The Amazon Synod and the Future of Ministry

As the Synod on the Amazon came to an end, two big developments have dominated much of the news coverage (admittedly at the expense of other pressing matters both ecological and liturgical). The first has been passed out of the synod in their official write-up: the ordination of married men to the priesthood. The second was discussed but did not come to pass: it was expected the synod might recommend the ordination of women to the diaconate. (An important addendum: reports have circulated that an expanded version of the commission tasked with considering women’s ordination will re-convene following the synod.)

Much remains to be seen: what of the synod’s recommendations will receive Francis’ approval? How far-reaching will these decisions be? If they extend beyond the Amazon, will bishops permit them locally? Any one of these factors could drastically change the “Married Priests” headlines that have been excitedly splashed across various news sites. Though the text passed out of the synod calls only for married priests in remote areas of the Amazon, one can easily that an ever-escalating clergy shortage will quickly raise the issue in other locales. (While Catholics in the Amazon may go for months without access to the Sacraments, the reality of rural circuit riders even in the industrialized world may force the issue globally.)

For my part, I am not surprised that women’s ordination did not receive the same support as married priests. I have said over the past few years that I believe we’ll see married male priests before we see female deacons. I realize now that it may be a matter of decades earlier — and I have to wonder if we’ll see a married Catholic bishop in the Latin rite before we see female deacons. Truth be told, I was surprised to learn that women in the diaconate were being seriously considered at the same time as the possibility of married male priests. (I pray that the Spirit may surprise me yet.)

I write this as a married presbyter in a tradition full of talented women serving as deacons, pastors, and bishops. I also write this as one hoping to commune with my Catholic kindred; I see married priests and female deacons as a big step toward resolving some of our major disagreements around the nature of ordained ministry. Which is to say, I am not a neutral observer.

With those cards on the table, I have a word of caution about the possible outcomes:

If one or both of these recommendations become a reality, I hope that they are not limited to the Amazon or areas of urgent need. To do so would send the message that married male priests or female deacons are nothing more than a desperate last resort — as if to say God can use these people, but only in dire circumstances. They would become, in the eyes of many Church members, second- or third-tier clergy. By extension, their parishes would be perceived as second- or third-tier parishes. (I have similar concerns with the UMC and ELCA’s practice of appointing lay preachers to small congregations, as if their sacramental authority is valid — but only because we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel and these congregations aren’t worthy of a “real” presbyter.)

As it stands now, married priests are a curiosity in odd rites. Let us not make them into signs of church decline and desperation but rather  as the fruit of the Spirit at work in the Church calling all members of the Body into ministry.

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