Married priests — and perhaps women deacons — are on the way. The Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region comes to a conclusion, with the participants voting on the final report on Saturday.
How and when the Church in the Amazon (and elsewhere?) will get there will be left deliberately ambiguous, but the end of the synod has been clearly in sight from those who were privileged to see it as long as five years ago.
In 2014, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes — the Brazilian whom Pope Francis chose to stand at his side when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election — founded the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), which has been the lead agency in the preparations for the Amazon synod and responsible for many of the extra-synodal activities this past month in Rome, including the infamous indigenous fertility symbols now dissolving in the fetid waters of the Tiber.
Cardinal Hummes has been advocating the ordination of married men for more than 10 years. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy in 2006, but shut down the married-priests question immediately.
Pope Francis opened it back up. After the twin synods on the family in 2014 and 2015, the Holy Father suggested that the next ordinary synod in 2018 be devoted to the priesthood, where the question of celibacy could be raised. The synod council — elected by the bishops at the 2015 synod — voted that combustible topic down, and so youth and vocations were chosen instead for last year’s synod.
Then in 2017, Pope Francis announced the Amazonian synod, a “special assembly” that did not require any synod council approval and whose members would be entirely chosen by the Holy Father. In an ordinary synod, bishops’ conferences from around the world vote on who will represent them. The Amazon synod is made up only of those who the Holy See invites, and Pope Francis put Cardinal Hummes in charge of the entire preparatory process and the synod itself. With Cardinal Hummes and REPAM in charge, the outcome was never in doubt.
Which does not mean that the synod participants themselves will vote for married “elders” in the remote regions of the Amazon on Saturday. They likely will, but they don’t need to.
After the family synods of 2014 and 2015, the exhortation Amoris Laetitia addressed in only a brief and ambiguous way the question of whether the civilly divorced and remarried could receive Holy Communion. Church teaching up until that point made it clear that living a conjugal life with one person while being validly married to someone else was a grave sin that prevented reception of Holy Communion. Pope Francis never addressed that directly but hinted in that direction in a carefully crafted footnote. So now it is permitted in Bavaria but not permitted in Alberta. Official papal approval was given to the interpretation by a group of bishops in Buenos Aires, exercising for the first time their magisterial authority over the Church universal. That was both novel and less than clear, as the Buenos Aires guidelines themselves are ambiguous.
A reprise of the same maneuvering came in 2018, when the German bishops’ conference proposed guidelines that would admit Protestants to Holy Communion. The relevant Vatican offices objected to this violation of Eucharistic doctrine and practice and summoned the leadership of the German bishops to Rome. The guidelines were withdrawn as a bishops’ conference project, but papal approval was given afterward for individual dioceses to decide the matter.
So whatever the synod participants vote, if matters continue to proceed as they have for the past five years, REPAM will see to it that the Holy Father will publish a document in sufficiently ambiguous language that some dioceses will go ahead with married priests and some won’t. Some will ordain men with minimal requirements; others might insist upon multiple years of preparation, analogous to what is required of permanent deacons.
Here and there, a bishop in remote parts of Africa or the Pacific Islands will propose to do the same and be told by Vatican authorities that the Amazon synod process only applies to the Amazon. He will push ahead regardless, without Pope Francis stopping it. So it will be permitted and not permitted, practiced and not practiced, all at the same time, depending on geography.
Then the Germans will insist on it for Germany, in their own “binding synod,” which will convene later this year despite Pope Francis telling them not to proceed. A German bishop here or there will propose to ordain a few married men. He will be told No by the relevant Vatican departments, but will proceed anyway, and papal permission will be granted, either before or after the fact.
At a certain point, a pattern becomes clear. Only those who wish to close their eyes do not see it.
REPAM wanted married priests for the Amazon back in 2014. They will prevail. The challenge for the rest of the Church is to cope with the fallout from a significant rethinking of the priesthood in the Church.
The question of female deacons is more complicated, but given the clear path opened for REPAM on the married-priests question, some synod fathers have thought it propitious to push for deaconesses.
Both the Catechism and recent historical studies make it theologically impossible to divide the sacrament of holy orders against itself, leaving the diaconate open to women but priesthood and the episcopacy reserved to men. The Catechism makes clear that deacons receive holy orders, too, so “ordination” to the diaconate for women would have to be something other than holy orders.
That is a harder nut to crack, but deliberate ambiguity about women’s “ministries” would give the green light to ceremonies on a local level — just as Germans now handle the admission of Protestants to Holy Communion — which could be called “ordination” to the “diaconate” at home and represented as something else in Rome.
And, if all these ambiguities come to pass, what path will the 99.7% of the Church that lives outside of the Amazon region decide?
It doesn’t much matter. If a handful of bishops in Buenos Aires can decide sacramental discipline on the Eucharist for the entire Church, why shouldn’t the Amazon bishops decide about holy orders?
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.