with the aim of introducing married clergy and women deacons — has been one of considerable disappointment.

“Unfortunately, [Pope Francis] does not find the courage to implement real reforms concerning the issues of ordination of married men and the liturgical competence of women, which have been discussed for 50 years,” remarked Thomas Sternberg, president of the influential lay group Central Committee for German Catholics (ZdK), which is playing a leading role in the country’s controversial synodal path

Sternberg said “expectations were very high for concrete steps of reform, especially in relation to access to priestly ministry and the role of women” and that “we very much regret that Pope Francis doesn’t take a step forward here in this letter.” But he said Francis has instead “reinforced the existing positions of the Roman Church, both in terms of access to the priesthood and the participation of women in the Church's ministries and offices.”

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the outgoing president of the German bishops’ conference, issued a note of defiance, saying the “door to women’s ordination is not definitively shut.” He also said “it was already clear” that Francis’ exhortation “would provide no easy answers to difficult questions” such as the question of priestly celibacy. “Nobody can expect something like that will be solved in a year or two,” he told reporters Feb. 12.

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, head of the German bishops’ humanitarian agency for Latin America which funded much of the synod’s preparation, expressed his disappointment with the document’s lack of backing for married priests, saying he “would have wished” the Pope had followed the decisions of the synod and “given access to priestly ordination (as so-called viri probati) to proven married men from the Amazon region by way of an exception.”

However, Bishop Overbeck, who had predicted the synod would lead the Church to a “point of no return,” and, thereafter, “nothing will be the same as it was,” welcomed the Pope’s stress on “the urgency of resolving the pastoral emergency situation” in the Amazon region, and that Francis would be allowing the debate to continue.