VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis refused Wednesday to approve the ordination of married men or women as deacons to address a shortage of priests in the Amazon, sidestepping a fraught issue that has divided the Catholic Church and emboldened his conservative critics.
In an eagerly awaited document, Francis didn’t refer to recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider married priests or women deacons. Rather, the pope urged bishops to pray for more priestly vocations and to send missionaries to a region where faithful Catholics in remote areas can go months or even years without Mass.
The pope’s dodge disappointed liberals, who had hoped he would at least put both questions to further study. It outraged progressive Catholic women’s groups. And it relieved conservatives who had used the debate over priestly celibacy to heighten their opposition to the pope, and saw his ducking of the issue as a victory.
Francis’ document, “Beloved Amazon,” is instead a love letter to the Amazonian rain forest and its indigenous peoples from the first Latin American pope. He has long been concerned about the violent exploitation of the Amazon’s land, its importance to the global ecosystem and the injustices against its peoples.
Francis said he has four dreams for the Amazon: respecting the rights of the poor; celebrating their cultural riches; preserving its natural beauty and life; and showing the indigenous features of its Christian communities.
Francis had convened bishops from the Amazon’s nine countries for a three-week synod in October to debate how the church can help preserve the delicate ecosystem from global warming and better minister to its people.
The Argentine Jesuit has long been sensitive to the plight of the Amazon, where Protestant and Pentecostal churches are making gains in the absence of vibrant Catholic communities where Mass can be regularly celebrated.
According to Catholic doctrine, only a priest can consecrate the Eucharistic hosts distributed at Mass, which the faithful believe are the body of Christ. Given the priest shortage, some remote communities only see a priest and attend a Mass once every few months or years. For Catholic communities in the Amazon, some of which date from the time of the Spanish colonization, the priest shortage coupled with the spread of evangelical churches risks the very Catholic nature of the communities.
In the synod’s final document, most of the bishops called for establishing criteria so that “respected” married men in their communities who have already served as permanent deacons can be ordained as priests.
The bishops also urged the Vatican to reopen a study commission on ordaining women as deacons, which allows for preaching, celebrating weddings and baptisms, but not consecrating the Eucharist. Francis had created such a commission in 2016 at the insistence of nuns who want larger roles in church governance and ministry, but the group ended its work without reaching consensus.
Francis didn’t mention either proposal in “Beloved Amazon” and didn’t cite the synod’s final document in his text or footnotes. But he did say he wanted to “officially present” the synod’s work and urged the faithful to read the final document in full, suggesting he valued the input.