Early responses to the release of Pope Francis’ long-awaited exhortation on the Amazon Synod, Querida Amazonia were divided markedly between those whose hopes for major announcements on the ordination of married priests and women deacons in the region were disappointed, and those whose fears of such announcements were not realised.
The latter conservative group found themselves endorsing the approach of Francis, while the former progressive group pointed out that the door had been left open for their struggle to continue.
EWTN broadcaster Raymond Arroyo called the document “a shock and a wakeup call to progressives who have sought ‘revolutionary’ change in the Church. Pope Francis has reaffirmed the tradition of ordaining celibate men, and ruled out ordaining women.” “Expect a ferocious response,” he tweeted.
The alleged depiction of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and those who defended the tradition of priestly celibacy as “critics of Pope Francis” was belied by the Pope’s final document, Arroyo claimed, because it reflected precisely the ideas of his “critics”. “So perhaps they are brothers and the media characterisations have been skewed,” Arroyo suggested.
He said the document represented a major setback for president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who is urging a path of reform in the recently opened German synodal procedure. Marx, along with many others who had hoped for a relaxation of the celibacy rule, saw an opening in the Pope’s silence on priestly celibacy in the document, so he could announce that “the discussion will continue”. However, the document’s silence on celibacy was still a major setback for Marx and the progressive forces who championed a regional exception in the Amazon that could be expanded later, Arroyo claimed.
While Arroyo might fend off accusations of triumphalism, this would be more difficult for Michael Warren Davis to accomplish. Writing in Crisis Magazine, he said: “Yesterday, the Holy Father did something completely unexpected: nothing at all,” in a story headlined, “The Pope is Still a Catholic”.
In addressing the vocations crisis, both in the Amazon and across the Western world, Francis’ solution “is not to do away with clerical celibacy. It is not to ordain women to the diaconate or priesthood. It is not to encourage lay-led services in lieu of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. His recommendation is simply this: prayer and preaching,” Warren Davis wrote.
He defended this interpretation by a key quotation from the document: “No Christian community is built up which does not grow from and hinge on the celebration of the most holy Eucharist,’ Francis writes; ‘This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region.”
It was left to a secular paper to turn the triumphalist screw. Charlie Bradley in the Daily Express discerned a “surprise U-turn after opposition from Catholic Church conservatives” on the part of the Pope in a story headlined: “Pope Francis humiliation: How Vatican leader came unstuck as he is hit by crushing defeat.” The document was a “defeat” because Francis had “backtracked on his proposal to allow married Amazonian men to be ordained”. Bradley added that Francis’ leadership was coming under “increasing scrutiny” after “a series of criticisms from his predecessor Benedict XVI”.
Cardinal Müller in more measured blog for National Catholic Register called Querida Amazonia a “document of reconciliation”. The Pope does not draw “any dramatic and disconcerting conclusions” from the final document presented to him after the 6-27 October Synod, Müller wrote. He went on:
“The entire letter is written in a personal and attractive tone. The Successor of Peter, as the universal shepherd of Christ's flock and as the highest moral authority in the world, wants to win all Catholics and Christians of other denominations, but also all people of good will for a positive development of this region, so that our fellow men and fellow Christians living there may experience the uplifting and unifying power of the Gospel … May all take the Holy Father as a model for themselves.”
But Müller was not entirely unrestrained. On how to ensure all those in the Amazon region have access to the Eucharist he took a clear swipe at those who think the answer is to ordain married men: “A solution, which is praised all too pragmatically by many in the consecration of viri probati, would not be a relativisation of celibacy in the Latin Church (Art. 85-86). For with it, the Church would, in the epochal challenge of postmodern secularism, dispense with the most effective remedy — namely that the servants of the kingdom of heaven symbolically renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God.”
Ed Pentin, writing in Corrispondenza Romana, accepted that Francis had kept his foot “on the accelerator of ‘integral ecology’,” but he had “brought the synod’s religious agenda to a sudden stop.”
“Cardinals Burke, Müller, and Sarah (and his co-author, Benedict XVI), as well as the few prelates who fervently defended priestly celibacy, have reason to be satisfied. Now they can look down on promoters of the low-cost priesthood, especially bishops Fritz Löbinger, Erwin Kräutler, and their partners on the German ‘synodal path’. Schluss! No opening for viri probati or ‘deaconesses’,” Pentin declared.
But his delight was tempered by Francis’ enthusiasm for an environmentalism that colluded worryingly with liberation theology: “By far [the] most flawed aspect [of the document] is its full adherence to the postulates and programmatic agenda of Liberation Theology in its ecological version recycled by Leonardo Boff and assumed by the synod’s documents”, Pentin declared.
Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, who presented the document at the Vatican on Wednesday with Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and Sr Augusta de Oliveira anticipated the disappointment of progressives, and took pains to point out that while Querida Amazonia bypassed the hot-button issues of women deacons and married priests, a number of the Pope’s close advisers have said the door is not definitively closed on either front.
Francis encouraged missionary priests to go to more rural areas, and warned against the temptation to “clericalise” women rather than empowering them through leading community roles which better “reflects their womanhood.”
Czerny said the best way of looking at the Pope’s approach to married priests in the document, given that the October 2019 synod proposed the ordination of viri probati, is that it is “part of a journey.”
“We are at a very important point in the synodal process. There are long roads ahead, as well as roads already travelled,” he said, and on the question of married priests, Francis “has not resolved them in any way beyond want he has said in the exhortation.”
On the proposal for the ordination of women deacons, Czerny simply said the issue is still “being studied”, likely awaiting a conclusion on the topic from a commission Francis formed in 2016 to study it.
According to Mark Pattison of Catholic News Service the world’s bishops “gave high marks” to the new apostolic exhortation. The President of the US Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, said Francis “calls all of us in the Americas and throughout the West to examine our 'style of life' and to reflect on the consequences that our decisions have for the environment and for the poor. Along with my brother bishops here in the United States, I am grateful for the Holy Father's wisdom and guidance and we pledge our continued commitment to evangelizing and building a world that is more just and fraternal and that respects the integrity of God's creation”.
At least one US brother bishop took a less inclusive line. “So the doom and gloomers I guess will find something else to attack the pope on but he said no to married clergy and woman deacons,” tweeted Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee. Conservative Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, however, outdid Gomez in heaping praise on the Pope.
Shortly after the exhortation’s release, Pope Francis had tweeted: “I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.”
"Beautiful”, Strickland tweeted in response. “May the Amazon region and every region of the world be transformed in the Image of Jesus Christ. Pray for the Holy Father.”
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, president of the Australian bishops' conference, also focussed on the environmental and cultural virtues of the document. “‘Querida Amazonia’ addressed two issues critical to the Australian context: indigenous culture and an integral understanding of ecology,” Coleridege wrote. “The Amazon has a unique place in the planet's ecological footprint and its abuse in various forms is having and will continue to have an impact on the connection between humanity and the planet, our common home. Here in Australia we see, at times dramatically, the damage done by abuse of the natural world – not only to the environment but also to wildlife, to communities and countless individuals.”
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland, concurred.
“The Holy Father presents a clear-sighted analysis of the grave threats to the peoples and ecosystems of the Amazon, and by extension to the earth, our common home,” Martin said in a 12 February statement. “He highlights the problems of poverty, economic and social injustice and the violation of human rights which are intertwined in the vicious cycle of ecological and human degradation.”
One of the few bishops to express outright disappointment was Bishop Robert Flock of the Diocese of San Ignacio de Velasco, Bolivia. “The Pope simply kicked the can down the road. He doesn’t even mention the recommendation of the possibility of married deacons being ordained as priests, which was what the synod conclusions had suggested,” Flock told the BBC. “As far as I’m concerned, even that was a non-starter because I don’t have any permanent deacons in my diocese, and the real challenge is how to provide the proper formation so that the people can take on these kinds of ministries in a serious way.”
Writing for the Jesuit magazine America James Martin SJ offered five “takeaways” from the document, to do with the rights of the poor; the cultural riches of the Amazon; the connectedness of Creation; the importance of inculturation; and “the questions surrounding the Eucharist”.
Only towards the end of his article does he acknowledge that “Pope Francis stopped short of calling for what the synod’s final document had proposed: the ordination of ‘viri probati’, or experienced married men, and, as some in the synod had suggested, the ordination of women as deacons”.
However, Martin pointed out that Francis was “officially presenting” the synod’s final document along with the “Querida Amazonia” exhortation so the final document “accompanies the exhortation as part of his teaching”. “That may mean that the synod’s proposals are still up for discussion in the future,” Martin said. “In any case, the question of the official status of proposals included in the synod document, but not explicitly endorsed in the exhortation, should probably be left to canon lawyers.”
“Querida Amazonia will delight some and disappoint others,” he acknowledged.
Among the most disappointed was The Women’s Ordination Conference, established in 1975. The conference accused the Pope of “wilfully turning his back on the calls of women for recognition of the sacramental ministries they offer the people of the Amazon and the global Church.”
Some Catholics in Germany criticised the exhortation’s treatment of women, according to the German Catholic news service KNA. Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, was disappointed by “the lack of courage to pursue real reforms.” Agnes Wuckelt, deputy chairwoman of the German Association of Catholic Women, called it “unbearable that the official church continues to deny women equal rights and degrades them to service providers due to biology.” The former editor of The Tablet Catherine Pepinster called it “grim” that the church would suggest “clericalism is automatically part of the priesthood.”
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales summarised the document as tracing “new paths of evangelisation and care for the environment and the poor”. Pope Francis “hopes for a new missionary thrust, and encourages the role of the laity within the ecclesial community,” the bishops said. Their article on the “Significance of the Apostolic Exhortation” focussed on the “four great dreams” that Francis gives expression to in the exhortation: the “social” dream; the “cultural” dream; the “ecological” dream; and the “ecclesial” dream.
Andrea Tornielli, editorial director for Vatican News, said the document’s message “supersedes the dialectical diatribes which ended up representing the Synod as a referendum on the possibility of ordaining married men”, and the bishops of England and Wales took care to avoid these diatribes.
It was left to Robert Mickens, writing in La Croix, to suggest that any joy conservatives might be feeling after publication of the document might be short-lived.
“If you've read some of the commentary on Pope Francis's decision not to change the discipline of priestly celibacy or approve women deacons, you probably have the impression that this is a ‘win’ for old-time Catholicism and a ‘loss’ for the Church's reformers,” Mickens wrote. “Actually, it might be just the other way around.”
Pointing out that Francis is not “pronouncing the final word” or “making final decisions” with his exhortation, Mickens picked up on the fact that the Pope says he is also “officially” presenting the Final Document of the synod – the document that recommended ordination of viri probati.
“It sure sounds like the pope is giving his approval to the Final Document,” Mickens says, going on to explain that if a Final Document “is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter" (Art. 18 § 1).
Either way, Mickens says, one thing at least is clear:
“The pope has clearly not stopped discussion on any of the issues raised in the final document or the Synod process, which he sees as ongoing. Not only is he encouraging further discussion. He is also encouraging a further and deeper development and experience of synodality.”
So is it true, pace Michael Warren Davis, that the Pope “did nothing at all”? Few would agree: Francis has definitely done something, in the view of most Catholic writers and commentators. But is there a clear and unequivocal answer to the question: “What exactly has he done?” The answer to that question must be ‘no’.