VATICAN CITY – The Vatican called Friday for courageous proposals to cope with a shortage of priests in the Amazon, and said it wouldn’t rule out debate on whether married men could step in to fill the “precariously-thin presence” of the Catholic Church in the vast region.
In a preparatory document seeking input from South American bishops for the Vatican’s 2019 meeting on the Amazon, organizers also said the church must identify new “official ministries” for women to play in the region.
The call was not a suggestion that women could be ordained priests, which Catholic doctrine forbids and Pope Francis has reaffirmed.
But it leaves open the door to making official some ministries that women in remote parts of Latin America already perform, including celebrating baptisms.
And it calls for “new ways” to increase access to the Eucharist in a part of the world where the church counts around one priest for every 10,000 Catholics and where remote communities can go weeks or months at a time before a priest arrives to celebrate Mass.
The call for “courageous, daring and fearless” proposals suggests that the Vatican wants the region’s bishops to put forward concrete proposals on whether married men of proven virtue – so-called “viri probati” – could celebrate Mass in places where priests are in short supply.
The “viri probati” proposal has been around for decades, but has drawn fresh attention under history’s first Latin American pope thanks to his familiarity with the challenges facing the Amazon church.
At a press conference Friday, organizers of the Amazon synod said the document and the attached questionnaire will solicit suggestions from regional bishops that will then be incorporated into the document that will guide the October 2019 debate.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri said he didn’t use the term “viri probati” in the document because he wanted to let church leaders in the field make their proposals.
“We don’t want to preclude anything,” he said.
Similarly, he didn’t identify which “official ministries” women could undertake.
Women currently do much of the heavy lifting in the Catholic Church in the Amazon region. Francis has appointed a commission of experts to study the role of women deacons in the early church, presumably with an eye to seeing if an ordained female diaconate could be permissible today.
Deacons, an ordained ministry currently reserved to men, can preach and preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals. But only priests can celebrate Mass.
Unlike women’s ordination, which is forbidden as a matter of church doctrine, the practice of a celibate priesthood in the Latin rite Catholic Church is a discipline that could be changed. Many eastern rite Catholic Churches allow married men to become priests.