Let’s put the thing everyone wants to know right out in front: no, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia does not, within its text, explicitly provide for the ordination of “viri probati” — married men, likely married permanent deacons — to the priesthood in the Amazon region.
Many early reactions to the document are celebrating the lack of such an innovation as a win. Some give credit to the book by Cardinal Sarah and Pope Benedict. Others are even attributing it to a victory of the Holy Spirit.
But not so fast!
Everything we were concerned about in the final synod document is still there; it’s just been cleverly concealed. This is because the exhortation is, itself, a presentation of a Magisterialized™ version of that final document. (I’ll explain in a minute.)
In moments such as these, we have to remember the Perón Rule. Remember the shell game. With this particular pontificate, we must not be so distracted by what is in front of us that we forget to watch the other hand. And the other hand, in this case, is concealing everything we were worried that it would.
There will be other issues to discuss from the document for weeks and months from now, but for the purposes of this analysis, I will restrain my scope to only this question on priestly celibacy and ordination.
Before I go farther, I would like to provide links to three important texts for the purposes of this discussion: the final document of the Amazon Synod, entitled “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology“; the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia; and, finally, the text of the official interventions offered at today’s press conference for the presentation of the exhortation.
What Happened to the Leaked Text?
Expectations of an explicitly problematic exhortation were set by the leaked text of part of the document that Roberto de Mattei reported was received by a number of bishops in advance — text that was said to have “essentially repeated” paragraph 111 of the synod’s final document on the question of relaxing celibacy.
Paragraph 111 says this (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.
Today, we can see that this text does not appear in the exhortation, nor does anything similar to it.
In fact, the document does not even mention the words “viri probati” or “ordination” or “celibacy.”
But that doesn’t mean the problem is gone.
A Labyrinthine Path to Unconventional Amazonian Solutions
Most people prepared today to read the exhortation as a standalone document. That would ordinarily be a sensible approach, but in this case, it’s not possible to do so. At the outset, Francis makes clear that he is presenting not only the exhortation, but also the synod’s final document — with the language already mentioned in paragraph 111 above.
From the opening paragraphs of Querida Amazonia (emphasis added):
The significance of this Exhortation
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.
The language of paragraph 111 does not appear in the exhortation because it doesn’t need to. It’s already in the final document. (As is the revisitation of the topic of ordaining women to the diaconate in paragraph 103, although no concrete proposal is made there.)
In order to understand the importance of this formal, exhortation-supported promotion of the synod’s final document, we need to look back to the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio (E.C.), issued by Pope Francis in 2018. (Credit goes to Tim Gordon for reminding me of this. I had forgotten until this morning that I’d written an entire article about it.)
E.C. expressed the pope’s view that the Synod of Bishops is “one of the most precious fruits of the Second Vatican Council” and that for half a century, synod assemblies have “served as a privileged locus of interpretation and reception of the rich conciliar Magisterium, but they have also given a significant impetus to subsequent papal Magisterium.”
After a discussion of the role and purpose of synods and the synodal process, Francis then established, in light of canon law and the considerations he set forth in the document, some new rules and procedures to govern synods and their work.
Article 17 of E.C., entitled “Delivery of the Final Document to the Roman Pontiff,” is the clincher for our purposes today (emphasis added):
§1. Once the approval of the members has been obtained, the Final Document of the Assembly is presented to the Roman Pontiff, who decides on its publication.
If it is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter.
§2. If the Roman Pontiff has granted deliberative power to the Synod Assembly, according to the norm of canon 343 of the Code of Canon Law, the Final Document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter once it has been ratified and promulgated by him.
In this case, the Final Document is published with the signature of the Roman Pontiff together with that of the members.
In other words, according to the pope’s decree in Episcopalis Communio, the final document of the Amazon Synod “participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor of Peter.”
And today’s press conference confirms that this is how the final document is viewed by the Vatican.
In his intervention today, the newly minted Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J. — who has signaled his own willingness to debate the question of female ordination and the ordination of viri probati — said that “apart from formal magisterial authority, this official presentation and encouragement confer on the Final Document a certain moral authority” (emphasis added).
Formal magisterial authority.
They are telling us that the final document of the synod itself is what is really being presented here as magisterial, with all its open-ended questions and suggestions.
Czerny confirmed, in fact, in response to a question from Sandro Magister at the press conference, that all the proposals of the final document “remain on the table”:
At Presser for presentation of #QueridaAmazonia, Sandro Magister asks about the proposals of the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Final document, @jesuitczerny responds that all the particular proposals in the Final document "remain on the table" pic.twitter.com/A0CfrsXKDv
— Catholic Sat (@CatholicSat) February 12, 2020
The bottom line, when one connects all the dots, is that there is nothing to celebrate here. Those who were concerned with the final document have just been told that it is now a part of the pope’s magisterium.
One of the prelates chosen to present it has answered plainly that its proposals are still in play.
Nothing has been taken off the table.
In fact, even the most controversial aspects are still under development.
Diane Montagna of LifeSiteNews pressed Cardinal Czerny on the question of women’s ordination, in fact — a matter far more concerning than even the ordination of viri probati:
LifeSite: Cardinal Czerny, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is one sacrament. The diaconate is a part, an essential part, of that sacrament. Can we not rule out that a woman cannot be admitted to Holy Orders?
Cardinal Czerny: It’s under study.
It’s not under study if a woman can be admitted to Holy Orders.
The women’s diaconate is under study.
But not in the sense of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
We’ll have to see what the study produces.
Montagna continues to press Czerny on the matter, but he continues in this vein, refusing to give a definitive answer that sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate is being ruled out. And he makes clear that Francis is involved: “the Holy Father will be recalling the commission on the diaconate,” he says, “and we’ll have to see what its results are.”
So I say again: this is not a victory. Not on viri probati, not on any issue of importance from the synod.
Unfortunately, it has served to lower many people’s defenses — there’s a lot of “well, it could have been worse!” thinking out there this morning, and I can only caution you to remain wary.
We haven’t heard the last of any of this. They’ve invested years of work into getting to this point. Just because they didn’t advance these issues via the exhortation doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.
Cardinal Baldisseri, in the Q&A at today’s presser (not included in the official text I referenced above), claims that Pope Francis did not expressly approve the synod’s final document, despite Francis saying, “I would like to officially present the Final Document” at the outset of the exhortation and explaining that he didn’t cite it in the exhortation because he wanted to “encourage everyone to read it in full.”
After some confusion of the status of the Final Document of the Amazon Synod at Presser for presentation of #QueridaAmazonia, Cardinal Baldisseri says the Final Document has "moral authority but does not have magisterial authority" pic.twitter.com/ZWpc5UxiCS
— Catholic Sat (@CatholicSat) February 12, 2020
I’m going to just flat-out call foul on this one. First of all, Baldisseri seems unsure of himself here, and he may well be corrected by Francis later — but only if the ambiguity he introduces fails to serve a purpose.
But I think Episcopalis Communio, inasmuch as it does not identify a mechanism for “express approval,” nevertheless applies here. The pope is officially presenting the document and encouraging everyone to read it in tandem with the exhortation.
If that’s not approval, what is it?
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.