Catholic bishops from across the Amazon have called for the ordination of married men as priests to address a scarcity of clergy in the region, a challenge to the centuries-old tradition in the church.
The majority of the 180 bishops from nine South American countries in the Amazon basin region on Saturday also called for the Vatican to reopen a debate on ordaining women as deacons, saying “it is urgent for the church in the Amazon to promote and confer ministries for men and women in an equitable manner”.
It is the first time a summit of Catholic bishops has backed such a historic change to the tradition of celibacy among priests. The proposal, while limited to remote areas in South America and to married men already ordained as deacons in the church, is seen by many as setting a precedent that could bring an end to the restriction on married Catholic priests throughout the world.
The proposals were contained in a final document approved yesterday at the end of a three-week synod on the Amazon held at the Vatican. The synod was called by Pope Francis in 2017 to focus attention on saving the rainforest and better ministering to its indigenous peoples.
The document approved by the bishops noted that people of Catholic faith in the region have “enormous difficulties” in receiving communion and seeing a priest. It proposed to “ordain priests suitable and esteemed men of the community”, who had already had “fruitful” experiences as deacons and who “receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, having a legitimately constituted and stable family”.
The celibate priesthood has been a tradition since the 11th century, imposed in part for financial reasons to ensure priests’ assets pass to the church and not to their heirs. Married priests are permitted in some eastern Catholic churches as well as where married Anglican priests have converted.
Reformers say the change is crucial to meet the needs of the pan-Amazonian region but acknowledge it could lead to similar reforms elsewhere. Shortages of priests are so bad that some Amazon communities go months without a proper mass.
Speaking afterwards, the pope said he would reopen the work of a 2016 commission that studied the issue of women deacons. He promised that the Vatican would continue to study the role of women in the early years of the church. “We still haven’t grasped the significance of women in the church. Their role must go well beyond questions of function,” he said.
Some conservatives and traditionalists warn that any papal opening to married priests or women deacons would lead the church to ruin. They accused the synod organisers, and even the pope himself, of heresy for even considering flexibility on mandatory priestly celibacy.
The celibacy idea was supported 128-41 by the bishops. The report noted that some participants wanted a more “universal approach”, suggesting support for married priests elsewhere in the world.
The pope, who is from Argentina, has long said he appreciates the discipline and the gift of celibacy, but that it can change, given that it is not doctrine.
Bishops in the Amazon say Protestant and evangelical churches are wooing away Catholic souls in the absence of vibrant communities where the Eucharist can be regularly celebrated.