Pope Francis Rejects Proposal to Allow Married Priests in Remote Areas

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has rejected a proposal made by bishops at a landmark meeting in October to allow the ordination of married men in remote areas, a potentially momentous change that conservatives had warned would set the Roman Catholic Church on a slippery slope toward the lifting of priestly celibacy and the thrashing of church traditions.

Francis’ decision, in a papal letter with the power of church teaching that was made public by the Vatican on Wednesday, surprised many given his openness to questions of priestly celibacy in “far-flung places” and his oft expressed desire for a more collegial and less top-down church.

The pope’s supporters had hoped for revolutionary change. The decision, coming seven years into his papacy, raised the question of whether Francis’ promotion of discussing once-taboo issues is resulting in a pontificate that is largely talk.

His closest advisers have already acknowledged that the pope’s impact has waned on the global stage, especially on core issues like immigration and the environment. His legacy, they have said, will ultimately reside inside the church where his authority is absolute.

Writing that “a specific and courageous response is required of the Church,” Francis argued that access to the sacraments need to be increased in “the remotest” places, but that a “priest alone” can celebrate communion or absolve sins.

But there was some confusion about how influential that document was. Cardinal Michael Czerny said on Wednesday that the document had a “moral authority” and that “to ignore it would be a lack of obedience to the Holy Father’s legitimate authority.” But he added that to “find one point difficult could not be considered a lack of faith.”

That document urged the church to adapt to the religious customs of indigenous people and to support them in their resistance to large economic and political interests exploiting the resources of the Amazon.

The pope’s letter echoed those concerns, arguing for the protection of the environment, but stopped short of calling the deforestation and stripping of resources a “sin,” as the bishops did in their October document.

But Francis ultimately disregarded its main proposal and the Vatican said that, unlike the pope’s letter, the bishop’s document was not church teaching.

During the bishops’ meeting, conservatives expressed deep concerns that the church was diluting its teaching by opening to indigenous forms of worship that they considered pagan.

At one point, thieves stole fertility statues from a church near St. Peter’s Basilica that had become a makeshift headquarters for the indigenous attendees, many of whom wore headdresses and traditional clothes mocked by the conservatives.

In his letter, Francis wrote: “Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples,” adding, “It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.”

But the section of the document that presented the greatest potential change in the church policy — potentially a diversion from 1,000 years of tradition — was the question of ordaining married men as priests.

Married priests are already allowed in Eastern Catholic Churches that are loyal to the pope, and Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism can remain married after their ordination. But the document wrestled with what many church historians consider a more significant change.

At the close of the October meeting, bishops from the Amazon region had proposed that the pope ordain as priests “suitable and respected men of the community” with families who had already had “fruitful” experiences as deacons and who would “receive an adequate formation for the priesthood.”

The Amazon bishops argued the change was necessary because many of the faithful in the region had encountered “enormous difficulties” in receiving communion. They said they had proposed a practical solution to address a lack of access to the sacraments.

Critics said it was a sea change, not a practical response.

For about 1,000 years, the Catholic Church has banned marriage for priests and demanded celibacy, though it is not a requirement of Catholic doctrine.

The proposal made to Francis was limited to remote areas of South America where there is a scarcity of priests. Had he accepted it, it could have set a precedent for easing the restriction on married priests throughout the world.

The bishops at the October summit had already come up short on the question of empowering women in the church, according to some liberals.

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