By JD Flynn and Ed Condon
A leaked draft of an anticipated apostolic exhortation on the Amazon started a flurry of speculation last week that Pope Francis plans to allow the ordination of married men to the priesthood for ministry in the region.
But for all the talk about viri probati, it’s likely that the pope’s next move will be to call for even more conversation— establishing a commission to discuss the possibility of ordaining married men to be priests in the Amazon, without actually committing to the idea.
A draft version of the exhortation has been circulated widely Vatican departments, a normal part of the process before a final version is presented for the pope’s signature. On a topic as sensitive as clerical celibacy, several dicasteries are expected to weigh in, especially the Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
While the draft leaked last week is far from the finished article, the wording of the text already suggests that a commission will be the next step.
The leaked text’s section on viri probati said that “the competent authority should establish criteria and provisions to ordain” married men to the priesthood.
In the jargon of the Vatican, the language of establishing “criteria and provisions” is a sure sign that a study commission is on the horizon.
During the Synod on the Amazon last October, the possibility of ordaining married deacons to the priesthood was widely discussed; some bishops from the region indicated that they wanted the authority to decide for themselves which and how many men to ordain.
Others bishops, including Cardinal Beniamino Stella of the Congregation for Clergy and Cardinal Marc Ouellet of the Congregation for Bishops, offered that since celibacy is a universal discipline for the Church, exceptions to it need to be discussed and decided at the universal level – meaning in Rome.
When St. John Paul II created an opening for married Anglican clergy to come into communion with Rome and be ordained to the priesthood, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was given the job of vetting candidates, and approving them for ordination, on a one-by-one, case-by-case, basis. Sources familiar with the feedback being offered on the draft text have told CNA this week that something similar is being suggested in this case.
“I think delegation is the real question,” one senior curial official told CNA.
“Even those most in favor of holding the line on celibacy can make peace with a narrow exception for a remote region if it is on a case-by-case basis and if Rome is keeping control.”
The same official told CNA there is concern in several Vatican departments that if bishops in the Amazon are allowed to dispense from celibacy and ordain married men on their own authority, there will be little to stop other bishops, especially in Germany, from demanding the same power.
In short, the issue of viri probati is as much about Church governance and authority as it is about married priests themselves. And questions about governance and authority are themselves about competing ecclesiological visions of the Church.
On those issues, there is no easy compromise.
The fundamental disagreements behind the question of viri probati make it all the more likely that any forthcoming apostolic exhortation is likely to offer a “yes in theory,” but no practical mechanism for bringing that yes into action.
A yes-in-theory, it should be understood, is not the same as a yes-in-law. The pope is almost certain to say something affirmative about the idea of a case-by-case dispensation from celibacy in the region or the possibilities of married clergy. But if he doesn’t actually change the law, with a clear and explicit declarative statement, it won’t be changed.
“If you didn’t say it,” as Westley observes of juridic acts in “The Princess Bride”, “you didn’t do it.”
In the meantime, the pope must still address two competing views on the question of celibacy, and is likely to use a tool familiar to him.
In the Vatican, the most obvious way of finding a road forward between intractable positions, one that does not commit the pope to a controversial reform of which he may not be entirely convinced, is to put the matter out for a thorough consultation on how the idea might be implemented.
In the half-decade of his papacy, Francis has shown a marked preference for calling for “further study and conversation” as a way of grasping thorny problems lightly: admitting possibilities without committing to them.
In 2017, he established a committee to study the historical nature of the female diaconate. The group has since produced reams of paper, which the pope has left on the table, along with any resolution to the call from some corners for some kind of female “diaconate” in the Church – a question Pope Francis seems uneager to address.
That same year, amid calls for the Church to “reinterpret” Humanae vitae, the pope put together a committee of theologically diverse scholars to study Vatican archives and develop white papers, none of which have changed anything at all.
Even in the wake of controversial interpretations of 2015’s Amoris laetitia, the pope has called for study of his text — going so far as to retool the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for the task — but has not actually made any reforms to the Church’s law.
On the other hand, when Pope Francis has made up his mind, he is not timid about legislating. 2015’s Mitis iudex remade the Church’s annulment process. 2016’s Come una madre amorevole created a new court for bishops, and 2019’s Vos estis lux mundi effectively scrapped that court, and created a new penal process altogether.
Pope Francis has tweaked canon law to his liking at least 10 times, in several cases making substantial changes. But on matters about which the pope seems uncertain, or with decisions likely to generate controversy, he seems happy to use a study committee to punt the ball down the field.
In the case of clerical celibacy, the pope has indicated an openness to hear arguments from those with something to say – that was how the issue arrived on the synodal agenda in the first place. At the same time, he has been consistent about his commitment to the discipline of celibacy, saying at one point he would rather “lose his life” than give it up.
Caught between his progressive courtiers and his own conservative disposition, the pope may hope he can punt the ball as far as his successor. But if South American bishops (or German ones, for that matter), decide to ordain married deacons to the priesthood without Roman approval, Francis may be forced to confront the issue sooner than he wants – or expects.
In that case, getting ahead of the pope would likely prove an unwise tactic: While Francis might sometimes support a diocese that has acted on its initiative to address a pastoral need, if he senses that his tolerance for a new idea has been taken advantage of, or that his authority is being usurped, he could effectively kill ongoing discussion about viri probati.
On the other hand, the more avid defenders of celibacy, including a large number of the pope’s own curial advisors, might be equally wary of appearing to try to box the pope in before he has made up his mind.
For those who hope to see more married priests in the Church – and for those who don’t – if the pope punts the ball, the smartest play is to wait until it has landed.
This means, of course, that there will likely be no swift resolution to the discussion of ordaining married men for the Amazon. The ball will be in the air. Who the pope, or his successor, directs to eventually catch and run with that ball – and several others now hanging somewhere above the field – is anybody’s guess.