Pope Francis has stopped short of allowing the ordination of married men as priests in the Amazon, where there are severe shortages of clergy, calling instead for ordained ministers to come to the region and work alongside lay preachers.
His call came after bishops in the Amazon called on the Vatican to allow married men to be ordained as priests in the South American region, where the faithful can go months without a Mass.
Francis announced the decision in a lengthy document, titled "Beloved Amazon," containing his reflections about a three-week meeting of Amazonian bishops he presided over last fall.
In the document, he said a "more frequent celebration of the Eucharist" must be guaranteed, but noted that the sacrament of Holy Orders "qualifies the priest alone to preside at the Eucharist."
To fulfill the"urgent need" of the Amazonian people to be able to celebrate the Eucharist, Francis urged all bishops, especially those in South America, to be "more generous" in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region.
He also stressed that the laity should assume "important responsibilities" to respond to the challenges in the Amazon region. The document doesn't mention the subject of whether priests should marry.
"It is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist," he said. "That would be a very narrow aim, were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities."
His conclusion is a continuation of the nearly 1,000-year-old practice of priestly celibacy. Currently, the Vatican allows married men to become priests in Eastern rite churches. Eager to include converts, it has also allowed married Anglicans to remain priests when they join the Roman Catholic Church.
Speculation about Francis' decision intensified in recent weeks after retired Pope Benedict XVI co-authored a book insisting on the “foundational” need for a celibate priesthood. The book, excerpts of which were published Jan. 12, appeared to be a direct attempt by the retired pope and his conservative allies to influence the thinking of the current pontiff.
Francis has long said he appreciates the discipline and the gift of celibacy, and didn't feel he could make such a sweeping change. However, he has also expressed sympathy for the plight of the Amazonian faithful, and said theologians had debated pastoral reasons to consider an exception, which is possible given the celibate priesthood is a tradition of the Roman Catholic Church rather than a matter of doctrine.
While the ordination of married men in the Amazon may seem to be a niche issue in the church, it actually goes to the heart of the pope’s priorities in enabling the church to accompany people on their journey, analysts say.
“These are issues that are not just political or cultural. They get to the core of what does it mean to be Catholic,” said Michele Dillon, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of "Postsecular Catholicism."
“You can’t be a functioning community if don’t have access to priests to do the Eucharist. Pope Francis has to address these issues because they are pressing in terms of the relevance and sustainability of the church,” she added.
Francis called the Amazon synod in 2017 to focus attention on saving the rainforest and better ministering to its indigenous people.
The decision on priests, however, risked overshadowing the other issues in the document that Francis set out to highlight. It could also have deepened the antipathy in strongly conservative church circles toward Francis, whom they deem to be dangerously progressive.
The decision was a surprise given the change in the way the pope has conducted these Vatican gatherings, known as synods. He has changed the process of how the synods work, putting together a more consultative process that gives a greater voice to both church leaders and the laity.
"In the past, it was Rome talking to other churches. Right now, there is a different process. Rome is listening and taking seriously the voices coming from there," Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University, said.
"If he ignores it completely, it will undermine the whole legitimacy of what he has called the synodal process," he added, the day before the document was released.
In the document, Francis notes that faith in some Amazonian communities has been preserved "because of the presence of strong and generous women." But he rejects the clericalization of women and instead says women should contribute in a way that presents the "tender strength of Mary."
He consequently encourages the creation of new services — with the public recognition of the bishop — which allow their input to affect decisions taken in the community.