‘It’s about the Amazon, not clergy!’ – Pope Francis surprises yet again

Feb 13, 2020 | 16 comments


Pope Francis greets some Amazonians at the Rome Synod, Oct 2019


‘Pope Francis rules against ordaining married men in Amazon’. So declared the BBC on February 13th, 2020.

Pope Francis Sets Aside Proposal on Married Priests‘ insisted the New York Times on the same day. From such headlines we gather clearly what media were expecting from Pope Francis in relation to the Amazon region in February 2020:  a dramatic shift in the church’s longstanding requirement that applicants for ordination must opt for celibacy.

Instead the pope has issued a defiant call – in ‘Querida Amazonia‘ – for an end to injustice and cruelty – and ecological suicide – in one of the world’s crucial ‘lungs’, the huge but now threatened Amazon basin region.  For a man who himself operates on only one functioning lung this is a clear assertion that for the Church our internal problems are secondary to our concern for a world that is in greatest danger from ourselves.

For the National Catholic Reporter Querida Amazonia is an impassioned plea by the pope for an end to ‘crime and injustice’.

Is it also a ‘no’ to the request of most Amazonian bishops for an end to the ban on ordaining married men?  That is not at all certain. For all we know, Pope Francis may be reserving that issue for another document devoted to such internal church issues.

As we wait for clarity here in Ireland we might reflect on what makes ordination no longer a headline option for those choosing a career in school.  An unjustifiable absence of formal research into that question leaves us reliant on guesswork and private networks, but there is no reason to suppose that priestly celibacy is the only, or even the major, reason for that lack of interest.  Far more likely is an inability on the part of the young to see any vital connection between the Mass and the future of the planet – a future that becomes more problematic day-by-day.

Given that the Mass is essentially a celebration of selfless sacrifice – a life given so that others may be saved – and that the ‘giving up’ of all wastefulness and excess and economic injustice will be key to the future, it is likely that Ireland’s ‘vocations crisis’ has to do with the inability of too many Irish Mass celebrants to notice this and to adapt their liturgies and homilies accordingly.

How many have noticed that ‘climate anxiety’ is now a growing factor in today’s challenges to youth mental health – as revealed in a Guardian article of Mon 10th Feb, 2020. [‘Overwhelming and terrifying’: the rise of climate anxiety]

To climate activism Ireland’s young people could also be adding prayer to the Holy Spirit of self-sacrifice that has guided the whole church from the beginning, but how many Irish mass celebrants of today are seeing and saying that?

Sean O’Conaill 13th Feb, 2020

See also ‘Why did Francis punt on married priests in his Amazon document?‘ by John Allen in CRUX.

ACI Submission to Conference of Irish Bishops – 01/10/2019


  1. Anthony Neville

    Pope Francis did not comment on the question of married clergy but he offered the Amazon report and urged everyone to read it in full. Leaving the question open for the future?

    My immediate reaction was to think of his intention to ‘invert’ the pyramid, i.e with the pope at the bottom and the faithful at the top. Plus his desire to see synodality as the way forward for discernment in the church.

    Under Canon Law 1402, marriage is an obstacle to holy orders, but dispensation can be requested under CL 1407. Will we see the Amazon bishops using this route?

  2. Neil Bray

    My response to Querida Amazonia can be summarised with a paraphrase of line form a Stephen Sondheim song. I saw the Pope “making his entrance again with his usual flair, sure of his lines, – but – who knows what’s there?”

    Well the Pope’s closest associates have answered the latter question. They relegate the Papal Exhortation to nothing more than a bulking agent for the Synod Report. The “viri probati process” is still presented gratuitously by its promoters who refuse to acknowledge the extent to which it changes the heretofore understanding of ordained priesthood.

  3. soconaill

    ‘Heretofore understanding’ – can you specify and date this for us, Neil – to clarify?

    If mandatory celibacy did not arrive until the second millennium how can it be argued that there was ever just one ‘understanding of ordained priesthood’ in relation to marriage?

  4. Neil Bray

    My contribution above is not about celibacy. The issue is a more fundamental one, which perhaps may have been the basis for the adoption and practice of celibacy.

    Instead of explanation I will suggest a more interesting process. I am going to propose to you an exercise you used set for students – a suggestion of some primary sources for you to peruse to identify what I’m referring to and draw your own conclusions from. Were you a second level student I would propose the following order of readings, but not so here.

    1. Fr Conway’s commentary on Querida Amazonia, Irish Catholic Feb 20th, page 21, (second page), middle of second column, two paragraphs above and below the word “unproblematic”). Of course not just this part.
    2. Presbyterorum Ordinis paragraphs 4-6
    3. Querida Amazonia, footnote 136. Compare the Pope’s quote from Canon 517§2 with the actual text of the Canon. Indication of a trend?
    4. If you can find it, a clear outline of the functions of a person ordained under the viri probati process.

    I could suggest more summative sources but they wouldn’t have any currency in the ACI.

    • soconaill

      Unable to satisfy requirement No. 4, Neil, I cannot be sure that I have fully discerned your drift. Do you suspect that Pope Francis may be seeking to ignore and undermine what you see as a necessary association of ‘leadership of the Christian community’ with ordination?

      If so, you are surely raising the question of what ‘leadership of the Christian community’ properly entails in situations where:

      (a) the Christian community is without an ordained pastor almost all of the time;
      (b) the ordained pastor who is present cannot persuasively exercise ‘leadership of the Christian community’.

      Personally without experience of the situation in Amazonia I cannot presume to discuss ‘leadership’ in situation (a) but I have direct and current personal experience of a situation (b) where ‘the Christian community’ is in clear danger of ceasing to exist because its ordained pastor (with many others in the same diocese) has opted the parish out of diocesan programme aimed at preparing all parishes for an imminent cliff fall in the number of serving priests, without providing any explanation to that Christian community for this decision.

      If Pope Francis is correct in his understanding of the history of the church in south Korea, ‘leadership of the Christian community’ did in fact exist in the absence of ordained clergy over an extended period. Our own website also records a case of a US parish operating effectively under lay leadership.


      So the following question seems to pose itself: If Jesus instruction re Eucharist was simply ‘do this in memory of me’, without stipulation as to the gender or marital status of those so charged, must ‘the Christian community’ reconcile itself to its own disappearance if the requirements stipulated LATER by Catholic canon law for ordination, Eucharistic celebration and ‘leadership of the Christian community’ cannot be satisfied?


      The modern sacramental and administrative structures of the Catholic Church were certainly not decreed directly by Jesus. They evolved over the first and second centuries A.D. as a result of reflecting upon Sacred Scripture, answering the developing needs of both the universal and local Church communities, emphasising the spiritual nature of what already existed (e.g. marriage) and from the desire, common to most organisations and especially large ones, for the centralisation of power and control into the hands of a few. The centralisation of power seems to have taken place quite early in the history of the Catholic Church and was taken by local bishops as successors of the 12 apostles who, in turn, appointed presbyters or priests to act locally in their name, particularly at Eucharist. Deacons were ordained to administer diocesan finances and organise programmes to give sustenance to the poor. The Catholic hierarchy, once having gained total control, refused to let that side of the Church develop any further or evolve a lay arm to work alongside it and in close partnership with it.

      Unlike the foundational Jewish temple priesthood and later Sanhedrin, the evolving Catholic hierarchical structure did not include, or work alongside and share power with, a non-priestly or lay structure. The three major roles of organisational administration, economic administration and sacramental administration were fused into the single role of bishop and then of his local priestly representative, the parish priest. Clericalism was born very early in the life of the Catholic Church and has remained stubbornly present ever since. At times, it has been its strength but more often, and certainly today, its greatest weakness. The lack of ongoing evangelisation of and by the laity and the hierarchical cover-up of widespread clerical sexual and financial abuses are doubtless attributable to that over-clericalist, unresponsive and unaccountable structure of the Church. Many bishops and parish priests complain of the heavy administrative burden they carry daily which keeps them from what they consider to be their central role (left unclear), but rarely propose the sharing of power, as of right, over financial, organisational and spiritual matters with adequately trained lay people in an integrated overall parish and diocesan structure.

      Celibacy arose within the Catholic Church as a means to an end. That end was mostly the protection of Church land and the protection of clergy from what was considered the degradation of sexual intimacy between husbands and wives, however necessary for procreation.
      Celibacy has now de facto replaced Eucharist as the central tenet of the Catholic Church. I say that because the continued adherence to celibacy is preventing a rapidly growing number of lay Catholics around the world from receiving Eucharist weekly due to the rapid decrease in the number of young men going forward for the celibate priesthood. That was the central concern of the Amazonian bishops in their recent meeting with Pope Francis in Rome.

      Eucharist, the presence of Christ Himself, was given by Jesus to all His followers to sustain them in their Christian vocation. It is the right and spiritual need of all Catholics to be regularly and spiritually fed by Christ’s real presence in Eucharist and His divine presence in the sacred word of Holy Scripture. Jesus did not demand celibacy from His apostles or disciples. That was a man-made decision of many centuries later for the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. It does not exist among many of the other rites. Over the centuries and in the present-day, celibacy is perpetuated on a twofold myth( myth in the modern and not biblical sense). Firstly, the myth is that the vast majority of priests have always rigorously observed their vow of celibacy and are still doing so today. Secondly, it is that priestly celibacy in itself makes celibate clerics spiritually superior to lay Catholics. It is more likely to dehumanise and mentally and emotionally damage them than make them superior to laypeople.

      While celibacy became an important means of protecting and perpetuating the clerical and centralised power structure of the Catholic Church it is not essential to it and could leave that dysfunctional structure unreformed even after the institution of a married priesthood and female diaconate. The latter are separate, though very important, issues and will likely only follow a total reform of the clericalist structure of the Catholic Church at all levels. That reform requires a Third Vatican Council rather than single, disparate reforms easily undermined by ultra-conservative clerics at all levels of the Catholic hierarchy and Vatican Curia. A major part of the role of that new Council will be to ensure the rapid and effective implementation of the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the dogmatic constitution on the Church, entitled ‘Light of the People’ (Lumen Gentium) which unfortunately still remains a dark cloud! I surmise that Pope Francis, for whom I have the greatest regard, has come to that conclusion himself and hence didn’t “punt on married priests in his Amazon document.” (John Allen in CRUX)

  5. Neil Bray

    I’m not surprised regarding your effort at No. 4. I’m not sure if anyone promoting the viri probati process (vpp) has outlined it.

    My “drift” is as follows.

    1. I have concluded that the vpp is a postulated solution to a problem in Germany, with the conditions in Amazonia being exploited to put it in place. Amazonia is a launch pad for global application.

    Papal teaching is really none of my business. But the chance that I might be being “sold a pup” is. So I want to compare the vpp with the functions of the ordained priesthood as they heretofore obtained. Will the vpp actually work or succeed? Historical evidence is scanty. It suggests that the vpp is a compromise short on positive outcomes.

    2. I am very grateful for Catholicism as it stands. Unfortunately as all recent Popes have said – it comes as a price – a responsibility to contribute. The first step is to find out the functions of the ordained priesthood as they arise from reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. These it turns out are a three-fold function to preach, to sanctify, and to govern, none of which individually define the ordained priesthood but are theologically inseparable and spiritually interdependent in enabling the priest’s mission to build up the parish.

    Next I think it necessary to affirm the priest in this threefold function. Only then I believe will it be possible to distinguish what it means to empower the laity.

    There is no point in us laity thinking and acting as if we had received the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Parallel with this is the fact that the document of The International Theological Commission – “Synodality in the Life of the Church” states that the shepherds are expected to be committed to overcoming obstacles to the laity’s participation and thus to forming a mature ecclesial sense among them. (paragraphs 69, 73)

    All guided of course by the overall aim of Catholicism – promoting the glory and praise of God and the salvation of souls.

  6. soconaill

    Our starting points and ‘imperatives’ are clearly wholly different, Neil. For me the understanding of Holy Orders that you seem to regard as fixed, permanent and normative – that three-fold function of preaching, sanctifying and governing – was itself historically determined – i.e. persuasive and workable in and for a limited historical period. Do you not need to deal with that possibility at this time of deep church crisis, instead of choosing to ignore it altogether?

    Does it not make sense that if your preferred model of ‘Holy Orders’ was indeed divinely intended to be normative forever it too would observably ‘work and succeed’ in e.g. Amazonia, Germany and Ireland NOW?

    Why instead has the German church been convened because of clerical scandal, of loss of trust in clergy and lack of young male interest in ‘Holy Orders’ so defined?

    In arguing that the vpp proposal as you understand it has not been proven to ‘work or succeed’ don’t you need to establish that your own preferred canonical model does both of those things NOW. Where exactly can you point to – NOW – as evidence of that?

    That ordained Catholic bishops came to prioritise the safeguarding of children in Ireland only AFTER Catholic parents chose to put the plight of abused Catholic children into the public domain is known to all adults here. How exactly does that establish the’workability’ and ‘success’ of your tripartite model of the priesthood, in its governing, teaching, sanctifying – and evangelical – roles – in contemporary Ireland?

  7. Neil Bray

    Sean, a few points.

    The three-fold mission of the priest was endorsed by Vatican 2, but it ruled out ordained priests monopolising leadership. It says ordained priests are selected by Christ to serve Christ who is teacher (to preach), priest (to sanctify) and King (shepherd to govern). Priests share in this, His office, through which the Church on earth is built up to be The People of God.

    Effective teaching ipso facto sanctifies and governs; authentic sanctification at once teaches and governs; proper governing necessarily teaches and sanctifies.

    I don’t know where to find a theology of the empowerment of the laity but Benedict wrote: the laity “Should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really “co-responsible” for the Church’s being and acting.”

    The ordination of the priest confers on him a sacred power (CCC 1592), to mark his soul in a special way to enable him to exercise the three-fold mission. Fr Conway claims The Pope wants of empower lay leaders while avoiding clericalisation. So ordained priesthood cannot be conflated with lay ministry. Hence my previous arguments in terms of timing and affirmation.

    How can the viri porbati process operate if the three-fold mission falls apart?

    Cardinal George once described the governing mission as the “task of ordering all the charisms of the faithful so as to direct the body of Christ to its ultimate end.”

    Lay leadership and lay pastoral activity already exist in Ireland. But is there one particular lay ministry that advocates of lay empowerment (not referring to you) avoid or miss? In 1988, Pope St John Paul II wrote in great detail about the enriched vocation of the laity in terms of the New Evangelisation. He describes the “proper vocation” of the laity as consisting of “seeking the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God’ (Lumen Gentium 31). Also See CCC 898. Should all prolife canvassers take a bow?


      Neil, you make several pertinent points.

      The Central issue on the threefold role of the priesthood is whether or not the priest is “shepherd to govern” on his own and without any involvement of laypeople, or, as Benedict recommended, to govern in co-responsibility with the laity. However, co-responsibility must, of necessity, involve the sharing of power. One cannot be responsible or co-responsible for something over which they have no power or authority. A diocese or parish without a council composed of both laity and clergy working closely together and sharing real power and authority, rather than just a consultative role, is not acting according to the intention of Vatican 2. To limit the role of laity to spreading the Kingdom of God by “engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God” (important as that is) is to rule out or fail to recognise the effectiveness of their involvement in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Legion of Mary, leading and organising various prayer groups, Scripture groups, liturgy groups, catechetical sessions, preparation for Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation and marriage courses etc.

    • soconaill

      One could add to Aidan’s list of lay ministries that of child safeguarding in the church, a role for lay persons not envisaged by any Vatican II document.

      “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” So insisted Lord Acton in 1887, in the same letter that occurs his famous observation that ‘power corrupts’. Did any pope before Francis observe ‘clericalism’ and ‘spiritual worldliness’ as serious dangers to the church?

      Remembering also that by baptism all Christians share in the priestly, kingly and prophetic mission of Christ we can surely see the limitations of looking only to existing magisterial documents for solutions to the current Catholic crisis. The frontline of the church’s development will surely be guided by current experience and the Holy Spirit as well as by those documents, for otherwise one is asserting that nothing more ever needs to be written.

      I’ll bet there were objections to Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum on the grounds of ‘wild innovation’. Were Pope Francis now to tell us he was writing an encyclical against clericalism, incorporating Acton’s definition of that heresy, the present clamour would increase.

      As someone who has experienced attempted intimidation by someone duly ordained to teach sanctify and lead – simply for protesting his unilateral decision that our parish would take no part in a diocesan renewal programme – I would be saying ‘Go for it Francis’ and ‘not at all before time’!

      • Aidan Hart

        Well said Sean.
        The quickest and most effective way to curb the abuse of power by priests and bishops in arbitrarily closing parish and diocesan councils or refusing to set them up or work in close partnership with them and ensure genuine involvement of laity in the running of dioceses and parishes, is to enshrine their existence and active role in Canon Law and then for bishops and Curia to enforce that Law rigorously.

  8. Neil Bray

    In her diary no 344 St Faustina records seeing in her cell Christ exposed in a monstrance. At His feet she saw her confessor; behind him a great number of the highest ecclesiastics; behind them groups of religious; further still enormous crowds of people. She saw the two rays of the Divine Mercy image coming from the Host passing through the hands of her confessor, then through the hands of the clergy to the people. Then they returned to the Host.

    This vision was given in the context of God promoting Divine Mercy. No 299 denotes the sanctifying meaning of the rays. No 344 clearly shows the significance of the theologically and spiritually integrated three-fold sanctifying mission of the clergy as then and now taught by the Church. My purpose in this interaction was to focus on the lack of posited justification for proposing that the viri probati process could fulfil the same sanctifying mission. No justification based on Church teaching has emerged here.

    Care is necessary when speaking of power in the Church. Scripture shows that the Apostles became obsessed with it and were still haggling over it at the Last Supper. It was a distraction that must have impinged on their behaviour on Good Friday. Post Pentecost when organisation for a hierarchical church was necessary, many of the first early Popes were martyred. They used their office in ways that sanctified them and were not corrupted by the authority given them by God.

    Later in History the pursuit of ecclesiastical power was again destructive as in the case of the Borgia popes and Henry VIII.

    The only power that counts is God’s,given by Him to the church, ultimately for sanctification and salvation. All recent popes and church documents relating to the laity have emphasised the necessary role of the laity, but have never sought to undo the three-fold mission of the clergy.

    There is no evidence that transferring “power” from clergy to laity improves things. God may not even consider it permissible.

    • soconaill

      “Care is necessary when speaking of power in the Church.” I entirely agree, Neil. So the term ‘lay empowerment’ is problematic also.

      Can we take it as read that in warning the disciples not to ‘lord it over others’ and in himself modelling spiritual power as service to others rather than control over others, Jesus is himself our best guide to what ‘lay empowerment’ could properly mean?

      Surely in that sense we can all think of ‘power’ given by God to non-ordained persons to sanctify, lead and teach?

      St Francis of Assisi, never ordained, comes to mind straight away. Frank Duff, the Irishman who founded the Legion of Mary – and other Legionaries such as Edel Quinn whose cause reached the stage of ‘Venerable’ in 1994. G.K. Chesterton, the Englishman, the power of whose writing has done the same. Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian farmer canonised in 2011 following martyrdom by the Nazis in Austria in 1943.

      Why does it necessarily follow that if lay persons are ’empowered’ in this way to lead, sanctify and teach, the power of clergy to ‘lead, sanctify and teach’ is thereby UNDONE?

      Noting that you prefer the term ‘govern’ to ‘lead’, Neil – is it ‘power’ understood as some kind of superior AUTHORITY that you have in mind? As in ‘only the ordained priest has the power to officiate at the Eucharist’?

      I have no issue whatsoever with that superior authority, but what if any priest so ordained also exercises an effective blocking power to the proper exercise by lay people of their right and obligation to be freely active in spiritual service to one another, e.g. through the parish pastoral council, and to participate in a diocesan programme of pastoral and faith renewal? What if the common priesthood of all of the baptised- i.e. the common potential for, and obligation of, mutual enrichment – is neither understood or promoted and is in fact frustrated by, the ordained minister, on the grounds of his superior authority?

      Under existing canon law there is no barrier to the ordained priest doing just that in Ireland today. And ’empowerment of laity’ can be understood as simply the enjoyment of the freedom to do exactly what Jesus has called us to do: love one another as he loved us. No ‘transfer’ of legitimate power need come into question, as surely whatever power the priest may have to block the development of the lay church cannot be God-given?

      Finally, Sr Faustina was herself, strictly speaking, a lay person. So if her visions are deemed to be ‘authoritative’ why confine our notion of ‘authority’ to the role of the ordained priest?

  9. Neil Bray

    Do I apply what I say here to myself?

    Accidently and without wanting it I became secretary of our Diocesan Committee of the Apostolate of Eucharistic Adoration. I am not a leader. At a cathedral ceremony to close the Year of Mercy our Bishop in front of a packed cathedral including 65 priests suggested a list of practices all might engage in, omitting what had then become my pet project. At the doorway later I asked him to list it in future. I have no evidence of it happening.

    Last summer at a diocesan meeting my pet project was again omitted when I felt it merited inclusion. There was no plenary session. I had to butt in a bit confrontationally to make my point. The priest in charge is to say the least, strong. At a previous meeting he had audibly dismissed a suggestion of mine re the business at hand.

    The interaction this time lasted about a minute. I wasn’t standing back. I tried to end it respectfully. As I went back to my seat there was some applause. The Bishop had already got to his feet and begun promoting Eucharistic Adoration. After the meeting he came down the hall, praised me for my intervention and was most gracious. I apologised for my demeanour.

    In the hall before the start of the next meeting in the series, my parish priest jokingly said to me “don’t you go causing any trouble here tonight.” In the intervening period people who weren’t at the previous meeting had mentioned my intervention.

    Four weeks ago the priest and I met on the fringes of another meeting and, more on his initiative than mine, interacted as if nothing had happened. And, coincidently perhaps, Eucharistic Adoration got honourable mention in the Lenten Pastoral Letter.

    I have had letters of complaint about Church governance published in the Catholic press. I’m not averse to it. But one has to distinguish between it and attempted coup d’etats. In finding a balance we have to err on the side of affirming God’s gift of ministerial priesthood. They benefit and we gain.

  10. soconaill

    That is a fascinating story, Neil. It suggests a clerical system that is in a healthier state than ours here in Ireland just now – where an impending serious shortage of clergy calls for urgent and intensive dialogue re ‘co-responsibility’.

    As you will see if you investigate the ‘Ongoing’ tab on this site, that intensive lay-clerical dialogue has not yet even begun in most dioceses and parishes – and in my own diocese a projected pastoral renewal programme, supposedly launched in 2018, is nowhere evident.

    I am sure you will agree that internal church activities such as Eucharistic Adoration should ideally bear fruit in terms of renewal and fruitful dialogue. In Ireland the pattern is for such activities to be seen as sufficient unto themselves, and even as substitutes for dialogue.

    For example, we are not discussing the large-scale defection of younger generations, in the wake of decades of abuse-related scandal. This is in clear defiance of what was projected for lay-clergy interaction in Lumen Gentium (1964).

    This clearly compromises the teaching, sanctifying and leading role of our ordained diocesan clergy, as constant and fearless dialogue is a prerequisite for the accomplishment of all of these three objectives in present circumstances.

    I cannot see that protesting about this situation is anything other than an obligation in conscience, given what is at stake. What ordained clergy are ordained to do is not necessarily what they actually do – the very situation envisaged in Lumen Gentium article 37. Hence our strong urging of the case for the immediate honouring of that article by our bishops. This is not at all the same thing as a ‘coup d’état’.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one + three =

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This