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.
The pope’s refusal to allow married priests was likely to delight conservatives, many of whom have come to see Francis and his emphasis on a more pastoral and inclusive church as a grave threat to the rules, orthodoxy and traditions of the faith.
The recommendation to allow married priests in remote areas was approved by more than two-thirds of the bishops who attended a summit on the issue in October. The proposal set off a vigorous debate within the church.
Progressives said it was high time the church recognized reality and the demands of the faithful; conservatives called it a threat to the priesthood, and warned that married priests would follow everywhere, including in the heart of Europe. Even the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, put a finger on the scale, arguing for priestly celibacy.
Despite the expectations, Francis backed off.
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.
He made no mention of ordaining married men in good standing or elevating to the priesthood married deacons, a lower clerical rank that does not require celibacy.
Instead Francis argued that the gap should be filled with a culturally sensitive effort to increase priestly vocations and more willingness for existing priests to go to remote areas.
Francis, who blames the abuse of power by priests for many of the church’s ills, argued that the way forward rested in “the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.”
“It is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist,” he added, dismissing such a goal as “a very narrow aim.”
The Vatican sounded a defensive note on Wednesday.
The pope’s letter “demonstrates a thought that supersedes the dialectical diatribes which ended up representing the Synod as a referendum on the possibility of ordaining married men,” Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican spokesman, said in a statement.
He said the pope had decided against “changes or further possibilities of exceptions.”
Francis said he would “officially present” the final document of the bishops, called “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” and recommended that “everyone to read it in full.”
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.
The bishops had recognized how important women were in the church in the Amazon, where they often lead services and act as anchors for indigenous congregations. The bishops did not recommend elevating those women to the position of deacon, though they noted that discussions on the subject had been “very present.”
Church analysts said that debate touched on critical theological issues, given that a deacon is a clerical position and is a requisite step toward ordination in the priesthood.
Francis has talked a lot about elevating women. He said on Wednesday that they should have more formal roles in churches but again resisted moving them up in the hierarchy.
“Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to holy orders,” he wrote, referring to ordination. He added, “We must keep encouraging those simple and straightforward gifts that enabled women in the Amazon region to play so active a role in society.”
Last month, Pope Emeritus Benedict contributed to a book defending priestly celibacy. Many saw the timing of the publication as an attempt by Benedict, or his coterie, to influence Francis from moving toward the lifting of celibacy.
But church officials said Francis had already delivered his letter by then, and that the delay was because of the time required for translation.