“This sanctity is what protects and has always shielded the Church from every positivist and manipulative ideological reductionism (…) The synodal perspective does not cancel out antagonism or surprises, and neither do conflicts get solved by syncretic solutions of ‘consensus,’ resulting from the elaboration of censuses or surveys about one topic or another. That would be too reductive.”
— Pope Francis
Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany
June 29, 2019 (my translation)
Prior to the release of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, the media focused on whether Pope Francis would implement the recommendation in the Amazon Synod’s final document to allow the priestly ordination of married men (viri probati), in order to make the sacraments more accessible for Catholics in remote regions. Conservative Catholics, usually quite distrustful of Francis, created a boogeyman of this issue months before the beginning of the Synod. They predicted that Francis intended to make this exception in the Amazon and, in doing so, would undermine the discipline of mandatory celibacy in place for (most of) the Latin Rite.
When this exception didn’t materialize, Conservative Catholics rejoiced and had no qualms in appropriating the same papal authority they had been previously undermining to declare the debate definitively settled. Progressive Catholics, on the other hand, who had been hailing Pope Francis until that moment, began to attack him for “lack of courage,” and said he had made a terrible decision. Others have been postulating that the pope has not definitely closed the door for this exception to priestly celibacy, because he wrote favorably of the synod’s final document (which calls for establishing criteria for the ordination of married men in the Amazon) and since he did not explicitly rule out this possibility in the exhortation.
Who is right? Did Pope Francis endorse the proposal for the ordination of married men in the Amazon, or did he reject it? Is the door open or closed? It appears the controversy–while greatly weakened by the pope’s actions–has refused to completely subside.
The relationship between the Synod’s final document and Querida Amazonia
To better understand the crux of the controversy, we must understand that the relationship between the synod’s final document and the pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation is complex. This is because in 2018, Francis promulgated a new apostolic constitution on the Synod of Bishops (Episcopalis Communio) that stated:
“If it is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter.
If the Roman Pontiff has granted deliberative power to the Synod Assembly, according to the norm of canon 343 of the Code of Canon Law, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter once it has been ratified and promulgated by him.
In this case, the Final Document is published with the signature of the Roman Pontiff together with that of the members”
— Episcopalis Communio
Art. 18, §1-2
In other words, if Francis decided to do so, the Synod’s final document would participate in the ordinary Magisterium of the pope, and it would therefore require religious submission of mind and will on the part of the faithful.
There was some speculation that Francis would employ this new mechanism following the Amazon Synod (although he declined to do so following the 2018’s Synod on Youth and Young People, opting instead to incorporate passages from the final document into his exhortation Cristus Vivit.)
He did not, however, elevate the final document to the level of ordinary Magisterium. Pope Francis wrote and published his own apostolic exhortation: Querida Amazonia. At this moment, the Synod’s final document does not bear the signature of the Holy Father, which would be the requisite for it being a part of his ordinary Magisterium.
Additionally, at the Vatican press conference where Querida Amazonia was introduced, the pope’s representatives explicitly confirmed that the final document is not part of the pope’s ordinary Magisterium. From Vatican News (emphasis from now on is always mine):
Responding to a question about Episcopalis communio on the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Baldisseri [Secretary-General of the Synod] made it clear that the Final Document of the Synod for the Amazon, that the Pope urges all to read, has “a certain moral authority” but does not fall under Papal ordinary magisterium.
This aspect was also stressed by the director of the Vatican Press Office, Matteo Bruni, who said “the Apostolic Exhortation is magisterium, the final document is not”, and he added that “anything in the Final Document should be read in the lens of Querida Amazonia which has the authority of the ordinary magisterium of the Successor of Peter,” including any application.
Does this mean the Synod’s final document has no value whatsoever, as some conservatives have been suggesting? Since it is an uncomfortable document for them, some clearly favor this position. Yet this reading does not seem accurate. Cardinal Baldisseri–who rejected the notion that the final document is part of the ordinary Magisterium in the quote above–also says that this document has “a certain moral authority.” In the opening paragraphs of Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis encourages “everyone to read it in full.” He concludes the opening paragraphs by praying,
“May God grant that the entire Church be enriched and challenged by the work of the synodal assembly. May the pastors, consecrated men and women and lay faithful of the Amazon region strive to apply it, and may it inspire in some way every person of good will.“
How should we then receive the Synod’s final document? How do we gauge its authority? What is the purpose of Querida Amazonia, relative to this document? The answer to this last question can shed light on how to answers the first two. And the answer appears in the opening paragraphs of the exhortation:
“During the Synod, I listened to the presentations and read with interest the reports of the discussion groups. In this Exhortation, I wish to offer my own response to this process of dialogue and discernment. I will not go into all of the issues treated at length in the final document. Nor do I claim to replace that text or to duplicate it. I wish merely to propose a brief framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region a synthesis of some of the larger concerns that I have expressed in earlier documents, and that can help guide us to a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process.
At the same time, I would like to officially present the Final Document, which sets forth the conclusions of the Synod, which profited from the participation of many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region, since they live there, they experience its suffering and they love it passionately. I have preferred not to cite the Final Document in this Exhortation, because I would encourage everyone to read it in full.”
— Querida Amazonia, 2-3
To clarify, the Synod’s final document is “officially presented.” It should be “read in full” by “everyone.” It is to be “applied” by Catholics working in the Amazon region. And it should “inspire every person of good will.” In other words, the Synod’s final document stands on its own, and is neither “replaced nor duplicated” by Querida Amazonia.
However, even if the Synod’s final document has value on its own, “not being replaced nor duplicated,” by Querida Amazonia, it must nevertheless be interpreted through the lens of Querida Amazonia.
This seems clear to me, when Francis writes that the exhortation can “guide” the “reception of the synodal process,” by proposing a “framework of reflection” that includes some of the Pope’s “larger concerns.”
This interpretation appears to be consistent with the statement of Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesperson, in the press conference: “anything in the Final Document should be read in the lens of Querida Amazonia (…) Even the application or implementation should be done in light of the exhortation itself.”
This includes the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood in the Amazon.
Ordaining married men – what does Querida Amazonia say?
What does Querida Amazonia say about this issue? While the exhortation discusses at length the need to make the Eucharist more available to the (geographically or socially) isolated people of the Amazon, it also says:
“The Eucharist, then, as source and summit, requires the development of that rich variety. Priests are necessary, but this does not mean that permanent deacons (of whom there should be many more in the Amazon region), religious women and lay persons cannot regularly assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities, and perform those functions ever more effectively with the aid of a suitable accompaniment.
Consequently, it is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist. That would be a very narrow aim, were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities”
— Querida Amazonia, #92-93
This passage suggests that Pope Francis’s preference would be to have permanent deacons, women religious, and laypeople serve as ministers of Holy Communion, rather than ordaining married men to increase access to the sacraments. Beyond this practical solution, Francis is clear that he believes simply facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers through any means necessary is, “a very narrow aim.”
Francis repeats the word “narrow” a few paragraphs later, in his discussion of another contentious issue. During the Synod, many participants made proposals intended to increase the role of women in the Amazonian Church, and many proposed having women deacons serve the Church in the region. Many conservatives interpreted this proposal as an attempt to subversively re-introduce the topic of women priests, which was definitely settled by St. John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (as Francis has himself acknowledged in an in-flight press conference).
Francis again quells this controversy when he says in Querida Amazonia:
“This summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures. Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders. But that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective”
— Querida Amazonia 100
Once again, he uses the word “narrow”, and couples it with the expressions “restrict our understanding” and “reductionism.” Francis uses the same terminology in his letter to the Germans, which is quoted at the beginning of this article. This letter was written in response to the German bishops’ “Synodal Way.” That he wrote this letter suggests that Pope Francis is deeply concerned that the synodal process in Germany–which has also been a great source of worry for the conservative sector of the Church–may reach conclusions that are worldly and corporate, rather than the fruit of the spiritual discernment that is characteristic of a Church guided by the Holy Spirit.
Francis often associates “reductionism” with “ideology.” This is consistent with his thought, as we shall see later.
The Pope’s alternative
Is that it? Is this the final word? One could certainly say that Pope Francis has categorized the proposals for married priests and women deacons as too ideologized and, therefore, too reductive and narrow to be acceptable solutions. So it looks like the conservatives were right all along and can now claim victory, right?
Not so fast. A Manicheistic view of these subjects is also contrary to what Francis proposes in Querida Amazonia. When we hijack the pope’s authority in order to validate a certain ideological position, we already commit the mistake that Francis warns us against.
It is indeed clear that the pope has decided against ordaining married priests or introducing women deacons. But this does not mean that the pope has validated the conservative argument that has spread in the past few months (or years) regarding these issues. Quite the contrary.
People with an ideological investment in this topic have only focused on the relevant passages I have quoted above. But if they continue reading, immediately after the sections on the Eucharist and the role of women (where the pope tackles the aforementioned controversies), they will find a section suggestively titled “Expanding horizons beyond conflicts.” Here it is in full:
“It often happens that in particular places pastoral workers envisage very different solutions to the problems they face, and consequently propose apparently opposed forms of ecclesial organization. When this occurs, it is probable that the real response to the challenges of evangelization lies in transcending the two approaches and finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined. Conflict is overcome at a higher level, where each group can join the other in a new reality, while remaining faithful to itself. Everything is resolved “on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides”. Otherwise, conflict traps us; “we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart”.
In no way does this mean relativizing problems, fleeing from them or letting things stay as they are. Authentic solutions are never found by dampening boldness, shirking concrete demands or assigning blame to others. On the contrary, solutions are found by “overflow,” that is, by transcending the contraposition that limits our vision and recognizing a greater gift that God is offering. From that new gift, accepted with boldness and generosity, from that unexpected gift which awakens a new and greater creativity, there will pour forth as from an overflowing fountain the answers that contraposition did not allow us to see. In its earliest days, the Christian faith spread remarkably in accordance with this way of thinking, which enabled it, from its Jewish roots, to take shape in the Greco-Roman cultures, and in time to acquire distinctive forms. Similarly, in this historical moment, the Amazon region challenges us to transcend limited perspectives and “pragmatic” solutions mired in partial approaches, in order to seek paths of inculturation that are broader and bolder.”
— Querida Amazonia 84-85
This is consistent with what I recently wrote, here. When extremists from either side try to solve the tension between two apparently irreconcilable positions, by forcing the Church to choose one of two extremes, the Church responds by choosing neither and embracing the tension. Here, Pope Francis mentions “two opposed forms of ecclesial organization“. I believe it is implied that these two forms have been quarreling within the Synod and without. This has gone on before, during, and after the Synod: the seemingly irreconcilable war between the liberal vision and the conservative vision of the Church. Francis rejects both. Instead, the pontiff proposes a third approach.
What is the third approach? Francis does not say, explicitly. It seems that the two opposing factions have been fighting for so long that there was no time (or rather, willpower) to fully develop the approach Francis longs for in this exhortation. Still, the Holy Father clearly points to a third way.
You might say, correctly, that in this exhortation Francis has shown us elements of this way; for example by asking for a generous allocation of missionaries to the Amazon, or by eschewing clericalism in favor of a more laity-directed Church. But these are only a few concrete suggestions that point toward a much larger idea. The Pope does not use Querida Amazonia to create a detailed roadmap; rather he is using it as a “framework” for “reflection.” He is calling for “creativity” and “boldness.” The discussion is still open and new proposals are still welcome (in fact, they are encouraged).
While Pope Francis does indeed request discussion and new proposals, he also asks that these transcend “the contraposition that limits our vision.” We must go beyond what liberal and conservative ideologues have tried to impose. Ideologies have monopolized the Synod (and in fact, Catholic discourse) for far too long.
Clipping the wings of the Holy Spirit
The healthy distrust that Pope Francis has for ideological solutions is one of the great themes of his pontificate. I explain here how he believes that an ideologized view of reality (and of the faith) makes us “lose our perspective,” “shrink our horizons” and causes “reality itself to fall apart” (as Francis says in Querida Amazonia).
Ideology purports to give simple solutions to complex problems. Their solutions will remain constant regardless of the problems under consideration. Ideological solutions are already predefined before the problem itself has been diagnosed. It is inevitable that when faced with a social ill, a left-wing ideologue will propose a solution involving “more State,” while a right-wing ideologue will suggest the solution involves “less State.” There is no discernment beyond such slogans. Ideology is the natural enemy of what the Pope is asking for: creativity.
The Amazon is experiencing many real challenges, yet some are acting as if all of them will be solved if priestly celibacy is relaxed, or–conversely–absolutely upheld. The disproportionate attention this topic has received makes it seem like all the solutions for the Amazon hinge on this. But it is much more likely that priestly celibacy is really being used as a proxy for a much larger debate over sexual morality. This debate is mostly of interest to those in the First World, and it will likely have a marginal (if any) impact in solving the actual, concrete problems of Amazonian Catholics. These sorts of debates in the Church mirror those in our secular culture. Just as the left-wing politician will inevitably propose “more State” for any social problem, the liberal Catholic will ask for “married priests” as a solution for any problem in the Church. The same applies to conservative Catholics, who will inexorably cry for more stringent condemnations of any apparent novelty or deviation from traditional practices.
In a Church where ideology prevails, what is the use of discussing issues at all? For the ideologue, the answer is already predefined anyway. To them, more lax or more rigorous enforcement of sexual morality will solve everything and anything.
In many ways, this ideological debate has already thwarted what Francis sought to achieve. If we are to believe what some American bishops have relayed, Francis is understandably frustrated with the way people have been discussing the entire synodal process. I find this alleged quote from the Holy Father very interesting:
“The Synod met to talk about the issues of the Church in the Amazon. Other people wanted me to talk about celibacy. They made that the issue. But that wasn’t the issue of this synod.
[The Pope] said some people say he is not courageous because he didn’t listen to the Spirit (…) So, they’re not mad at the Spirit. They’re mad at me down here, as if they assume the Holy Spirit agreed with them.
But the Synod is not about the courage of the Pope or the lack of the courage of the Pope (…) The Synod is about the action of the Holy Spirit and discernment of the Holy Spirit. And if there is no Holy Spirit, there is no discernment”
When solutions are predefined by an ideologized view of reality, no discernment can take place. In other words, what will happen is obstruction of the work of the Holy Spirit. As Pope Francis says in Querida Amazonia (albeit in a different context), “Let us not clip the wings of the Holy Spirit” (69). Only creativity and boldness, transcending ideological frameworks, will let the Holy Spirit fly free again.
Let us try to answer the questions I asked at the beginning of this post.
Did Pope Francis allow for the ordination of married men in the Amazon, or did he reject it? Is the door open, or closed?
Continuing the “door” metaphor, I would imagine the dialogue went something like this:
“People: Is the door open or closed?
Francis: As your spiritual father, I advise you not to go through that door. I think it would be best if you found a different way“
Did Francis really answer the question? No, he didn’t. We don’t know whether the door is open or closed. Certainly, we can continue to discuss whether the door is open or closed. We may even go near the door and check to see if it is really open. Some might be tempted to see what happens if they go through that door. Will Francis let them, or will there be consequences?
In my opinion, that is beside the point. It does not matter whether the door is open or closed. The purpose of ascertaining whether the door is open or closed only makes sense if we seek to go through the door. But our Holy Father has already said he does not think we should enter. That being the case, does it really matter whether the door is open or closed? Shouldn’t the Pope’s suggestion be enough not to consider going near?
Contrary to the false Dictator Pope narrative that his critics have laid out, Francis very rarely imposes his own point of view. He does not like to legislate; he prefers to guide. In fact, if Francis explicitly says that Querida Amazonia serves to “guide” the implementation of the synodal process, it would be proper of us to heed his guidance.
More importantly, doing so would finally release us from the shackles of the ideological debate we have witnessed for so long. Maybe by getting away from the celibacy debate, we might begin to truly discern concrete solutions for the actual problems the Amazonian Catholics face. It would be wonderful if Catholics took the same creativity they are currently using to exploit Querida Amazonia, and exercised it to discern new ways to help the Amazon. This is, in my opinion, the manifest and clear will of the pope, through which we ought to read the synodal process cum Petro et sub Petro.
[Photo credits: Vatican Media]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.