The Catholic Church has thrown open the debate over married priests with a preparatory document for the Amazon synod suggesting bishops consider ordaining “elders,” who have an “established and stable family,” and are respected by their local community.
The proposals, contained in a working document for the Synod on the Pan-Amazon Region which will take place in Rome from 6-27 October, link the question of ordaining married men to the pastoral needs of communities in the region.
“Communities have difficulty in celebrating the Eucharist frequently due to the lack of priests,” the document, released by the Synod of Bishops on Monday 17 June, explained. “For this reason, instead of leaving the communities without the Eucharist, the criteria of selection and preparation of the ministers authorised to celebrate it should be changed.”
Running through the document, which will form the basis of the bishops’ discussions, is a call for the Church to stand in solidarity with indigenous communities in the Amazon region, which the synod defines as all or part of Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Surinam.
The bishops attending the synod are being asked to look at how to “promote indigenous vocations of men and women in response to” the sacramental and pastoral needs of the people and to move from a "Church which visits" to a "Church which remains [present]” in the region. Many of the Catholic communities have to wait many months, sometimes longer, to receive the sacraments from visiting clerics.
But in trying to formulate a new pastoral vision for the Church in the Amazon the document urges a “return to the early Church” in creating appropriate ministries.
While stressing that “celibacy is a gift for the Church,” it asks that “for the more remote areas of the region, the possibility of priestly ordination of elders, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by their community, should be studied.”
Crucially, the synod will look at whether the priesthood must always be linked to the exercise of power jurisdiction in the Church, raising the question as to whether priests can be ordained to administer the sacraments, rather than govern.
“Indigenous peoples possess a rich tradition of social organisation where authority is in rotation and with a profound sense of service,” the workmen document says. “Starting from this experience of organisation it would be appropriate to reconsider the idea that the exercise of jurisdiction (power of government) must be linked in all areas (sacramental, judicial, administrative) and permanently to the Sacrament of Orders.”
This idea is rooted in the thinking of a retired South African Bishop, Fritz Lobinger, who argued how a priest would be ordained solely for the “sanctifying role” of the priesthood, and his writings have been cited by Pope Francis.
The Pope has said that he is not going to change the general the rule that Latin-rite priests must be celibate, but the Amazon discussions open the door to consider the question of whether the ordination of married men can occur in places deprived of the sacraments.
Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who is the relator general of the synod, said recently: “So often we worry about managing to transplant the European models of priesthood onto the indigenous priests. But someone rightly has noted that too much concern is given to the profile of the ordained ministry putting it before the community that receives it.”
He added: “It should be the other way around: the community is not there for its minister, but the minister is there for the community."
The working document stresses that the “the sacraments must be a source of life and a remedy accessible to all especially to the poor” and therefore “it is necessary to overcome the rigidity of a discipline that excludes and alienates” and find a “pastoral sensitivity that accompanies and integrates.”
It suggests celebrations of that respond to the local culture and become the “source and summit of their Christian life,” and this includes indigenous “music and dance, in native languages and clothes, in communion with nature and with the community.”
The synod, titled “Amazonia: New paths for the church and for an integral ecology,” also calls for women to be given an “official” role in the Church, including in leadership roles, as well as in the field of education: theology, catechesis, liturgy and schools of faith and politics.
“It also asks that the voice of women be heard, that they be consulted and participate in decision-making processes, and that they can thus contribute with their sensitivity to ecclesial synodality.”