70ºF

Pope's Amazon document due Wednesday amid married priest row

Pope Francis caresses a baby during his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis caresses a baby during his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis will release his eagerly-awaited document on the Amazon next Wednesday, with attention focused on whether he will approve calls by the region's bishops to ordain married men to address a priest shortage there.

Speculation about Francis' decision has intensified in recent weeks after retired Pope Benedict XVI co-authored a book insisting on the “foundational” need for a celibate priesthood. The book, excerpts of which were published Jan. 12, appeared to be a direct attempt by the retired pope and his conservative allies to influence the thinking of the current one.

Vatican officials sought to defuse that idea Friday, saying Francis had turned over his document to the Holy See for translation on Dec. 27, before “From the Depths of Our Heart” came out. They said Francis' text did not undergo any changes since then.

The document "Dear Amazon," will contain Francis' own reflections about a three-week long meeting of Amazonian bishops he presided over last fall.

In their final statement at the end of the meeting, the Amazon bishops called for the establishment of criteria to ordain married men as priests to address the clergy shortage in the vast region, where the faithful can go months without a Mass.

While the Catholic Church allows for married priests in its Eastern rites and makes exceptions for Anglican and Protestant priest converts, the Latin rite church has required celibacy among its priests for a millennium.

Francis has long said he appreciates the discipline and the gift of celibacy, and didn't feel he could make such a sweeping change. But he has also expressed sympathy for the plight of the Amazonian faithful, and said theologians had debated pastoral reasons to consider an exception, which is possible given the celibate priesthood is a tradition of the Roman church, not a matter of doctrine.

Another issue that will be watched in Francis' document is how he will respond to the call from the bishops for the Vatican to reopen a debate on ordaining women as deacons.

The Vatican announced the document would be released Wednesday, with a press conference featuring some of the key players in the synod.

Francis called the Amazon synod in 2017 to focus attention on saving the rain forest and better ministering to its indigenous people.