Time for married priests and women deacons in the R.C. Church?

It is time to ask, formally, for married priests and woman deacons

This article appears in the Synod for the Amazon feature series. View the full series.

Pope Francis arrives for the final session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican in Oct. 26, 2019. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis arrives for the final session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican in Oct. 26, 2019. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation is only the beginning of the story. As church conservatives and progressives take to the internet and supposed neutral writers enter their own spins, everyone is forgetting about the forest and the trees. It is about the Amazon Basin, not about married priests or women deacons.

Except it is.

There are several layers to this fine document, which teaches everything is interrelated. God is present in the Amazon, in the creation and in creatures. Angry forces seek to destroy both. Rooted in power and greed, their tentacles strangle the peoples and the land. The devil, indeed, is in the details: slavery, drugs, human trafficking, clear-cutting, water hoarding.

Rape of the Earth echoes in the lives of the peoples.

From our sister publication: A Place to Call Home, a new series focusing on women religious helping people who are homeless. \

The stories are not new. Francis recalls the indigenous peoples of Venezuela, abused by rubber trade bosses nearly 50 years ago: “The ye’kuana women were raped and their breasts amputated, pregnant women had their children torn from the womb, men had their fingers or hands cut off …”

Is this happening today? Do we really know what is going on in the Amazon? The people and their bishops came to Rome and spoke (or tried to speak) of what they wanted, what they needed. Francis said he heard them, and he has written his response.

What can save the Amazon? What can salve its suffering? What can bring it health and life? For Francis, it is the Gospel and it is the Eucharist.

But how, you ask. How bring the Gospel and the Eucharist to peoples bereft of priests?

Francis suggests more deacons and lay ecclesial ministers recognized by their bishops to run parishes, as well as more priests from the Amazon and elsewhere.

At this, the right and left initiate their independent field days. “No married priests! No women deacons!” the right proclaims triumphantly. The left says pretty much the same, but in desultory, even angry, tones.

Hello? This is an apostolic exhortation, not a motu proprio, and it is certainly not an apostolic constitution nor is it an encyclical. What’s the difference? Apostolic exhortations neither clarify doctrine nor make law. That occurs, at various levels, with an apostolic constitution, a papal encyclical or a motu proprio.

The post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia is Francis’ response as bishop of Rome to the final document of the Amazon synod. He presents both the exhortation and the final document from his diocesan cathedral, St. John Lateran, not from St. Peter’s Basilica.

If the pope is going to do anything about married priests and women deacons, he will — actually, he must — use another type of document.

The American poet e.e. cummings once wrote: “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” It is time to ask the questions. In fact, a bishop or a bishops’ conference must ask to restore the traditions of married priests and woman deacons.

For example, if the bishops of the Amazon, together or individually, formally request married priests, they must write and ask permission for a derogation from the law. Similarly, if they wish to recognize the diaconal ministry of women through ordination, they must ask formally. Does the final document already ask for these? It seems to, but it is not the formal request of a bishop or bishops’ conference.

The final document says quite plainly that a large number of the language groups requested the permanent diaconate for women. The majority request for married priests seems restricted to ordaining married deacons who have served for some time. Married priests and women deacons are historically documented, doctrinally possible and pastorally necessary. They were recommended by the synod.

But the apostolic exhortation is not the answer. Nor can it be. The formal response to the disciplinary questions about ordaining married men as priests or women as deacons can come only as the response to a formal request. The answer would most likely come in a motu proprio modifying canon law.

Querida Amazonia is the pope’s heartfelt commentary on the situation as it is. It is up to the people of God to continue to ask for what they need, and up to the bishops to act on their behalf.


Obviously, a formidable female Professor in Theology, Dr. Phyllis Zagano is decidedly  uncomfortable with the document issued by Pope Francis in the wake of the Amazon Synod, which had requested permission to ordain married priests and female deacons.

The actual document, Querida Amazonia , as might be expected from the Pope, had much more to say about the economic injustices being suffered by the majority inhabitants of the Amazon Basin than about the needs of the people for a more integrated male-female balance in the ministry of the Church in the Amazon region. Nor was there any concrete suggestion of a substantive follow-up of studies being made of the diaconate for women in the Church.

Dr. Zagano, being a woman and a theologian, is naturally concerned that one of the most important subjects brought forth by the Amazonian Synod of Bishops – that of the possible ordination of married clergy and the ordination of women deacons, to help to make up for the lack of celibate men offering for clergy training – seemed to have been ignored by the ‘Querida’ in favour of highlighting the more important (?) need of reform in the agricultural and economic structures of local government in the region. 

However, in the light of the Gospel initiatives that Pope Francis has outlined in his ‘Querida’, the principle of dealing with institutional poverty and injustice in the Amazon Basin,  probably had to be given priority, over what, after all, is a domestic matter of how the Church organizes its ministerial staff – in ways that would probably upset those traditional conservatives in the Church who believe in a traditional, celibate, male, ordained priesthood and diaconate.

On balance, to suddenly opt for a married priesthood and a female diaconate, would render the Pope, the Head of the Roman Catholic Church, an open target for institutional rancour – above and beyond that which he has already invited from conservatives at the Vatican by his advocacy of Mercy in the Church, rather than Judgement!

Make no mistake, Pope Francis has great empathy for women, and for the real needs of the Church in its most deprived and under-resourced areas of the world, but, with the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and guidance, he is careful not to put ammunition into the hands of his enemies in the Church whose objective is to retain, at all cost, the status quo in government and privilege in the Institution.

Maybe the issue of ordaining married priests and women deacons will need a little more time before Francis feels he can change the traditional inhibition against such needful humanitarian innovations – even though the shortage of celibate men prepared to become clergy in the Roman Catholic Church is becoming serious. The question now is, will the protestations of women in the Church be sufficient to bring about the changes they see as imperative if the Church is to survive the current shortage of clergy?

Meanwhile, we in the Anglican Church – together with those clergy of the Oriental Catholic Churches of the East whose clergy may marry – look on with sadness, that the opportunity for openness towards married clergy and women deacons that had been presented with the ‘Synod of the Amazon’, has presumably come and gone without any positive hope for implementation in the near future. However, one must not despair; “For God, all things are possible”, and I believe Pope Francis is doing the best he can to move things forward in his branch of the Church Catholic.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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