Married Priests? The Amazon Synod formally opens the discussion
The Synod of Bishops on the Amazon in October 2019 could have significant implications for the Church. The preparatory document, called the Instrumentum Laboris which outlines the agenda of the meeting, was recently released. The most significant issue is the ecological threat to the Amazonian forests, which are being destroyed through mining and oil projects, deforestation and pollution. There are many other big issues including global warming, human trafficking, education, the need for employment of local people and the inculturation of the liturgy.
The Synod has received particular attention in the global catholic media because it formally puts the possibility of ordaining indigenous older married men (so-called “viri probati”) on the agenda. Some of these men are already permanent deacons. In many remote parts of the Amazon the people are only able to attend Mass once in two months – or less – due to the shortage of priests. Attempts to import priests have not proven successful as the area is remote and the culture is very distinctive.
Some, such as the Austrian missionary Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who worked for many years in the rainforests of Brazil, are hopeful that the Synod may lead to the ordination of married men and the opening of the ordination of women (who already lead some of those Catholic communities) to the permanent deaconate.
Our own retired Bishop Fritz Lobinger, who served as Bishop in the Diocese of Aliwal North from 1987-2004, made a similar suggestion regarding the ordination of older married leaders of the community. He proposed that teams of elders would be sacramentally ordained to lead communities without priests. These would be overseen by a celibate priest-animator. It is already the case that married priests who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism have been allowed to be ordained and continue to minister as priests in the Catholic Church.
Perhaps, not-surprisingly, many of a more conservative worldview have reacted negatively to the Instrumetum Laboris. They are nervous that a discussion about married priests and women deacons could be a potential threat to an all-male celibate priesthood and, therefore, sacramental leadership.
However, perhaps this unique situation provides an excellent opportunity for the Church to try a married priesthood. We have to decide what is more important: a celibate priesthood or reasonable access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. To deprive people of the Eucharist for many weeks does not give them the food for the journey that it is intended to be.
While this Synod is focused specifically on the Amazon, decisions taken here, if they prove to be life-giving and fruitful, might well in future be extended to the rest of the Church. If we are serious about a less clerical church, responsive to the needs of the local people, I believe the discussion of these possibilities and the potential to experiment with them, is a great sign of hope.