Pope Francis Sets Aside Proposal on Married Priests

By Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo

The decision, in a letter on Catholic life in remote Amazon areas, is a victory for conservative forces who had warned that change there would put the church on a slippery slope.

Pope Francis rejected what would have been a potentially momentous change that some of his supporters were hoping for.
Pope Francis rejected what would have been a potentially momentous change that some of his supporters were hoping for.Credit...Filippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has for now rejected a landmark proposal by bishops to allow the ordination of married men in remote areas underserved by priests, a potentially momentous change that conservatives had warned could set the Roman Catholic Church on a path toward lifting priestly celibacy and weakening church traditions.

The decision, in a papal letter made public on Wednesday, was welcomed by conservatives, but it was a major setback for many of the Catholics who see Francis as their best hope for bringing fundamental change to the church.

With the church facing a shortage of priests and increasing competition from evangelicals in many countries, the idea of opening up the priesthood to married men had held broad appeal for liberals worried about the church’s future.

Coming seven years into Francis’ papacy, his decision also raised the question of whether his promotion of discussing once-taboo issues is resulting in a pontificate that is largely talk.

“It’s difficult to reform a longstanding global institution,” said Marco Marzano, the author of “The Immobile Church: Francis and the Missed Revolution,” who called it “improbable” that Francis could deliver on all the changes his supporters hoped for. For liberals, he said, “There has been an exaggerated optimism.”

His closest advisers have acknowledged that the pope’s impact has waned on the global stage, especially on core issues like immigration and the environment. His legacy, they have said, will be inside the church, where his authority is absolute.

But the pope’s refusal to allow married priests came as a relief to conservatives, many of whom have come to see Francis and his emphasis on a more pastoral and inclusive church as a grave threat to the rules, orthodoxy and traditions of the faith. Some interpreted the pope’s decision as an olive branch to conservatives.

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who was fired as the church’s top doctrinal watchdog by Francis in 2017 and has emerged as one of his most prominent conservative critics, welcomed the letter as a “document of reconciliation.”

“This text could also have the reconciling effect of reducing internal church factions, ideological fixations and the danger of inner emigration or open resistance,” Cardinal Müller, of Germany, wrote on Wednesday.

The recommendation to allow married priests in remote areas was approved by more than two-thirds of the voting members who attended a church leaders’ summit on the Amazon region in October.

Francis had in the past expressed openness on the subject, and had often emphasized his desire to empower bishops around the world, to listen to their needs and create a less top-down church.

But the proposal to ordain married men in the Amazon region, where the shortage of priests is dire, set off a polarizing debate.

Progressives said it was high time the church recognized reality and the demands of the faithful; conservatives called the idea a threat to the priesthood, and warned that married priests would follow everywhere, including Europe.

Even the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, put a finger on the scale, arguing for priestly celibacy in a rare intercession that highlighted the hardening of liberal and conservative camps that has come to define Francis’ papacy.

Despite expectations, Francis backed off.

In his letter, which took the form of a 94-page booklet and has the power of church teaching, Francis notably made no mention of ordaining married men in good standing or elevating to the priesthood married deacons, a lower clerical rank that does not require celibacy.

The silence amounted to a pocket veto of the proposal.

Cardinal Michael Czerny of Canada, a close adviser to Francis, said in a news conference on Wednesday that specific proposals in the final October document “remain on the table” and characterized the process as a “journey.”

But the Vatican made clear that for now the pope had not given the go-ahead for married priests in the Amazon.

Writing that “a specific and courageous response is required of the church,” Francis argued in his letter that access to the sacraments needs to be increased in “the remotest” places, but that a “priest alone” can celebrate communion or absolve sins.

Francis argued that the gap should be filled with a culturally sensitive effort to increase priestly vocations and by encouraging more of those already ordained to go to remote areas.

Francis, who blames abuse of power by priests for many of the church’s ills, argued that the way forward rested in “the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.”

“It is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist,” he added, dismissing such a goal as “a very narrow aim.”

Anticipating the backlash that Francis’ decision might bring after months of fervid debate, the Vatican immediately sounded a defensive note on Wednesday.

The pope’s letter “demonstrates a thought that supersedes the dialectical diatribes which ended up representing the Synod as a referendum on the possibility of ordaining married men,” Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican spokesman, said in a statement.

He said the pope had decided against “changes or further possibilities of exceptions.”

Francis said he would “officially present” the bishops’ final document, “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology, and recommended “everyone to read it in full.”

But there was some confusion about how influential that document was. Cardinal Czerny said on Wednesday that the document had a “moral authority” and that “to ignore it would be a lack of obedience to the Holy Father’s legitimate authority.” But the Vatican made clear that this moral authority did not extend to ordaining married men.

The bishops’ document urged the church to adapt to the religious customs of Indigenous people and to support them in their resistance to large economic and political interests exploiting the Amazon.

The pope’s letter echoed those concerns, arguing for the protection of the environment, but stopped short of calling deforestation and stripping of resources a “sin,” as the bishops had.

During the bishops’ meeting, conservatives expressed deep concerns that the church was diluting its teaching by opening to Indigenous forms of worship that they considered pagan.

At one point, fertility statues were stolen from a church near St. Peter’s Basilica that had become a makeshift headquarters for the Indigenous attendees.

In his letter, Francis wrote: “Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples,” adding, “It is possible to take up an Indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.”

But the section of the document that might have presented the greatest change — potentially a diversion from 1,000 years of church tradition — was on ordaining married men as priests.

Married priests are already allowed in Eastern Catholic Churches loyal to the pope, and Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism can remain married after ordination. But the document wrestled with what many church historians consider a more significant change.

At the close of the October meeting, bishops from the Amazon region had proposed that the pope ordain as priests “suitable and respected men of the community” with families who had already had “fruitful” experiences as deacons and who would “receive an adequate formation for the priesthood.”

The Amazon bishops argued that the change was necessary because many of the faithful in the region had encountered “enormous difficulties” in receiving communion.

Critics said it was a sea change, not simply a practical measure.

The bishops at the October summit had already disappointed some liberals on the question of empowering women in the church.

The bishops recognized how important women were in the church in the Amazon, where they often lead services and act as anchors for Indigenous congregations. But the meeting did not recommend elevating those women to the position of deacon, while noting that discussions on the subject had been “very present.”

Church analysts said that debate touched on critical theological issues, given that a deacon is a clerical position and is step toward priesthood.

Francis has talked a lot about elevating women. He said on Wednesday that women should have more formal roles in churches but again resisted moving them up in the hierarchy.

It would be reductionist, he wrote, “to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the church only if they were admitted to holy orders.”

He added, “We must keep encouraging those simple and straightforward gifts that enabled women in the Amazon region to play so active a role in society.”

Last month, Pope Emeritus Benedict contributed to a book defending priestly celibacy, which is part of Catholic tradition, though not required by doctrine. Many saw the timing of the publication as an attempt by Benedict, or his coterie, to influence Francis.

But church officials said Francis had already delivered his letter by then, and it was published later only because of the time required for translation.

Some of Benedict’s allies clearly thought it was worth the wait.

“The pope does not want to fuel existing political, ethnic and inner-church conflicts and conflicts of interest,” Cardinal Müller wrote. “But rather to overcome them.”