A German bishop of the Amazon region has insisted the debate on the possible introduction in the Church of married male priests and female deacons is not over.

– Bishop of Humaitá: Neither idea off the table

Franz Josef Meinrad Merkel, a 75-year-old Holy Ghost Father who has been Bishop of Humaitá in Brazil since 2000, participated in last October’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon in the Vatican.

Speaking in an interview to German Spiritan magazine kontinente, Merkel said that two of the most controversial proposals at the Synod – those of ordaining to the priesthood “proven” married men, or viri probati, and of ordaining women to the diaconate – were not off the table, despite the Pope’s apparent closing-off to the ideas in his February post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia.

Although Francis in his text didn’t express his immediate approval for either proposal, it was not his intent to shut down discussions on the issues, Merkel explained.

The bishops who participated in the Synod voted 128-41 in favour of calling for the ordination of married men, and 137-30 in favour of female deacons.

– A wish for greater freedom and “creativity” for the local Churches

Merkel told kontinente that he was among the bishops who had voted for the priestly ordination of viri probati and for the diaconal ordination of women.

The six other bishops of his regional episcopal conference also voted for the ordination of married men, Merkel said, adding that “it is still my wish” to be able to induct into the priesthood those permanent deacons of his who feel the calling.

Responding to Querida Amazonia, the German-Brazilian bishop admitted he would have wished for more freedom for local Churches to solve their shortages of priests “creatively”.

“With that in mind, we expected to be able to do various things ourselves, including selecting married men who could be ordained priests”, the Amazon prelate acknowledged.

Merkel said the ordination of married men in his diocese is necessary so as to guarantee Sunday Masses for the faithful in a diocese of just 14 priests and 14 permanent deacons for 135,000 square kilometres and some 140,000 inhabitants.

“But the daring step of making that decision is missing”, the bishop lamented.

On the issue of women deacons, although Merkel regretted the “aggressive mood” and certain “polemical statements” on the question that in his opinion are “not conducive to the Church’s progress”, he said women should not be discouraged since the last word on the matter has “certainly” not yet been spoken.

Above all, Merkel said he was taking Querida Amazonia as an encouragement to continue working on solutions in the local Church, and that “even if the result does not meet our expectations, we will continue to do so [keep working]”.

The Humaitá diocese is already working on ways to deepen women’s leadership in communities, the bishop said, promising “we will try to use and expand the scope even more”.

– Papal confidants: Pope “has not closed or opened doors”

Though the sense of Querida Amazonia led many in the Church to believe that the Pope was not opening the door in the document to married priests and female deacons, at the presentation of the apostolic exhortation Vatican cardinal Michael Czerny insisted the pontiff “has not resolved” either question.

Pope Francis instead had left both questions “to be debated, discussed, discerned, prayed over, and when mature presented to the appropriate authority for decisions”, Czerny explained.

That reading of Querida Amazonia of Cardinal Czerny’s was strengthened by close papal confidant Víctor Manuel Fernández, the Archbishop of La Plata in Argentina, who days after the papal document was published wrote in official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that on the ordination of viri probati and women, the Pope “has not closed or opened doors, he has only avoided proceeding with hasty solutions”.

More stories on Novena on the Amazon Synod:

Amazon exhortation: Bishops, theologians, observers continue to insist Pope “hasn’t shut door” to optional celibacy

Amazon Synod exhortation: Vatican cardinal insists Pope “has not resolved” questions of married priesthood, women’s diaconate


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.