The Vatican released Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia on 12 February, responding to the 2019 Synod on the pastoral challenges in the Amazon region. Over the next few weeks, spotlight.africa will publish several commentaries of the text. The first reaction by Anthony Aduaka SJ welcomes the content of the document, saying that the controversial issues of celibacy and female ordination should not overshadow the Church’s mission to address individualism, exploitation, and other forms of inequality.
Finally the long awaited post-synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis Querida Amazonia on the Amazon and its controversial issue on married priests and female deacons has been released. It is indeed an exhortation from a father to his children given the gentle tone of the document and its understanding character of the Amazon issues.
“May it inspire in some way every person of goodwill” says the Pope. This means that the Pope is aware of the disappointment and anger his teaching will evoke in various part of the Church given the overwhelming votes (128-41) with which the proposal for married priests and an increased female role in the Amazonia Church was made. However, the Pope is calling on missionary men and women to become more proactive in propagating the gospel around the world rather than reducing the whole mission of the Church to celibacy or ordination.
The Pope was bold and prophetic in his assertions and pronouncements in the document. He encourages the Christian faithful to be heralds of good news and to take each society, culture and their values as part of the body of Christ, which must be cared for by all. With outstanding courage, he addresses the cultural individualism, economic exploitation, social inequality and relativism that challenge and ravage our world.
On the controversial issues of married priests and women’s ordination, the Pope affirms that limiting our “understanding of the Church to her functional structure would lead us to clericalize women [to the point of diminishing] the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective”. Many feminist theologians and liberals will disagree with the Pope asserting that the Church has no theological grounds for denying the ordination of women.
However, this pronouncement ends the recent rumour surrounding the Synod on the Amazon alleging that the apostolic exhortation will give way to married priests. It also calls into question the statement by Bishop Erwin Kräutler who said “that indigenous people in the Amazon were unable to understand the evangelical witness of celibacy”.
So, where do we go from here as a Church? What lesson(s) should the African Church learn from this document?
Discerning among the many voices
As St Ignatius of Loyola says in his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits in the Spiritual Exercises: one should not make or change decisions while in consolation or desolation.
This is a perspective that can be read into this exhortation. Given the many challenges that the Church is facing in the modern world, the Pope seems to be slowing down in making the forms of change that many consider a slippery slope.
While reading the document, I personally felt that the Pope was not addressing the issues concerning the Amazonian Church alone, but the universality of the Catholic Church in the face of too many voices. Thus, to limit the reading of the apostolic exhortation to the issue of married priests will constitute a narrow reading and thereby miss the point. The document calls for an openness of heart to see how we have failed as a Church – not only in the Amazon, but also in different parts of the world, and how our complacency as a Church has contributed to the disembodiment of the Church, be it in Europe, America, Africa, Asia or the rest of humanity. The Pope therefore, calls for dialogue and discernment.
As such, it is important always to focus on the authenticity of the Church in responding to the various needs of different cultures and regions while remaining true to the gospel values.
Challenging questions for our times
Will the question of scarcity constitute sufficient grounds for the change in celibacy rules, or are the voices calling for only a temporary change, which can open up the flood gate to other issues? Is the Amazon the only region that suffers from a shortage of priests? What about the different parts of Africa where ministries and sacraments are lacking due to the scarcity of priests? What about the multitude of redundant priests in urban dioceses, or is the zeal for religious missions dead in the priesthood?
Is the Church willing to compromise her age-long tradition in a bid to solve a temporary challenge while neglecting the root cause of the problem? What about polygamy that is culturally accepted in Africa, but is problematic in the eyes of the Church, particularly when it comes to the sacrament of marriage? On these difficult and complex questions, Cardinal Sarah calls the move towards married priesthood, “the fashionable errors that try to put down priestly celibacy”.
Any reasonable individual will agree that these are not easy questions. Nor is their response without complexities. This is a time when the Church needs to be prophetic and at the same time realistic in the handling of these challenges.
It would be sad to view the document as a triumph of the conservatives over the liberals, or from an us-against-them perspective. Rather, the Pope is saying that to make the world a better place is more than just fighting for cheap solutions to our challenges. The question of ecology is much deeper than planting trees; the question of migration is more disturbing than giving shelter to the migrants; and the issue of sexual abuse more complicated than allowing the law to take its course.
What unites us, says the Pope, “is what lets us remain in this world without being swallowed up by its immanence, its spiritual emptiness, its complacent selfishness, its consumerist and self-destructive individualism”. The challenge in the priesthood cannot be solved by allowing married priests, since the issue goes much deeper than celibacy, but directly to a formation crisis as well. This is what gives credibility to the document, since the challenges of the Amazon are not for them to bear alone, but for all Christians and people of goodwill.