Yesterday I was able to read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, but didn’t get a chance to comment on it because of a busy schedule. Edward Pentin has a good summary of the document here. As for comment, Robert Royal has saved me the trouble by saying pretty much what I was going to say about the document here at The Catholic Thing. Jimmy Akin offers his usual objective analysis and answers questions about the document and the background issues here.

I encourage you to take the time to read these comments and background to understand what is going on. Please don’t rely on sensationalist headlines for your information and to form your opinion!

Even better, read the whole document which you will find here. It’s much shorter than Pope Francis’ other writings and he makes a passionate and pleasant case for the church to minister effectively in that part of the world.

As would be expected, the world’s attention was focussed on two or three controversial issues that arose from last Autumn’s Amazonian Synod: the possibility of women deacons, married priests and an Amazonian Rite for the Mass.

All three of these have been put on the back burner by Pope Francis. Some critics have remarked on the Pope’s continued ambiguity of language. I’m afraid this will continue. Francis is not a dogmatic theologian and seems to have drifted into the post war opinion (explained brilliantly in George Weigel’s latest book The Irony of Modern Catholic History)  that dogma is divisive and practicality and pastoral practice should prevail. This explains Pope Francis’ fuzziness which so many find frustrating.

Consequently, those who would breathe a sigh of relief that he has not mandated the ordination of women deacons and opened the door to married priests, end up still holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed. Because of his ambiguity they mutter, “Yes, but what is he really planning? OK, good. But he hasn’t spoken definitively! He’s left the door open. Indeed, he said the working document from the Synod is the real thing and his exhortation is just a short reflection on the matter!”

Well, the fact of the matter is, Catholicism for all its certainties also allows for development and the authorities state clearly that there are certain things that remain open ended and are, as yet, unresolved. The question of priestly celibacy–or at least the ordination of married men IS an open question. The fact that exceptions have been made for people like me proves the point that this could still be an opening in the future and that the whole church may continue to debate and discuss the matter.

It is less likely, I think, that women’s ordination to the diaconate will be open for much discussion, but that too is not a question that has been given a definitive answer. Jimmy Akin explains,

The Church’s Magisterium has infallibly taught that only men can be ordained to the priesthood. However, in 2002 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger approved a document by the International Theological Commission that stated the Church has yet to “pronounce authoritatively” on the question of whether women could be ordained to the diaconate.

Consequently, in 2016 Pope Francis convened a commission to discuss this issue, though it reached inconclusive results.

The subject was further discussed at the Synod, whose final document stated:

In the many consultations carried out in the Amazon, the fundamental role of religious and lay women in the Church of the Amazon and its communities was recognized and emphasized, given the wealth of services they provide. In a large number of these consultations, the permanent diaconate for women was requested. This made it an important theme during the Synod. The Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women which Pope Francis created in 2016 has already arrived as a Commission at partial findings regarding the reality of the diaconate of women in the early centuries of the Church and its implications for today. We would therefore like to share our experiences and reflections with the Commission and we await its results (n. 103).

Following the Synod, Pope Francis said that he would reconvene the commission and allow further discussion of the topic. Given this statement, it is likely that this will happen.

For those who like their Catholicism neat and tidy and totally sewn up with certainties this remains uncomfortable, but that’s life in the Catholic Church–everything not tied up, proven and defined. We may be convinced of our opinion and marshal our arguments and that’s part of the process, but until a matter is defined we live with the possibilities and rely on the Holy Spirit to continue to guide the church.

My own opinion about these two issues is to observe that the events of the Amazonian synod are not disconnected in Francis’ mind with the turmoil in the German church. He has seen how close to the precipice of schism the German church is (and by extension those liberals in the Western countries sympathetic to the liberal causes espoused by the German bishops) and I think he has seen how those bishops would pick up the possibilities of married priests and women deacons and run with the ball to push further for the whole progressive agenda. Seeing where this might lead, I sense that the Holy Father therefore decided to put on the brakes.

If this is the case, I wonder whether we are beginning to see a shift in the Pope’s attitude to progressive ideas and foment. We will see whether this action of reining in the progressives continues. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him also begin, therefore to drop some of the ambiguity and speak more clearly in the definition and defense of the historic Catholic faith.

There was one other positive aspect to the pope’s exhortation which was actually the best part. The final document from the Amazonian Synod was, in my opinion, a mess. It read like something written by a committee from the United Nations Action Group for Environmental Justice. There was scarcely a mention of the Christian faith, much less anything distinctively Catholic. There was little call for true evangelization, the cross and resurrection of the Lord and the need to share the saving good news of the Christian faith. Francis corrected this lack quite strongly in the final section of his exhortation.

An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them. How sad it would be if they were to receive from us a body of teachings or a moral code, but not the great message of salvation, the missionary appeal that speaks to the heart and gives meaning to everything else in life. Nor can we be content with a social message. If we devote our lives to their service, to working for the justice and dignity that they deserve, we cannot conceal the fact that we do so because we see Christ in them and because we acknowledge the immense dignity that they have received from God, the Father who loves them with boundless love.

64. They have a right to hear the Gospel, and above all that first proclamation, the kerygma, which is “the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another”.[81] It proclaims a God who infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives. I would ask that you re-read the brief summary of this “great message” found in Chapter Four of the Exhortation Christus Vivit. That message, expressed in a variety of ways, must constantly resound in the Amazon region. Without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO and we would not follow the command given us by Christ: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).

This is an excellent and vital correction to the semi pagan and multi faith weirdness that too often appeared last fall at the synod. Thanks be to God.

PS: If you think my analysis is optimistic and positive toward Pope Francis check out Michael Warren Davis’ article at Crisis Magazine here.