By Joyce Rothermel
In October, the Synod of Catholic Bishops met in Rome. Two historic votes passed: one recommended that Pope Francis allow the ordination of married men in the Amazon region, to work in the most remote areas. Celibacy is currently a requirement for priesthood in the Roman Catholic tradition. They also voted to put the church strongly on the side of protecting the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people who live there.
The Synod was made up mostly of bishops from Amazonia and was called by Pope Francis to deal with issues facing the church in their region. It has no decision-making authority; it is Pope Francis’ decision to approve or disregard their recommendations. Although the Pope didn’t immediately respond to the recommendations, he indicated he would make a decision by year’s end. He is likely to consult with bishops’ conferences in other parts of the world.
If Pope Francis acts on the first recommendation, he would reverse the condition of celibacy for ordination that has existed for over 1000 years in the Roman Catholic tradition. From the foundation of the early Church, most priests married, including St. Peter, the first Pope. The practice of celibacy became the universal law of the Roman church in 1123. Some churches, such as the Eastern/Orthodox, never had this condition for ordination. The Protestant churches rejected celibacy at the time of the Reformation.
While the practice of celibacy is church law, it isn’t doctrine; it can change. Most American Catholics favor allowing married priests. While the need for additional clergy is great in regions of the Amazon, it isn’t the only place in the world facing such shortages. Even here in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, several churches are now being consolidated and the number of Masses being offered cut due to, among other factors, a shortage of ordained priests.
Catholics believe the sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is essential to the life of a Catholic Community, yet thousands of Catholics have tremendous difficulties in accessing it. In some places in the world, it takes not just months, but even years before a priest can return to a community to celebrate the Eucharist and offer the other sacraments, such as reconciliation or anointing the sick. The Synod’s recommendation calls for married priests to live with and serve these communities.
It is believed that the first to be ordained in the Amazon region would likely be married deacons who have already received training and have pastoral experience. Members of the Synod also noted that in consultations in preparation for the Synod the permanent deaconate for women was recommended.
The second notable recommendation from the Synod came from the Bishops’ compassion for the rain forest and its people. “The Amazon today is a wounded and deformed beauty, a place of suffering and violence. Attacks on nature have consequences on the lives of peoples,” the Bishops wrote.
The Bishops see the following threats to life:
–Appropriation and privatization of natural goods, such as water;
–Predatory hunting and fishing;
–Pollution caused by the extractive industry and city garbage dumps;
–Unsustainable mega-projects (hydroelectric and forest concessions, massive logging, roads, monocultures, waterways, mining and oil projects, and railways); and
The indigenous peoples have suffered loss of ancestral lands and loss of lives and cultures as many were killed or made to migrate to cities, where they were often exploited and, in some cases, trafficked.
The Bishops from the Amazon region said they will continue to speak out prophetically against the destruction of the environment and exploitation of the native peoples. They want their governments to do more to protect the region and its inhabitants.
“We denounce the violation of human rights and extractive destruction,” they said. “We make our own and support campaigns to disinvest in extractive companies responsible for the socio-ecological damage of the Amazon, starting with our own church institutions themselves.”
The Bishops also understand that unless those of us in developed countries change our lifestyles, there is not much that can be done to stop the economic interests supporting those lifestyles: our appetite for meat, precious metals, and lumber is killing the rainforests and its people. We are also contributing to global warming that could kill the Amazon’s rainforest.
In reporting on these matters, Fr. Thomas Reese, a columnist for Religious News Service, said, “In recent years, Catholics have been embarrassed by the crimes and sins of their church. While these issues continue to need the church’s attention, Catholics can be proud that their church is also confronting critical global issues like the environment, climate change and the rights of indigenous peoples.”
It is our hope that the Bishops, under the leadership of Pope Francis, have once again found their prophetic voice and are using it, in this case, in the Amazon, and that people everywhere will take action for justice and human rights in the church and in the broader world community.
(Information for this article was drawn from Fr. Thomas Reese, a columnist for Religious News Service.)
Joyce Rothermel serves as Chair of the Church Renewal Committee of the Association of Pittsburgh Priests.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 40 No. 10. December/January, 2019/2020. All rights reserved.