The post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia (“Beloved Amazon”), published on February 12, 2020, provoked many contradictory reactions. Progressives have been outraged that Pope Francis does not open the door for the ordination of married men, the Conservatives rejoiced that the door remained closed. In fact, the Pope is not talking about the possibility of ordering viri probati, or the impossibility of doing so. What if the most important thing for him was elsewhere ... beyond the ordination of married men?
Cardinal Michael Czerny, special secretary of the Synod for the Amazon, said in the February 12-13, 2020 issue of L'Osservatore Romano, that the Pope thinks that the “pastoral dimension is essential, that it understands everything, it thinks clearly.” By not offering any opening for the ordination of married men, Francis “remains faithful to what he had said before the synod.” But the possibility of ordaining married men can be discussed by the Church, and it was freely discussed during the synod. However, the question for the Pope is not a question of numbers, and it is not enough to encourage a greater presence of priests (in the Amazon). “What is needed is a new life in the communities, a new missionary impulse, new services assumed by the laity, a daring and creative continuous formation,” insists Msgr. Czerny. It is “perhaps time” to review the lay ministries already existing in the Church, explains the Canadian Jesuit, “to return to their foundations and to update them, to read them in the light of reality and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
According to Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication of the Holy See, the Querida Amazonia exhortation “goes beyond the dialectical diatribes which ended up presenting the Synod as a referendum on the possibility of ordaining married men priests.” What is this beyond, and by what means do we get there? These are the questions that should be asked.
Denounce “Clericalism” and Promote “Synodality”
Canon Claude Ducarroz, former provost of the Cathedral of Friborg, Switzerland, has indirectly provided a partial answer, in an interview granted on February 13 to the morning program RTS La Première. Admittedly, he regrets the lack of a decision by Pope Francis concerning the possibility of ordaining married men in the Amazon region, where the lack of priests is being keenly felt. He recalls that the sovereign pontiff had mentioned this option himself all in good time: “He convened a synod in Rome, in which a majority of the participants declared themselves in favor of this development. And suddenly, at the end of the process, he does not talk about it, which is still a way of saying that he is not getting into the subject.”
But the Swiss priest gets closer to the underlying intention of the pope when he hopes for changes of the treatment of child abuse, and generally denounces “clericalism, in other words the fact that a priest, because he is priest, believes himself above people, above laws, and that he can make his authority an abusive power. The sacred character of his mission can become a way of exerting pressure, even of oppression.”—In fact, this denunciation of “clericalism” in general, based on the particular cases of the abuse of minors, is at the heart of another synod, that which is currently taking place in Germany. The scandal of abuse is certain, but that the cause is “clericalism” remains to be proven.
On the same day, February 13, Bernd Nilles, director of the Swiss Catholic aid organization Action de Carême, provided another partial answer. According to him, with Querida Amazonia, “Francis strengthens synodality, and the participation and voice of the laity.” And to remember that 87,000 people participated in the drawing up of the preparatory phase of the synod, proves the potential of the Amazonians to work in a synodal manner.
Fighting “clericalism” and promoting “synodality” seems far from the ordination of married men, but these may be the means to achieve a situation where this issue will no longer be a problem. Change mentalities by denouncing “clericalism,” modify structures by establishing “synodality,” until they are sufficiently “ready” to accept the ordination of viri probati. As already quoted in L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Michael Czerny states that the ordination of married men or the creation of a female diaconate are questions that have not been “resolved” by Pope Francis. But that the Church has not “closed” the door regarding these points: indeed, all these questions remain “open” and can still be the subject of “discussions” and “prayers” to end later, at “mature decisions” taken at the top of the Catholic hierarchy.
Amazon Exceptions Soon?
And if this maturation seems too slow, it will always be possible to anticipate decisions from Rome, in the name of the merciful responses that must be brought to pastoral needs in the Amazon. This is what Pirmin Spiegel, the director general of the German charity Misereor, very active in the Amazon region, is already planning. Speaking on March 3, outside the Bishops’ Conference in Mainz, Germany, he said that several bishops from the Amazon region will soon send requests to Rome to file for dispensations for the ordination of married deacons to the priesthood. According to him, by not speaking on the subject in his apostolic exhortation, the pope has not closed the door to exceptions.
This is confirmed by Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, saying that we must go beyond a “black or white vision” (sic) of the question of priestly celibacy. According to him, it has long been clear in the Church, even the Latin rite, that in some exceptional circumstances ordination to the priesthood is possible for married men. Until now, this applied to the priests of the Eastern Churches in union with Rome or to converted Anglican and Protestant clergy, but other authorizations of the same type are possible.
As pointed out by FSSPX.News on March 11, under the eloquent title “A Magisterium with Flexible Geometry”: the Pope “is waiting for relevant bishops’ conferences to act—the principle of decentralization of authority, under the name of synodality, must come into play here. It is up to the bishops to do the work. The Pope said he would not abolish priestly celibacy, but he did not say he would not let the Amazon conferences ordain the viri probati. Quite the opposite.”
Towards a “Clearly Secular” Ecclesial Culture
The newsletter Res Novæ [and the blogspot Rorate Caeli] of February 13, delivered the reflections of Fr. Pio Pace, titled “Querida Amazonia: A document for a kind of ‘Lay Church’”: “In fact, the exhortation goes much further, in the direction of a Laicized Church, in which the common priesthood of the baptized largely absorbs the priestly ministry, being mixed up with it.
Because this text, under a modest appearance, is actually very ambitious. One should read with great attention the beginning of the Exhortation: it is presented as a, ‘framework of reflection,’ which is an invitation to read the final document of the Synod (which speaks of priestly ordination of married deacons), but rises up to more fundamental, and certainly more radical, considerations. The central passage deals with the ‘Inculturation of ministry’ (paragraphs 85-90), followed by thoughts on the communities (91-98), then on the role of women (99-103).
The main writer of the text proposes, in the name of the Pope, a laicized vision of the Church, fundamentally hostile to “clericalism,” and that effectively surpasses, and eventually includes, the problematics of married priests within a much wider perspective. Inculturation, says the writer, should also be expressed in the, ‘ecclesial organization and ministry.’ The priestly ministry should be rethought. It should not be reduced to the priest-cleric, whose specific power is that of Consecrating and of forgiving sins, which is indispensable to ensure, ‘a more frequent celebration of the Eucharist, even in the remotest and most isolated communities.’ On the other hand, the hierarchical power in the Church, which belongs to the priestly ministry, is not specific to the ordained minister: lay people, remaining lay people, will be able to exercise this other facet of the priestly ministry and to, ‘proclaim God’s word, teach, organize communities, celebrate certain sacraments, seek different ways to express popular devotion and develop the multitude of gifts that the Spirit pours out in their midst.’
True, the communities will still need the celebration of the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins, because, ‘every effort should be made to ensure that the Amazonian peoples do not lack this food of new life and the sacrament of forgiveness.’ It is here, in paragraph 90, what appears (wrongly) like a cold shower for all progressive forces and a relief for the conservatives: the Pope, instead of speaking of the priestly ordination of married deacons, simply urges prayer for priestly vocations, all the while making clear that, ‘it is appropriate that the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation be thoroughly revised, so that priests can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures.’
But, the document continues, ‘more numerous permanent deacons are needed, as well as religious men and women and lay people who take over important responsibilities for the growth of the communities. It is necessary that these lay people, ‘perform those functions ever more effectively with the aid of a suitable accompaniment.’ Therefore, beyond the ‘narrow aim’ of a greater presence of ordained ministers able to celebrate the Eucharist, this is about promoting ‘mature’ laity who, while also being priestly (in the sense of the universal priesthood of the baptized) but remaining lay people, will lead the community. Those who are fixated upon the ordination of married men are, in sum, accused of clericalism, since it is much more important to promote a kind of Lay Church: ‘this requires the Church to be open to the Spirit’s boldness, to trust in, and concretely to permit, the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay’ (emphasized in the text).
Nothing seems to completely exclude, however, that among these fully ‘mature’ laymen, it is considered useful to ordain a certain number for the needs of the Eucharist. But, as Élodie Blogie explained in the Belgian daily Le Soir of February 12, the Pope provided, ‘a very Jesuit response,’ and, on this question, ‘very astutely,’ says neither yes nor no: he says nothing, and in fact he says more.”
The Dream of a Secularized Church
This analysis is shared by Msgr. Felix Gmür, Bishop of Basel and president of the Conference of Swiss Bishops, little suspected of excessive traditionalism. In a document taken up by the Swiss agency Cath.ch on February 14, he wrote: “The Pope does not think in a way that is customary to us. He does not think about things starting from ministries, his starting point is the people of God. From there, he develops the dream of an inculturated Church which can “better integrate the social and the spiritual” (no.76). This requires an inculturation of ministries and, especially, since, as with us, there is a lack of priests, “lay leaders” (no.94). In fact, the pope wants to give the Church a face that is not clerical but “distinctively secular.” And to quote this passage from the exhortation: “ Inculturation should also be increasingly reflected in an incarnate form of ecclesial organization and ministry. If we are to inculturate spirituality, holiness and the Gospel itself, how can we not consider an inculturation of the ways we structure and carry out ecclesial ministries?” (no.85).
“I do not know the reasons for the pope’s silence,” said Bishop Gmür, “but I can imagine that he wants to dissociate the essence of ordination from the question of power. This is a positive thing for me, but, however, one that requires prior in-depth reflection on the priesthood. The door remains open to this reflection, because the pope does not close the door opened by the final document on the synod.”
In the Brazilian Amazon, we find the same analysis with Bishop Flavio Giovenale of Cruzeiro do Sul, in the Amazonian State of Acre, who considers that the part of the exhortation dealing with the Church’s ministries - particularly the chapter Communities filled with life - suggests a real “Copernican revolution.” “Pope Francis affirms that the Amazonian Church - and all the Church - has to be radically lay. He advocates a distinctively lay ecclesial culture. In this sense, the priests have to work solely with activities that are essential. He’s really saying that they should leave administration and share their power.”
And for the Brazilian prelate, this point is much more important than the possible ordination of married men. “The viri probati are not the only solution for our problems. We need a mix of solutions. And it is really revolutionary to suggest a Church that is centered on the lay people and not on the clergy.”
We can clearly see here that this “inculturation of the ministry” amounts to an adaptation and even to a mutation of the ministry, according to alleged local needs. Concretely, it is a form of laicization of the Church. But to achieve this, there must be a maturation of minds and an evolution of the ecclesial structure which will take place through synodality. And it is no accident that the next synod of bishops in Rome in October 2022, announced on March 7, will have as its theme: “for a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.”
A Dissolving Synodality
Synodality is a central theme of Francis’ pontificate. In his opening speech for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synod of bishops in October 2015, he called for a more collegial structure for the Church, decentralization with new roles for dioceses and episcopal conferences.
In autumn 2018, the pope published the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio. Since then, both in the preparation and the implementation of the synod, the faithful and outside experts must be more closely associated. Consultations are carried out by questionnaires, specialized study sessions, regional meetings, or pre-synods with the people concerned.
The aim of the synodal consultations is to avoid confrontation and to involve the greatest possible number of participants in the decisions taken, in order to preserve an institutional, formal unity, independent of objective, revealed truth. For this reason, controversial issues, like that of viri probati, are postponed ... until the time is ripe enough to make a decision.
In 2016, in the Belgian weekly Tertio, Francis defined synodality as the way of life of a Church where the successor of Peter does not dictate the conduct of Christians but where he accompanies them. He stated: “The Church is born from the community, it is born from the foundation, it is born from Baptism, and it is organized around a bishop, who brings it together,”
and he distinguished two ecclesial forms, “a pyramidal Church, in which what Peter says is done, or there is a synodal Church, in which Peter is Peter but he accompanies the Church, he lets her grow, he listens to her.” This “listening” Church adapts, transforms itself according to the needs of the foundation, at the risk of seeing - if it were not for the promise of Christ that “the gates of hell will not prevail” (Mt 16:18) - its divine constitution dissolving, and its perennial magisterium liquefying.
This danger is highlighted by Italian journalist Aldo Maria Valli in his latest book: Le due Chiese (The Two Churches), Chorabooks. On February 17, he presented his work on his blog, in an article titled “Querida Amazonia: Systematic Ambiguity and the Two Churches Facing Each Other,” where one can read: “We are in the middle of what I have allowed myself many times to call the Church of “yes, but also no,” of “no, but also yes.” Over time, the theorization of this systematic ambiguity becomes more and more precise, and the key word is synodality.
“In our Holy Mother the Catholic Church, there can be no room for ambiguity. And those who believe that, thanks to this “liquidity,” the Church can better reach the world, are mistaken. In reality, on this path, the Church only marries the false wisdom of the world, centered on the idea that the truth does not exist and that to seek it is useless.
“And how can we qualify all this other than as suicide? Moreover, the data coming from Brazil and Germany, to quote the two entities at the head of the synodal processes which we have witnessed lately, tell us that, there, the Catholic Church is collapsing, with a continuous hemorrhage of the faithful.
“But not everyone is ready to passively assist with the obstinate suicide attempt. Resistance continues.”