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Just the Facts: the Amazon Synod

Unlike ordaining married men to the priesthood, ordaining women to the diaconate would require a change in Church teaching

Jimmy Akin

The three-week Synod of Bishops for the Amazon has drawn to a close, with a final Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on Sunday, October 27. It was convened to address two principal topics, both mentioned its title, Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.

By discussing “new paths for the Church,” organizers sought to address pastoral concerns in the pan-Amazon region of South America, and by discussing “an integral ecology,” it sought to address environmental concerns in the region.

So, what happened, and what happens next?

Controversy erupted over the synod before it even began, with some criticizing its initial working document as being insufficiently focused on Christ and the Christian faith.

The controversy only grew following a tree-planting ceremony held at the Vatican on October 4, just before the start of the synod. The ceremony featured several wooden carvings of a naked, pregnant woman whose identity was ambiguous. They were identified by various parties as representations of “Our Lady of the Amazon,” Mother Earth, the Incan earth deity Pachamama, or some kind of symbol of life.

In an event that made headlines, the carvings were taken from the Roman church where they were on display and thrown into the Tiber River, though they were later recovered. The Italian police commander who took charge of the carvings upon their recovery suggested that they might be present during the closing Mass of the synod, but this did not happen. Instead, a traditional image of Mary was used.

When the Synod of Bishops meets, it uses a working document prepared ahead of time as a starting point for its discussions and then it prepares a final document that is submitted to the pope. It’s then up to the pope to decide what—if anything—is to be done on the basis of the synod’s advice. The final document produced by this synod discussed a wide variety of subjects—many more than we can cover here—but we will focus on two that have been lightning rods.

Based on the initial working document, various commentators expressed concerns that the synod might call for the ordination of married men to the priesthood and for the ordination of women to the diaconate. The final document submitted to the pope did contain paragraphs discussing these subjects, though they contained qualifiers that weren’t always reported in the press. John Allen notes:

In the final document of the synod released Saturday night Rome time, the 184 voting members, mostly bishops from the nine countries that contain a share of the Amazon rainforest, appeared to offer cautious approval to all three ideas—married priests, women deacons, and an Amazon rite—but with an emphasis on “caution.”

Some of that was actually anti-climactic, since Francis himself drew the synod to a close by insisting that it would be a mistake to focus on internal Church debates, saying the emphasis instead should be on the fate of the Amazon itself.

On ordaining married men to the priesthood, the final document cited a shortage of priests in the Amazon that can lead to gaps of months or years between visits by a priest who can celebrate the Eucharist, hear confessions, and give the anointing of the sick. It therefore proposed establishing criteria to ordain to the priesthood those who are “suitable and esteemed men of the community, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive and adequate formation for the priesthood, having a legitimately constituted and stable family” to serve “in the most remote areas of the Amazon region.”

Married priests are found in many Eastern rite Catholic churches, but for many centuries, the Latin rite of the Catholic Church has ordained only celibate men to the priesthood—at least under ordinary circumstances. There have been exceptions, such as when a couple with no children at home separates to devote themselves to God (e.g., the wife becomes a nun and the husband becomes a monk or priest). Recently, the Holy See has allowed the ordination of married men in the Latin rite who were clergymen in another Christian body.

Under present Latin canon law, a man who has a wife is impeded from ordination except to the permanent diaconate (can. 1041 §1), but this impediment can be dispensed by the Holy See (can. 1047 §2 n. 3). The final synod document proposes that a new exception be made for certain married men in the Amazon, though the document notes that some synod members preferred “a more universal approach to this subject.” Since divine law and Church teaching do not require that only unmarried men be ordained to the priesthood, the question of ordaining married men is a subject of prudential judgment on which Catholics can hold different views.

The situation is different when it comes to women deacons, for here Church teaching is involved. The Church teaches that “Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination” (CCC 1577). It also teaches that the diaconate is one of the three grades of holy orders (CCC 1554). From that, it follows that the Church teaches only a baptized man can validly be ordained to the diaconate. Yet in the early Church there were women who were called “deaconesses” (cf. Rom. 16:1).

How can these things be squared? The standard view is that the deaconesses in the early Church did not receive the sacrament of ordination but were called “deaconesses” because of their role in serving the Church (Greek, diakonos, “servant”). However, some argue that they were ordained.

In 2016, Pope Francis convened a commission to study the subject, but its results were inconclusive. The synod referred to this commission, and its concluding document noted that some of the synod fathers favored the permanent diaconate for women. It stated, “We would therefore like to share our experiences and reflections with the commission and await its results.” No doubt, the bishops who favored ordaining women to the diaconate would use the opportunity to make their case, while bishops who did not favor this proposal would urge the reverse.

Unlike ordaining married men to the priesthood, ordaining women to the diaconate would require a change in Church teaching. Would such a change be possible?

In 1994, John Paul II ruled that it has been definitively (infallibly) settled that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, and in 2002, Joseph Ratzinger approved a document of the International Theological Commission that concluded that, on the subject of ordaining women to the diaconate, it still “pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.” It thus held that this was still a subject of possible doctrinal development.

What is Pope Francis likely to do in regard to these questions?

Just before the synod, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops, indicated that Pope Francis is skeptical of ordaining married men to the priesthood, though he noted that he had authorized discussion on the subject.

Whether the pope will agree to the synod’s request to make exceptions for married men in certain regions of the Amazon remains to be seen.

On the question of women deacons, Pope Francis has indicated he will try to reconvene the commission studying this question for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Whether a reconstituted commission would be able to achieve more of a consensus than the first one did remains to be seen—and it would take some time for the new commission to do its work.

The next concrete development is expected to be the publication of a document that popes traditionally release after a synod (known as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation). This may happen before the end of the year, and it will provide a clearer idea of what Pope Francis plans to do in response to the synod.

Now, as Pope Francis discerns his response, is a good time for prayer.

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