VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis refused Wednesday to approve the ordination of married men or women as deacons to address a shortage of priests in the Amazon, sidestepping a fraught issue that has divided the Catholic Church and emboldened his conservative critics.
In an eagerly awaited document, Francis didn't refer to recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider married priests or women deacons. Rather, the pope urged bishops to pray for more priestly vocations and to send missionaries to a region where faithful Catholics in remote areas can go months or even years without Mass.
The pope's dodge disappointed liberals, who had hoped he would at least put both questions to further study. It outraged progressive Catholic women's groups. And it relieved conservatives who had used the debate over priestly celibacy to heighten their opposition to the pope, and saw his ducking of the issue as a victory.
Francis' document, “Beloved Amazon,” is instead a love letter to the Amazonian rain forest and its indigenous peoples from the first Latin American pope. He has long been concerned about the violent exploitation of the Amazon's land, its importance to the global ecosystem and the injustices against its peoples.
Francis said he has four dreams for the Amazon: respecting the rights of the poor; celebrating their cultural riches; preserving its natural beauty and life; and showing the indigenous features of its Christian communities.
Francis had convened bishops from the Amazon's nine countries for a three-week synod in October to debate how the church can help preserve the delicate ecosystem from global warming and better minister to its people.
The Argentine Jesuit has long been sensitive to the plight of the Amazon, where Protestant and Pentecostal churches are making gains in the absence of vibrant Catholic communities where Mass can be regularly celebrated.
According to Catholic doctrine, only a priest can consecrate the Eucharistic hosts distributed at Mass that the faithful believe are the body of Christ. Given the priest shortage, some remote communities only see a priest and attend a Mass once every few months or years.
For Catholic communities in the Amazon, some of which date from the time of the Spanish colonization, the priest shortage coupled with the spread of evangelical churches risks the very Catholic nature of the communities.
Conservatives rejoiced that he had refused to approve married priests.
“It is a great success, a great success for the faithful,” said conservative Austrian activist Alexander Tschugguel, who was so alarmed at the “pagan” proceedings of the synod that he stole three wooden statues of a pregnant woman that were featured in the Vatican meetings and threw them in the Tiber River.
A conservative U.S. blogger, Thomas Peters, tweeted: “Deo gratias. The Holy Spirit has spared the Church.”
The omission disappointed German Catholics. The issue of married priests is on the official agenda of a new process of dialogue between the German bishops' conference and a powerful lay group, the Central Committee of German Catholics.
“We regret very much that Pope Francis does not dare to move a step forward,” said the head of the committee, Thomas Sternberg.
German Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, a progressive who is rumored to be in the running to head the German bishops conference, said he “would have been happy” if Francis had allowed for married priests. His reluctance to do so, he told the German daily Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger, “is perhaps an expression of the hesitancy of a 2,000-year-old church.”
Francis dismissed suggestions that ordaining women would serve them or the church. While agreeing that women should have greater decision-making and governance roles, Francis argued that they must find “other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women.”
Women's advocacy groups blasted the document.
“This post-synodal document is a betrayal of women by denying them the grace of holy orders to do a ministry they are already carrying out,” said Miriam Duignan of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, a British-based progressive Catholic think tank.