February 12, 2020 (Steven O’Reilly) – Today, the Holy See issued a much anticipated papal exhortation in the wake of the recent Amazon Synod. The exhortation (Querida Amazonia), many had feared, would — among other things — approve the ordination of respected married men (“viri probati”), as well as the ordination of women as “deaconesses.” Though I haven’t had the opportunity to go through the whole exhortation as of yet, I have no doubt there are landmines aplenty to be found within it.
However, for now, I wanted to focus on the top of mind items that were feared to be in it, and provide some brief comments. The two questions are (1) the ordination of married men, and (2) the ordination of female ‘deaconesses.’ On these, Pope Francis did what I expected him to do. He did not address the questions head on in his exhortation. As expected, and as is his way, he leaves open the possibility through some ambiguous, tortured, and roundabout way. This is what he has done throughout his pontificate, most notably in Amoris Laetitia on the question of communion for divorced & remarried Catholics. The Commentariat on Team Francis seems to agree. Ivereigh tweeted the exhortation closes off nothing, as have others. Catholics should not rest easy.
So, while the exhortation does not affirm that respected married men (viri probati) could or should be ordained as priests, for example, it does not reject the idea. Instead, at the outset of the apostolic exhortation Pope Francis “officially presents” the Amazon Synod’s final document without quoting it in detail. Pope Francis writes (emphasis added):
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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. (Querida Amazonia, 2-4)
What does “I would like to officially present the final synod document” really mean? I suspect that it is meaningless or at best uncertain from a magisterial or theological standpoint–but that is probably the point of using it. We are talking about Pope Francis, after all! I don’t recall Pope Francis using similar terminology with regard to any other past synodal document. But, speaking of this final synodal document, Francis does invite pastors, and others, of the Amazon region to “strive to apply it.”
“Strive to apply it?” That is what Francis says. So, if we are to understand what Francis intends in his exhortation and what pastors should “strive to apply,” we must, therefore, read the Synod’s final document alongside of it. As we have noted already. The papal exhortation is silent on the ordination of respected married men (“viri probabi”). However, the final synod document is not silent. Indeed, it speaks quite favorably of such ordinations. The final synod documents reads (emphasis added):
111. Many of the Church communities in the Amazonian territory have enormous difficulties in attending the Eucharist. Sometimes it takes not just months but even several years before a priest can return to a community to celebrate the Eucharist, offer the sacrament of reconciliation or anoint the sick in the community. We appreciate celibacy as a gift of God (SC1967 1) to the extent that this gift enables the missionary disciple, ordained to the priesthood, to dedicate himself fully to the service of the Holy People of God. It stimulates pastoral charity, and we pray that there will be many vocations living the celibate priesthood. We know that this discipline “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood” (PO 16) although there are many practical reasons for it. In his encyclical on priestly celibacy, St. Paul VI maintained this law and set out theological, spiritual and pastoral motivations that support it. In 1992, the post-synodal exhortation of St. John Paul II on priestly formation confirmed this tradition in the Latin Church (cf. PDV 29). Considering that legitimate diversity does not harm the communion and unity of the Church, but rather expresses and serves it (cf. LG 13; OE 6), witness the plurality of existing rites and disciplines, we propose that criteria and dispositions be established by the competent authority, within the framework of Lumen Gentium 26, to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community with a legitimately constituted and stable family, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, in order to sustain the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region. In this regard, some were in favour of a more universal approach to the subject. (Source: Amazonian Synod final document, Chapter V, 111).
As seen above, the final synodal document proposed that “criteria and dispositions be established by the competent authority, within the framework of Lumen Gentium 26, to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community.” That “competent authority” which the synodal document references is within the “framework” of Lumen Gentium 26, i.e., the competent authority is the local bishop. Thus, the final synod document proposes that the “competent authority”, i.e., the local bishop (not the pope), establish the necessary “criteria and dispositions” to ordain “respected men of the community.” Is this what the pope has invited “pastors” to “strive to apply” (cf Querida Amazonia 4)? Pope Francis does not explicitly say so, but the bread crumbs have been placed down for some enterprising bishop to follow and “strive to apply” himself. Pope Francis’s exhortation certainly invites this reading as a fair one.
So, based on the above, I think we might expect the following. Being “officially presented” along with the Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis will order the final synodal document to be placed into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS). Then, we might expect either one of the following to happen.
(1) A small group of bishops will “strive to apply” the proposal (Chapter V, 111) of the synodal document “officially presented” by Pope Francis. This small group, as a “competent authority,” will establish the “criteria and dispositions” to ordain viri probati. These bishops will then set about ordaining them.
(2) Alternatively, an individual bishop in the Amazon region, will “strive to apply” the proposal (Chapter V, 111) of the synodal document “officially presented” by Pope Francis. This bishop as the “competent authority” will establish the requisite “criteria and dispositions” to ordain viri probati. He will then set about ordaining one or more such priests.
Should one or both of the above occur, I do not expect Pope Francis to say a word. Just as he remained silent on the Dubia, on communion for non-Catholic spouses in Germany, on the Scalfari interviews, and so much more, so too will he remain silent on this question as well. As a consequence, the new practice will spread elsewhere, such as in Germany.
Finally, with regard to ‘deaconesses’ Querida Amazonia is silent. However, if we read the accompanying and “officially presented” final document we will find that in a “large number” of the synod’s consultations that at least some synod fathers requested the ordination of female deacons. However, while the door to the ordination of viri probati seems wide open as noted above–and indeed with an invitation sign to “competent authority,” there does seem to be a speed bump with regard to the deaconess question. The synod fathers in the final document noted:
“The Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women which Pope Francis created in 2016 has already arrived as a Commission at partial findings regarding the reality of the diaconate of women in the early centuries of the Church and its implications for today. We would therefore like to share our experiences and reflections with the Commission and we await its results. (Source: Amazonian Synod final document, Chapter V, 111).
So, at least on the question of deaconesses, the exhortation via the “officially presented” final document suggests further study is necessary, and or at least an explicit papal decision is required.
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A former intelligence officer, he and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is author of the recently published Book I of the Pia Fidelis trilogy, The Two Kingdoms. (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA)