Responding to Amazon synod, Pope Francis avoids ‘either-or’

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican on Oct. 15, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — In the flurry of reaction to Pope Francis’ document on the Amazon, the real game-changer for the life of the church was overlooked. 

“Querida Amazonia,” Francis’ response to last October’s synod assembly on the Amazon region, bypassed the “contested questions” on ordaining married men as priests or whether women can be deacons. As a result, some claimed a victory for the status quo, while others lamented a lost opportunity to make vital reforms.

Both missed the point. The most significant element of the pope’s document is Francis’ decision to endorse the local bishops’ conclusions, a move that lays the groundwork for future reforms.

The bishops’ conclusions are contained in a document titled, “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and an Integral Human Ecology,” which Francis says is the fruit of the “many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region.” It follows from his 2016 document on family life, “Amoris Laetitia,” where he wrote that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”

Here is where the shift has occurred: the empowering of bishops and churches on the ground to devise pastoral strategies that connect with their communities. Local shepherds, and not Roman bureaucrats, are best placed to make this happen. So, for the first time, the pope has given a final document from a synod its own authority, in a dramatic pushing of power down to the local church, and a validation of the bishops from the Amazon region. 

Crucially, the “new paths” text contained a recommendation to ordain married deacons as priests in remote regions, which had the support of 128 bishops. It also includes the decision to continue discussions on the possibility of female deacons, which 137 bishops supported. No one can scrub that from the record.

The acid test is how this plays out on the ground. Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a pivotal figure in the Amazon discussions, says the proposal for married priests will continue to be developed. Similarly, on the role of women, the pope has pledged that the commission he set up in 2016 will continue while endorsing the bishops’ document that called for women to be admitted to lower-level ministries and to make laypeople leaders of local parish communities.

It means the hot-button issues remain on the table, but are situated within a wider discussion about how to devolve power away from the top of the church. This is crucial in order for clericalist models of governance to be replaced with more Gospel-centered, servant-leadership approaches envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.

What the pope wanted to avoid was for the synod to become a referendum on married priests, which would distract from the church’s work to protect the environment and to stand in solidarity with the Amazon’s indigenous communities. He has consistently emphasized protection of the planet as a pressing moral, theological imperative, from calling for action to tackle climate change on the front lawn of the White House in 2015 to his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’.”

On the disputed issues, Francis refuses to be drawn into the “either-or” debates where the pope has to decide contested questions. He prefers to open up processes. Time, as Francis likes to say, is greater than space. Many Catholics are open to the reforms that the Amazon synod fathers voted for. On the question of married priests, Francis is not saying “no,” but “not yet.”

Meanwhile, he is aware of the opposition to his pontificate. Any shift or development that Francis makes can be wielded as a weapon against his papacy. The opposition to married priests is particularly strong in Rome, and the pope realizes that moving too fast would threaten church unity.

But by avoiding the trap of coming down on one side or the other, the pope has opened up a path to ongoing reform — and one that is likely to be irreversible.



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