Analysis: 'Querida Amazonia' and the German synod

CNA 545c1437df4d1 41003 2 1 Cardinal Reinhard Marx at the Vatican Press Office on Oct. 17, 2014. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA

Whatever Pope Francis wrote in this week's apostolic exhortation on the Amazon, the impact of his text was always expected to reach far beyond the region it addressed.

Querida Amazonia, published Wednesday, offered a serious treatment of the situation facing the Church in parts of South America. It addressed the environment, social and cultural issues, and the importance of evangelization and inculturation among indigenous peoples.

But most of the reaction to the document focused not on what it said, but on what it did not say. Specifically, the pope ignored – perhaps pointedly – the calls made at last year's Synod on the Amazon for the ordination of married men to the priesthood, and for consideration of some kind of female diaconate.

While these ideas were presented in the synod's final document within the narrow context of the Amazon's special circumstances, synodal participants made no efforts to conceal that their intended scope for the recommendations went far beyond Amazonia.

The bishops of Germany, notably, were clear that these proposals – and the pope's expected favorable reception of them – would be a crucial support for the "binding synodal process" unfolding in their own country.

Together with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the bishops opened that process at the beginning of Advent last year. The aim of the participants, by their own admission, is to "reform" the Church in Germany by doing away with clerical celibacy, bringing in the ordination of women, and allowing the Church to recognize and bless same-sex unions.

After a back-and-forth with the Vatican last year, in which first Pope Francis, along with several senior curial officials, rejected the German synod's plans and priorities, anticipation was high that the Amazonian exhortation would provide new cover for the German agenda.

In light of all that, the pope's silence this week on the issue of celibacy, and his words on the importance and dignity of women's ministry outside of the clerical state, were seen, at least by the ZdK, as a defeat for their progressive aims.

"This letter is of course the view of the situation in the Amazon region," the committee said in a statement issued in response to Querida Amazonia, which apparently sought to limit the scope of an intervention they had initially intended to broaden.

The ZdK said that, before the pope issued his exhortation, "expectations regarding concrete steps towards reform, especially with regard to access to the priestly office and the role of women, were very high."

"Unfortunately, he does not find the courage to implement real reforms on the issues of consecration of married men and the liturgical skills of women that have been discussed for 50 years." 

"Rather, [the exhortation] strengthens the existing positions of the Roman Church both in terms of access to the priesthood and the participation of women in ministries and ministries."

Yet, even while Querida Amazonia "strengthens of the existing positions of the Roman Church," there are no signs the exhortation will slow, let alone halt, the German's progressive synodal march.

The ZdK claimed in their statement that "with this message, [Francis] encourages us in our Church in Germany to continue the synodal path that we started very successfully." 

Their inference is difficult to square with the pope's previous characterization of the German process as a "well organized and even 'modernized' ecclesiastical body, but without soul and evangelical novelty."

In his own response to the pope's exhortation, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German bishops' conference, noted that two-thirds of the Amazon synod's participants had voted for exceptions to clerical celibacy and "further reflection" on some kind of women clergy.

"Against the background of the reform proposals discussed in Germany, these issues were particularly well received by the Church and public," Marx called the pope's magisterial document a "framework for reflection," while noting that he had given no "concrete decisions" on the matter.

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"This discussion will continue," Marx concluded.

Following the German reaction to Querida Amazonia, it is not clear what, if anything, could bring their synodal discussions to an end, even if they have been now revealed as considerably out of step with the pope's own plans for the Church. 

Last month, the secretary of the German bishops' conference gave an interview in which he said it is "unacceptable" for Rome continue to have full discretion over universal teaching and discipline.

Fr. Father Hans Langendörfer, SJ, called for other regions of the Catholic Church to follow the German example, and effectively force through a new federal model on the Church.

Roman pushback against the German synodal plans has largely been left to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. It was Ouellet who sent Marx the Vatican's blunt legal assessment of the German synodal plans, which concluded they were "ecclesiologically invalid." It was also Ouellet who Roman opposition to the German-led campaign against clerical celibacy at the Amazon synod last October, publishing a book on the subject just as the sessions began.

Oullet turned 75 in June last year, the legal age of retirement for curial positions, and many in Rome have predicted that Francis will replace him in 2020. The unexpected decision of Cardinal Marx this week to step back from leading the German bishops could signal his hope – or expectation – that Ouellet's job is his for the asking.

If Marx were to move to Rome, he would likely be able to influence more directly the final draft of the forthcoming apostolic constitution to reform the Roman curia, and with it Rome's relationship with national bishops' conferences. That document is already seen by some in Rome as the German bishops' ultimate hope for rebalancing the exercise of authority in the Church, weighting it more firmly in favor of national and regional decision making.

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Whether Marx is destined for a curial promotion or not, for the moment he is right in one thing: his discussion, the German discussion, will continue, regardless of what Pope Francis wants.

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