This exhortation has been anxiously awaited by many Catholics ever since the end of the highly controversial Amazon Synod. Although we do – despite our loyalty to the successor of St. Peter – take a highly critical view of some parts of this document, we want to start with a heartfelt expression of gratitude to Our Lord for the fact that the abolition of mandatory priestly celibacy demanded by some is not explicitly called for in this exhortation.
It is important to emphasise that “the Catholic Church is one”. This unity is manifest in the fact that the individual members of the Church form a community, the people of God, regardless of when and where they live or have lived, whether they are still on earth, currently in purgatory or already in heaven. They are united by the teaching of the Catholic Church, which is the Word of God and therefore unchangeable. All Catholics, no matter when and where they lived, are thus united across the boundaries of space and time by one and the same faith.
The question of how the word of God should be discerned, interpreted and taught has been the subject of intense controversy throughout history. As a rule, such controversies were ultimately decided by the popes after thoroughgoing theological discussion. If necessary, heresies were condemned. In the past, heresies that were subsequently condemned ex Cathedra were adopted or spread by lay people, monks, priests and bishops, and in very rare cases even by popes.
The development of the history of ideas in the West, particularly since the French Revolution, has led to the emergence of various revolutionary, liberal, nationalist and socialist ideologies, all of which have been condemned by the Church in various encyclicals and other papal writings. When these false ideas began to gain traction in church circles, Pope St. Pius X described and denounced these tendencies as the “heresy of Modernism”. For more than 100 years now, an acute conflict has been raging between traditionalists and modernists within the Catholic Church, the former wanting to hold on to the traditional teaching and practices of the Church without neglecting necessary adaptations to current circumstances, while the latter try to integrate aspects of the aforementioned condemned ideologies into Catholic doctrine.
Many Catholics today fear that leading figures in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, including Pope Francis himself, could be followers of modernist tendencies that were condemned by their predecessors, up to and including Benedict XVI. We share these misgivings.
Significant forces within the Catholic hierarchy have attempted to use the Amazon Synod to promote the abolition of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women as Catholic priests. We have been hearing these demands regularly since the 1960s; they have been consistently rejected by all popes. Nevertheless, the introduction of so-called “Viri probati” and the admission of women to minor orders within the hierarchy were called for in the synod’s final document. We can only guess at Pope Francis’ private opinion on the “Viri probati” issue, as his public statements on this have, so far, been inconclusive.
In the apostolic exhortation, there is no call to approve them for the Amazon region (as many feared would be the case), but their approval is not explicitly precluded, either. In section 89, it is even said that “in the specific circumstances of the Amazon region, particularly in its forests and more remote places, a way must be found to ensure this priestly ministry”. The exhortation provides few details as to the nature of such “ways”. But what is surprising is the reference to the necessity of “finding a way” – after all, the Church can look back on 2000 years of experience in missionary work and the provision of priestly care in remote areas: as long as the Church openly and faithfully declared and lived the faith, there were always plenty of vocations to the priesthood.
In addition, from a purely practical point of view, there are, as recently pointed out by Cardinal Schönborn in an interview on Austrian television, several thousand South American priests who are currently working in North America. Why are they in North America and not in the Amazon region, where there is allegedly such a shortage of priests? According to EWTN‘s Brazil correspondent Rafael Tavares, most Christians in the Amazon region are evangelical Protestants, anyway; Catholics account for less than a quarter of all Christians there, and 80% of them live in cities with appropriate parish structures. Remote Catholic communities that hardly ever see a priest are actually quite rare.
As already mentioned, there is no explicit call for the ordination of “Viri probati” in the Exhortation. We are convinced that the fact that this call has now been omitted from the papal document is due to the publication of the book by Cardinal Sarah and Benedict XVI, in which the Church’s teaching on celibacy has once again been laid out in a perfectly clear and comprehensible manner.
We must, however, stay vigilant regarding this point. Section 92 of the Apostolic Exhortation calls for the consecration of many more permanent (i.e. married) deacons in the Amazon region, and footnote 120 reiterates the demand made during the synod for the introduction of an “Amazonian rite”. It is now to be feared that after some time, when the commission appointed for this purpose will have designed such a rite and the discussion about priestly celibacy will have calmed down again, permission will be granted to ordain some of these deacons to become priests under the Amazonian rite – a trend which would immediately be followed by the German Bishops’ Conference and other similarly oriented Bishops’ Conferences. That would mean the end of compulsory celibacy in the Latin Church.
On a positive note, sections 100 and 101 contain a fairly unequivocal “no” to the call for the priestly ordination of women.
Section 37 discusses the need to incorporate external elements into indigenous cultures. Like Pope Francis himself, NGOs working in the region, whose work is explicitly praised in the Exhortation, often consider the cultures there as models of community life and of a close connection with nature that we in the West should be made to imitate; however, many of these NGOs (especially the Gaia-Amazonas Foundation) consider it their mission to introduce modern Western ideas such as feminism and gender ideology into the cultures there. It is not really clear what Pope Francis actually means to say in section 37.
In various paragraphs, the Amazon region is portrayed as a special, mystical place where God manifests himself more than in other regions of the world (see section 57). Again and again, mention is made of “cosmic” experiences and “cosmic contemplation”, which is reminiscent of the pantheistic ideas that were widespread in Europe in pre-Christian times. Section 55 also tells us that the Amazon region should be “like a mother” to us. Section 56 even mentions “communion” with the forest and a prayer for light under an “ancient eucalyptus” that is to blend with the “song of the eternal foliage”. No matter that eucalyptus is not native to the Amazon rainforest at all (being native to Australia): what is particularly striking here is the unmistakably pantheistic undertone.
In section 73 a poem by bishop Pedro Casaldáliga (a professed Marxist and liberation theologian) is quoted; this complements the general choice of typical socialist terminology (“social rights”, etc.) in several places.
In section 84, we are told that sacramental discipline should not exclude anyone in the Amazon region, but that the Church must provide “comfort and acceptance” in difficult situations, rather than rules which would make people feel “judged and abandoned”. This is reminiscent of the discussion surrounding the post-synodal letter “Amoris Laetitia” regarding the question of the admission of divorced and remarried couples to holy communion in order to prevent them from feeling “judged and abandoned”. Should the Church’s teaching – that one should only receive communion after one has confessed and repented of all grave sins – no longer apply in the Amazon region?
This and many other questions remain unanswered in the Exhortation and may be expected to provide fodder for many heated discussions in the coming months. For the time being, though, it must be pointed out that – despite the critical objections detailed above – the content of this Exhortation must be seen as a huge achievement by all those who are fighting for the preservation of priestly celibacy and to prevent the watering-down of the priesthood. The large number of theological and historical publications on this subject that have come out in the last few months, the tireless work of so many Catholic journalists, the courageous defence of tradition by staunch cardinals, bishops, priests and laymen and, above all, the unceasing prayers of millions of true Catholics all over the world have borne fruit. The attempt to have the plans for the priestly ordination of “viri probati“ rubber-stamped by an official papal document has been averted for now.