German Catholics are pledging to fight on for married priests and female deacons despite the letdown of the Pope overlooking both issues in his Amazon exhortation.
Leading the charge for the continued relevance of the German “synodal path” reform process even after the publication Wednesday of the Amazon exhortation was outgoing German Bishops’ President Cardinal Reinhard Marx.
In his response to the Amazon exhortation, Marx recalled that the Pope writes that “priests are necessary, but this does not mean that permanent deacons (of whom there should be many more in the Amazon region), religious women and lay persons cannot regularly assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities” (QA, 92).
The cardinal also echoed the Pope on the conviction of this last that the Church “requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority” (94), pointing both to footnote 136 of Querida Amazonía, where Francis says that “it is possible that, due to a lack of priests, a bishop can entrust ‘participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish… to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons'”, as per the already exisiting provisions in the Code of Canon Law.
“Forms of service proper to women” that facilitate “the direction of communities”
Marx also recalled that the Pope, in the Amazon exhortation, also encourages “the emergence of… forms of service and charisms that are proper to women” (102) which although Francis warns must not lead to the “clericalization” of women (100), can nonetheless involve “stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop” and “allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood” (103).
The cardinal conceded that “anyone who expected concrete decisions and instructions for action [on married priests and female deacons] with the post-synodal letter from Pope Francis will not find them”, he insisted that a non-celibate priesthood and a women diaconate – two key focuses of the German synodal path – are “by no means off the table”.
“As is well known, the two-thirds majority of the 280 [synodal fathers] in the final synodal document also advocated for exceptions to compulsory celibacy and stimulated further reflection on the admission of women to the diaconate”, the cardinal said.
“Against the background of the reform proposals discussed in Germany, these issues were particularly well received by the Church and public, but they were not the main topics of the synod”.
“This discussion will continue”, Marx promised.
Lay leader Sternberg: “Pope sees necessity to give our Church a contemporary shape”
Although Thomas Sternberg, president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), accused the Pope of not finding in his Amazon exhortation “the courage to implement real reforms regarding the issues of the ordination of married men and the liturgical competences of women, which have been discussed for 50 years”, Sternberg nonetheless found in the new papal document encouragement for the synodal path.
The Pope “expressly reaffirms again and again his conviction that the Church must become a synodal Church, in which the participation of the laity in the shaping of the Church and the proclamation of the Good News has a central role”, Sternberg said.
“With this message he encourages us, in our church in Germany, to consistently continue the Synodal Path, which we began very successfully in Frankfurt”, the lay leader continued, convinced that Francis sees and supports “the necessity to give our Church a contemporary shape, oriented to the different cultural challenges, in order to be able to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people”.
“We are convinced that the Eucharist, as source and summit, must remain possible locally, as Pope Francis reiterates in this letter. The question of the conditions for admission to the ordained ministry must take second place to this”, Sternberg said, reaffirming the position of Cardinal Marx.
Bishop Overbeck: “New culture of conversation and new beginnings” in the Church
Though he lamented the Pope’s closing-off for now in the Amazon exhortation to married priests and female deacons, Bishop of Essen and President of German Church aid agency Adveniat, Franz-Josef Overbeck, was nonetheless encouraged by the ongoing debate around the issues.
“I would have wished for the parishes in Amazonia that Pope Francis had followed the decisions of the Amazon Synod and – as a regional solution – had given access to priestly ordination to proven married men (the so-called viri probati) from the Amazon region by way of a dispensation”, Overbeck said in a statement.
“Our relief organization for Latin America, Adveniat, has for decades been promoting the training of lay people and religious for pastoral tasks, including the leadership of congregations”, Overbeck continued.
In his Amazon exhortation, the Pope explicitly calls for further discussion about the pastoral situation in the Amazon region, “and this discussion is necessary”, the Bishop of Essen affirmed.
“However, it also shows that the Church is already taking big steps regarding her culture of debate. When I took up my ministry as bishop for Adveniat ten years ago, I could not have imagined such a lively and comprehensive debate covering all areas of the Church”.
“The synodal path that the Church began in Germany was another encouraging sign of this new culture of conversation and new beginnings”, Overbeck added, thus reaffirming his confidence in the local Church reform process.
Bishop Fürst: “Space for new discussions, diaconate of women a desirable possibility”
Through a diocesan press release, Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg-Stuttgart said that “the papal exhortation opens up space for new discussions, even if the document lacks the highly debated topic of viri probati, the ordination of married men as priests”.
“Bishop Fürst continues to see the diaconate of women as a desirable possibility, for which he will continue to work in the future”, the diocesan statement continued.
“In the local church of Rottenburg-Stuttgart we strongly promote equal rights for men and women. We value the services of women very highly and want to further promote the filling of leadership positions also with lay people”, added the Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocesan communiqué.
Bishop Fürst also communicated in the diocesan statement his intention to join the ‘Pact of the Catacumbs’ signed by prominent bishops during the Amazon Synod, and which encourages the Church expressly “to recognize the services and real diakonia of a great number of women who today direct communities in the Amazon and seek to consolitdate them with an adequate ministry of women leaders of the community”. among other things.
Aid orgs and theologians: “Debate about viri probati anything but closed”
The directors of the German Church’s aid agencies Misereor and Adveniat, Pirmin Spiegel and Michael Heinz, respectively, both also insisted that the Amazon exhortation maintains open “the possibility of introducing married priests and to continue thinking about the diaconate of women”, for which reason the Church should implement “criteria and implementation regulations now” for the ordination of married men.
“Let’s be brave; let’s not cut the wings of the Holy Spirit”, urged Heinz.
At least one theologian, too, was yesterday still backing the possibility of married priests and female deacons being re-introduced first in the context of the German synodal path.
That was on the basis of the Pope’s stated intention in the exhortation that he does not wish to go “into all of the issues treated at length in the final document. Nor do I claim to replace that text or to duplicate it”, and Francis’ stated preference “to merely propose a brief framework for reflection” and “to officially present the Final Document”, perhaps as part of his Magisterium.
For those reasons, Professor of Church history in Münster, Father Hubert Wolf, said the ordination of married men is now in the hands of individual bishops, who could now ask the Pope for permission to ordain viri probati.
“The debate about ‘viri probati’ is anything but closed, even in Germany”, Wolf said.
No heed to the cardinal sceptics
In other words, German cardinals, bishops, laypeople and theologians are paying no heed to synod-sceptic Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s instruction that the promotors of the German synodal path should “ask forgiveness of the Universal Church” and of the Pope in the light of the fact that Francis, with his exhortation, has apparently shut down key goals of that synodal path.
They are also paying absolutely no mind to Pope Francis critic Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who has warned the synodal path risks turning the Church into a model of the “Protestant regional Churches” or even into “a non-governmental organization of socio-pedagogical design”.