It’s déjà Amoris all over again.
After a confusing day at the Vatican and in the Catholic media, it is becoming clear how the question of priestly ordination for married deacons will be resolved. That might be the only thing that was clear yesterday.
Edward Pentin’s report gives the details of the uncertainty and contradictions offered at the Vatican news conference to present Querida Amazonia, the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis after the 2019 Amazon synod.
One thing — lamented by the secular press the world over — is abundantly clear: The Holy Father did not approve the synod’s recommendation that priestly ordination be conferred upon married deacons of “proven” maturity and ministry. That was widely expected but did not happen. From CNN to the German ecclesial bureaucracy, the disappointment was accompanied by a sense of betrayal. The progressive pope of their imaginings did not deliver. It is a bitter moment.
At the same time, though, the Holy Father did not reject the proposal. Amazingly enough, he did not address it. Querida Amazonia does not speak about priestly celibacy, or married priests, or women deacons, or any of it. So if he did not say a clear “Yes” or a clear “No,” what will happen now?
Recall that in 2016 Amoris Laetitia did not give a straight answer to whether — contrary to prevailing sacramental discipline — those Catholics who were civilly divorced and remarried, while remaining married in the Church to someone else, could receive Holy Communion. There was only an ambiguous footnote that did not explicitly mention Holy Communion. Local bishops were invited to provide guidelines, which they did in a contradictory manner, so that what was holy in one place was a grave sin in another.
Pope Francis then chose which interpretations he favored. What was not changed in principle was thus changed in practice in certain parts of the Church but not others.
Furthermore, Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia appeared to contradict the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on conscience. When that question was posed directly to Pope Francis — the famous dubia presented by four cardinals — the Holy Father did not acknowledge the questions.
But the question was resolved eventually. The two bishops of Malta issued guidelines that clearly presented an understanding of conscience as entirely subjective, clearly contradicting Veritatis Splendor. Those two bishops were subsequently appointed adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Archbishop Charles Scicluna) and pro-secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops (Bishop Mario Grech). So in time, Amoris was indirectly interpreted as contradicting Veritatis Splendor.
How will that work with Querida Amazonia? There will be questions first, answers much later.
The discussion yesterday turned on the status of the “final document” of the synod itself, which approved the proposal for married priests. Querida Amazonia begins by “officially presenting” that final document. When Pope Francis changed the rules of the synod in 2018, he included a provision that, if “expressly approved” by the pope, the final document of a synod could be considered part of the papal magisterium.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, ruled that out in this case. The final document was not “expressly approved.”
Cardinal Michael Czerny, who served as special secretary of the Amazon synod, was sitting right beside Cardinal Baldisseri. He said that while the final document was not magisterial, it had a “moral authority,” and to ignore it would be a “lack of obedience” to the Pope. All the proposals in the final document remain “on the table.”
The final document thus has authority but is not necessarily authoritative.
It is fairly obvious what will now happen. Far too much time and money was put into the Amazon synod, principally by the German bishops, to let matters simply rest there.
The next step will be for a bishop in the Amazon region to request of the Congregation for the Clergy and/or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (jurisdictions here overlap) permission to ordain a married deacon a priest, in accord with the final document of the synod, “officially presented” by Querida Amazonia. It might take some time for a plausible case to be put forward, as there are actually few married deacons in the Amazon region. (Querida Amazonia calls for more permanent deacons in the Amazon.)
At that point, approval might be given, subject to various conditions. What was not approved in principle then might be approved in practice. That, of course, remains to be seen, but that is how the Amoris Laetitia model worked.
One option was definitively closed off by Querida Amazonia. During the synod itself, there was plenty of talk from the German ecclesial bureaucracy that an exception for married priests in the Amazon would also be, sooner rather than later, applied to Germany. It is not possible to see how that would happen now. If the approval for such a move was lodged within Querida Amazonia — an act of the universal pastor of the Church — then it could be argued that it applies everywhere. But if the approval is lodged in a final document of a regional synod, it would not be possible to appeal to its authority — “moral,” not magisterial — for application outside of that region.
Cardinal Czerny spoke of an ongoing “journey” and a “long road” ahead. That road may well follow the trail already blazed by Amoris.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.