A Vatican cardinal has insisted the Pope “has not resolved” the questions of a married priesthood and a women’s diaconate despite bypassing both issues in his Amazon Synod exhortation, presented today.

Driving the news

The questions around married priests and women deacons “will continue to be debated, discussed, discerned, prayed over, and when mature presented to the appropriate authority for decisions”, Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ, Special Secretary of the Amazon Synod by designation of Pope Francis, said today in a press conference in the Vatican to present the Pope’s Amazon Synod exhortation, Querida Amazonía (“Beloved Amazon”).

Czerny said that “if there are questions you feel are open or that the Church feels are open thanks to the exhortation… [there are decisions that] can be made in a diocese, in a conference, and decisions that are made here [at the Vatican]”.

On the women deacons question in particular, Czerny explained the issue is still “being studied”, in an apparent reference to the commission Pope Francis formed in 2016 to study the ancient female diaconate, and which he promised to reactivate after the Synod last October.

Czerny’s thoughts on both matters – married priests and women deacons – seemed to overlap somewhat with those of the Vatican editorial director, Andrea Tornielli.

Tornielli wrote in a piece published on the official Vatican News website that although the Pope “has decided to respond [to the Synod vote for married priests] not by foreseeing changes or further possibilities of exceptions” to compulsory clerical celibacy, that doesn’t rule out that the question “may continue to be discussed in the future”.

The intrigue

Czerny and Tornielli’s comments are the opening salvo in what is likely to be an intense battle to nail down the precise “meaning” – at least on married priests and women deacons – of the Pope’s Amazon Synod exhortation, which has been immediately received today, in that sense, in what would appear to be contradictory directions.

The ambiguity – perhaps carefully calculated – stems from the Pope’s own indications, both in the Amazon Synod exhortation itself and in earlier teaching.

In the exhortation, Francis writes that he does not “claim to replace… or to duplicate” the Final Document of the Amazon Synod.

That document voted overwhelmingly both “to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community with a legitimately constituted and stable family, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation” for the priesthood (111), and to ensure that “women who have been properly trained and prepared can receive the ministries of Lector and Acolyte, among others [new official Church ministries] to be developed”, including that of “an instituted ministry of ‘women community leadership'” (102).

In Querida Amazonía, Francis also says he “would like to officially present the final document”, and to “encourage everyone to read it in full”.

The question therefore is whether that official presentation of the final document the Pope claims to be doing in his exhortation is equivalent to the document – and its calls for married priests and women deacons – being “expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff” and thereby coming to form part of the Magisterium, the official body of Church teachings, as per the Pope’s own indications in the 2018 apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio.

Why it matters

Czerny, Vatican secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, and Holy See spokesman Matteo Bruni all insisted today, in Bruni’s words, that “the apostolic exhortation is magisterium, the final document is not”.

But German Bishops’ President Cardinal Reinhard Marx today was reading the Amazon Synod exhortation, and the final document, in the opposite direction.

Speaking today at the presentation of the exhortation in Bonn, Germany, Marx said that the Synod final document, and its calls for married priests and women deacons, is “by no means is it off the table with the publication of the exhortation!”

“Rather, Pope Francis speaks of his desire ‘to officially present the final document’ together with the Apostolic Letter, and invites us ‘to read it in full'”, Marx recalled.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Pirmin Spiegel of Misereor, the German Church aid agency particularly active in the Amazon, who said in a statement that Pope Francis “does not reject” anything of the Synod final document in his exhortation, and “therefore, [the final document is still valid”.

Agreeing with Marx and Spiegel was Misereor sister organisation Adveniat, which said that Querida Amazonía does not “put a stop to further developments” in the direction of married priests and female deacons.

But, paradoxically, conservative figures in the Church vigorously opposed to the Amazon Synod and the conclusions expressed in its final document – such as Cardinal Gerhard Müller – were hailing Querida Amazonía as a document of Church “reconciliation”, in the sense that, in his new text, “the Pope does not draw from [the Synod] any dramatic and disconcerting conclusions”.

Evidence that the debate over the interpretation, and application, of the measures of the Amazon Synod now just getting underway is likely to be thought- and discussion-provoking, to say the least – just as Pope Francis would have wanted it.

Next on Novena:

Amazon Synod exhortation: Vatican editorial director explains ‘no’ (for now?) to married priests, female deacons

In Amazon Synod exhortation, Pope puts need for greater Church “inculturation” over married priests, female deacons


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