If you are a church news aficionado, you definitely have heard about the synod on the Pan-Amazon region in early 2018.
A little background of the issue on the Amazon
It’s a vast territory with an estimated population of 33.6 million inhabitants, of whom between 2 and 2.5 million are indigenous. The area of the Amazon River extends over 9 countries in South America.
It’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Each community has its own worldview, symbols and meanings, and vision of the future. They know how to adapt to the territory. However, today the scientific community warns of the risks of deforestation of that region. This endangers the survival of the entire ecosystem, biodiversity and the cycle of water vital for the survival of the tropical forest; 17% of the region is deforested already. In addition, the Amazon is an invaluable and fundamental life support systems for air, water, soils, forests and biomass for the whole of the Americas. As of late, it’s becoming a place of pollution-related diseases, drug trafficking, illegal armed groups, alcoholism, violence against women, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and smuggling, organ traffic, sex tourism, the loss of original culture and identity. Many feel we can no longer ignore this is due to a lack of education of the inhabitants. A sustained presence of the Church there can transform that.
Where does Church come in?
How best to evangelize the people of that region? That’s what the Synod was about. To achieve this, some have suggested that the Roman Catholic Church allow the ordination of married men of that region and just for that region.
It was open debate at the Vatican. Faithful Catholics nervously waited what pope Francis would decide; others jumped on the opportunity to promote their agendas. The media buzzed and feasted on the question.
Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote a short book entitled From the Depths of our Hearts on priestly celibacy since they could not fathom such a change. It’s just not theological or doctrinally feasible, and not just because it’s a slippery slope.
Cardinal Sarah maintained that ordaining married men to the priesthood would be a pastoral catastrophe, lead to ecclesiological confusion, and obscure our understanding of the priesthood because:
a) A consistent priestly life ontologically requires celibacy. The priest is not a man who performs a sacrificial function, but a man who offered himself as a sacrifice through love. The priest removes himself from worldly bonds to unite himself completely to God so that he can become available for others. Since the priest offered the sacrifice of the Mass, matrimonial bond is impossible since he cannot have two spouses. Sarah points out that the priesthood cannot be understood apart from celibacy. This is not a matter of discipline only; it’s not just a way to make oneself available. It is a mean by which the priest configures himself to Christ. Priesthood involves a total gift of self to the Church as Christ to the Father. It would be unjust to require that of a married man. A married priest would make him a lesser Christ. It is part of the very identity of the priest that he resembles the Bridegroom in whose person he acts in all aspects. Christ emptied himself to the point of death; similarly, celibacy is a self-emptying for God and others. how can a married priests give himself totally when he has to worry about the well-being of his wife and children? How can he put himself in precarious and dangerous situation when he has to secure a good future for his children? The people of the amazon region have the right to a full experience of Christ the Bridegroom. We cannot offer them second-class priests.
b) It is argued that due to the shortage of priest in the Amazon region, the people are being deprived of the most precious gift Christ left his people—His Body and Blood. Cardinal Sarah addressed that when he clarified for all that the priesthood is neither a right nor an obligation. The Eucharist is an unmerited gift, not an obligation. Such obsessions are the product of ideologies developed by sorcerer’s apprentices exploiting the distress of the voiceless. In strong language, Sarah maintained that we cannot tamper with the doctrine of the priesthood and celibacy in order to tailor-make a response to the felt or alleged needs of some extreme pastoral situations. Celibacy is a driving force that makes evangelization and missionary credible. Ordaining married men to the priesthood would discredit their missionary motives. A man does not become a priest because it is necessary to fill a need of the community. Priesthood is a state of life, not a function to be fulfilled. Marriage is a different state of life. To ordain a married men to the priesthood would amount to diminishing the dignity of marriage and reducing the priesthood to a job.
A Historical Interlude
What do we say of the fact the Church for the first few hundred years of her existence many married men were ordained to the priesthood? Cardinal Sarah maintained that although that was true, these men promised on the day of their ordination to abstain from sexual relations with their wives indefinitely. In fact, at the council of Elvira, the church excluded many bishops, priests, and deacons from the priesthood because they broke that promise. And no one protested at that time against that decision.
Okay, your Eminence, why can in the Roman Catholic Church not handle the situation like the Eastern Orthodox church? They allow married priests. To that, with astute dexterity, the cardinal says that would be solving an issue with another issue. In fact, allowing married men to the priesthood in the east was due to a mistranscription of canons from the council of Trullo in 691. It was never supposed to happen that way. Also, there’s so much tension between the two states in the Eastern Church. Many easterners refuse to go to confession to a married priest. Many of them have experienced divorces. Their churches are empty. They don’t have more vocation than the Roman Church. In many cases, the priests cannot even support their families. They are in crisis. Yes, most of eastern churches are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church; that is so to foster a gradual development toward the practice of celibacy. When married men from other denominations are ordained, they are rather exception to the general norm of what priesthood means.
Stop Beating around the Bush!
What can be done to bring the gospel to the people of the Amazon region? there’s nothing more contagious than priestly fervor and faithfulness. One such priest can give rise to more vocation than 100 indifferent, cold, empty, unfaithful priests. Though there may a dearth of vocation, find such priests and send them there. The real solution is to raise an army of the baptized in and/or for that region to hand on the faith to the people.
Not convinced? In the history of the Church, we have many such examples. In Korea, one the missionary priests were martyred, laypeople kept the faith alive for over one hundred years. In Uganda, through the work of laypeople, the faith grew and multiplied. In japan, though the missionaries were expelled and martyred, the Christian community lived for two centuries without a priestly presence. The point is this: we don’t need to clericalize the lay faithful. We need to disciple them as Jesus disciple the 12 and send them forward. Their very baptism and confirmation are an untapped potentials have not been exploited nearly enough, and we are underestimating them. Satis!
Cardinal Sarah argued that he cannot, in good conscience, support the idea of married priests in the Church not simply because it is impractical, but more importantly because there is an ontological-sacramental connection between priesthood and celibacy. The latter is the instrument of our entrance into the priestly being of Christ. It is a witness to a world beyond this one.
 Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah, From the Depths of our Hearts: Priesthood, celibacy, and the Crisis in the Catholic Church, trans. Michael Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020)
 ibid 66
 ibid 67
 ibid 69
 ibid 72
 Ibid 77
 Ibid 80
 Ibd 81
 Ibid 120
 ibid 96-7