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Francis’ closest collaborators prove how Pope has reinvented priesthood in Amazon exhortation

They demonstrate how the Pope's new document is about more than a simple yes or no to married priests and female deacons.
Tue Mar 3, 2020 - 3:53 pm EST
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Pope Francis celebrates the opening Mass of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family at St. Peter's Basilica on October 5, 2014. John-Henry Westen / LifeSiteNews.com

March 3, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – In the recent days, several key people who are either closely working with Pope Francis or who are otherwise closely linked to his reform agenda – Cardinal Michael Czerny, Archbishop Víctor Fernández, Austen Ivereigh, and Father Antônio Almeida – have now come out insisting that Pope Francis did not close the door to married priests in the Amazon in his post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia

They go even farther in stating that Pope Francis actually conducted a broader “transformation” than merely admitting married priests: a “new theology of power in the Church,” as  Fernández puts it. This transformation reduces the priesthood to two functions – the administration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and of Penance – and hands the broader aspects of leadership into the hands of the laity.

Archbishop  Fernández, in his February 26 in-depth analysis of the new papal document, points out that actually the progressivists have missed out on key reformative elements of the Pope's writings already in 2016, when he published Amoris Laetitia, his post-synodal exhortation on marriage and the family. “At the time,” Fernández writes, “progressive theologians did not sufficiently take advantage of or accompany the new proposals that appears in chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.” While Francis did “open a door” with regard to “practical proposals” (that is to say, Communion for the “remarried” divorcees), the Argentine prelate adds, that chapter would actually have given occasion for a new “fundamental morality.” However, as the author writes, “few, too few were the articles that accompanied this step and knew how to exploit it.” 

We are here reminded of the four dubia cardinals who, indeed, had noticed that Amoris Laetitia is about much more than just admitting the “remarried” and divorced to Holy Communion. One of their five dubia which they had sent to Pope Francis in 2017 was, for example, about the very nature of moral acts. They asked whether the Church's teaching “on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions” is still valid since Amoris Laetitia seemed to undermine this concept.

Others, too have pointed out the very problematic statement of this document which says that “no one can be condemned forever” (AL 297), something that goes against the Church's perennial teaching on the existence of hell.

‘Path that is opening up’

In any event, it is significant that Archbishop  Fernández, with his new essay, gives his progressivist collaborators a sort of “interpretive key” with regard to several papal documents. He is known as a ghostwriter of Amoris Laetitia and as a personal theologian of Pope Francis. 

Fernández now says that, just as the progressivists missed out on some key novelties in Amoris Laetitia, so did they overlook the novelties in Querida Amazonia. States the prelate: “In the case of Querida Amazonia, the same weakness seems to be repeated. If there is a path that is opening up, the most fruitful and generous option is to take advantage of that possibility, (…) with courageous creativity.”

“Once again,” Archbishop Fernández says, “it is striking that Francis' proposal to fly higher, to think of much deeper and more significant transformations than ordaining some married men has not been noticed.”

The papal ghostwriter also then gives the progressive theologians the key elements of this transformation as proposed by the Pope.

The target of this transformation is the priesthood. For Fernández, a “conservative clericalism” needs to be overcome which “reduces Christian life to worship,” from which stem a “laity without any impact on society and completely concentrated on the worship that the priest presides over.”

That is to say, the problem is the priesthood as instituted by Christ, the priest who acts in the person of Christ at Mass, thereby calling down the graces we all need in our daily lives to be good Catholics. 

“According to the Pope's mind,” the prelate explains, “it will be difficult to have lay people with freedom of action and power if the priestly figure is overloaded with thousands of functions that make him indispensable for everything.”

Thus, the idea is a truncated priesthood, which is concentrated on the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and of Penance, while most of the other duties – and even Sacraments – that were administered so far by the priest could be given to the laity, male and female. 

Further proposing to explain the Pope's mind, Fernández says: “He asks that the priesthood be thought of being concentrated more on the Eucharist than on the exercise of power.”

So much about this fundamental transformation of the priesthood as it is proposed by Pope Francis – arguably something that is impossible to do since, as Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes has just reminded us, the Sacrament of Holy Orders bestows upon the priest, by virtue of ordination, three offices – the teaching, the sanctifying, and the governing office.

But for advocates for a new church, it is about the “demystifying of the priesthood”: This separating of the priest from power, explains Fernández, “could free us from the obsession with forming priests who are excessively prepared and made capable for thousands of tasks and would allow us to demystify a priestly figure who is overburdened with functions.” Thus, as a consequence of the above, Francis asks that greater power be given to the laity and they be given 'authority' (98).”

Referring also to Querida Amazonia's paragraph 87 about the priest being mainly the source of grace and not the authority, the prelate whom Pope Francis made archbishop of La Plata in 2018, asks us: “Do we not see the consequences of this approach, together with the proposal of the laity [empowered] with authority? Do we not recognize that behind many limits and ecclesial problems lies the way of exercising power?” 

Here, by the way, the Argentine prelate argues in a way similar to those German intellectuals who argue that, because of the clerical sex abuse crisis, the priest's authority needs to be reduced, since this authority and power is the root cause of the abuse crisis.

In light of this diminishment of the priesthood and the fundamental laicization of the Church as proposed by the Pope, Fernández then says that married priests still can be introduced. He says that the Pope “has not excluded this possibility [of ordaining married men], either, which should be analyzed within the framework of the elaboration of an Amazonian rite.” It would have been perhaps inappropriate if the Pope would thus “hasten a decision.”

With regard to the Amazonian rite, it is important to note that Pope Francis merely mentions it in a footnote. When speaking about an inculturated liturgy in paragraph 82, he explains in a footnote (120) that the Synod also discussed the possibility of an Amazonian rite. As the archbishop from Argentina explains, this is significant, inasmuch as “Francis preferred only to present the final document of the synod, and not to repeat it or even to quote it, he nevertheless wanted to make at least an explicit mention of the proposal of the Amazonian rite in footnote 120.”

When quoting at length no. 119 of the Synod's final document which refers to this “Amazonian rite,” Fernández depicts a reference to the married priesthood similar to the one existing in the Eastern Churches. And he adds: “The rites [of the Catholic Church] do not only include liturgical norms or celebrations, but also incorporate canonical norms on other matters that we in some way related to the celebrations and the ministers.”

It takes quite some straining of the mind to follow the indirect ways of how, potentially, the married priesthood is being tucked in under a new Amazonian Rite in the Pope's new document. But in light of the experience with footnotes in Amoris Laetitia, alert Catholics had better pay attention.

Getting ‘inside Francis' dreams’

Austen Ivereigh, the papal biographer who has made it his mission to defend Pope Francis and his reform agenda, is now also speaking up once more, attempting at pointing out the key reform elements of Querida Amazonia. He even titles his February 25 article: “How to Read 'Querida Amazonia,'” thus effectively joining Fernández in his own essay pointing the way to a fundamental reform in the Church.

In his own article, Ivereigh writes as if he were speaking on behalf of Pope Francis. At the beginning, he explains that Pope Francis was “dismayed” at the “politicking” in favor of mandatory priestly celibacy, but that he was also “upset” at some of the Amazonian bishops who acted as if “simply ordaining more people would somehow resolve the deeper challenges facing the church.” 

Whenever such contradictions happen, the British journalist continues, “Francis sees a sign that the bad spirit had prevailed,” thereby causing tensions.

In this case, Pope Francis chooses a “resolution” of the conflict “which takes on a higher plane” – and here Ivereigh quotes from the papal document Evangelii Gaudium.

This is actually the same line of argument that can be found in both Archbishop Fernández and Father Antonio Spadaro's writings on Querida Amazonia, both of whom are very close collaborators of the Pope. Spadaro is even known as the “unofficial spokesman” of the Pope.

Thus, these three men close to the Pope's reform agenda explain that the Pope responds to moments of conflict within the Church – which others would say are matters of truth and salvation – by choosing a path that represents a synthesis of them both, thereby providing analogues of Hegel's own concept of the dialectic, according to which progress takes place when a synthesis is found between two opposing elements.

To return to Ivereigh's explanatory article. He goes on to quote Fr. Augusto Zampini Davies, an Argentine official from Buenos Aires who works at the Vatican's Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Before we go into what this priest has to say, let us be reminded that he used to work in the slums of Buenos Aires under Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio and that he is the one who, early in this pontificate, had revealed that in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, the issue of Communion for the “remarried” divorcees was handled in a liberal manner.

This is what Newsweek reported in 2014: “In the slums of Buenos Aires he [Bergoglio] learned to see the world differently, says Father Augusto Zampini, a diocesan priest from the city, who has taught at the Colegio Máximo where Bergoglio was once Rector. The future Pope did not alter his doctrinal orthodoxy on matters like the church's ban on divorced and remarried Catholics taking communion. But he did not allow church doctrine to overrule his priority of pastoral care for the troubled folk he met in the slums. 'When you're working in a shantytown 90% of your congregation are single or divorced,' Zampini says. 'You have to learn to deal with that. Communion for the divorced and remarried is not an issue there. Everyone takes communion.' Bergoglio's priority became understanding the problems faced by the poor, rather than focussing on obedience to unbending rules.”

Let us now return to what Ivereigh has to tell us about Zampini.

This clergyman claims that Querida Amazonia is actually meant as a parable – similar to the ones presented by Our Lord Himself – and that “if you don't get inside Francis' dreams, they won't change you.” “But if you do,” he continues, “you are changed.” That then applies not only to the Amazon region, but the whole world.

What does this new “conversion” include? The acceptance that each of our places where we live “is the place of our encounter with our Creator,” and that “our place is the locus theologicus of incarnation and therefore inculturation.”

This line of argument has already been used, in light of the Amazon Synod's working document – which also claims (in paragraph 19) that the Amazon is a “source of God’s revelation” and a “theological place” – by some German professors writing in Herder Korrespondenz, a prominent Catholic journal. They understood that, by claiming that Germany is a specific theological place that needs inculturation, one might well allow for this region female ordination, married priests, as well as a stronger involvement of the laity in Church leadership.

It might very well be that this concept of inculturation in a specific “theological place of incarnation” will turn out to be an “anything goes,” especially in light of the fact that Pope Francis insists on diminishing the importance of irreversible doctrine in general, but also specifically in Querida Amazonia.

Says Ivereigh: “It would be a shame, says Francis, if people received from the church merely a doctrinal code or a moral imperative, and not 'the great message of salvation.'” That message is seen in “incarnating the Gospel in culture”; by each inculturation, “the church grows,” the book author explains. 

Under this concept of inculturation then comes, as in Fernández' article, the introduction also of new forms of ministry, that is to say, possibly married priests. After quoting Francis' words that “there is a need for ministers who can understand the Amazonian sensibilities and culture from within,” Ivereigh points out that “it is worthy spelling it out: the sacraments are part of the means, but the end is the inculturation of the Gospel. The purpose is not the expansion of an institutional presence. What matters is inculturated ministry that performs the Incarnation.”

This inculturated form of presence in the Amazon – according to the rule of listening to “seeds of the Word the Lord has sown in every people” – would therefore be not necessarily to concentrate on ordained offices, but, rather, on the establishment of a new Church structure where the laity – and here dominantly lay women – “can lead and do run communities.” Here, Ivereigh says that the local bishop could recognize these women and give them an official commission.

Therefore, the listening to the voice of the Amazon might very well turn out to completely transform the Church there, from a “clericalist” one to a “lay-run” organization. Since this is quite a fundamental change that is proposed here, let us consider Ivereigh's words at length:

“Much of the action, in these passages [of Querida Amazonia] is happening in the footnotes […] Who, in this scenario, is inculturating the Gospel? Is it the clergy or the lay leaders, the women, who are really running the show? Is it possible that the real issue here is a hermeneutic one – that the church in the Amazon has focused too much on the clerical institution, and not seen what gifts are already being poured out on the People of God?”

This new concept of having the laity “run the show,” could then well be applied to other regions as well. Concludes the book author: “If you ask that question again but replace 'Amazon' with your own parish or diocese, then you'll get Francis' larger point. But not everyone will: these are new wineskins.”

That is to say: the importance of the Catholic priesthood might be soon very well much attenuated and diminished under the Bergoglian pontificate.

‘Building a Church with an Amazon face’

Interestingly, Cardinal Michael Czerny – who was recently made a cardinal by Pope Francis, was named a Special Secretary of the Amazon Synod as well as a member of the drafting committee of the Amazon Synod's final document – uses the same expression as Ivereigh in a February 12 interview that had been published also by L'Osservatore Romano. He says that Pope Francis “dreams of Christian communities capable of becoming incarnate in the Amazon and of building a Church with an Amazon face.” He, too, stresses that “the Church learns and is enriched by contact with what the Spirit has already sown in that particular culture.” The Pope also “asks that the values present in the original communities be recognized.” This inculturation includes “knowing how to receive some pre-existing indigenous symbols, without immediately qualifying it as a pagan error.” 

Cardinal Czerny goes on to expound on two important elements. First, he refers to Pope Francis and insists that “the possibility of ordaining married men can be discussed by the Church. And it already exists, for example, in the Eastern Churches.”

Secondly, Czerny discusses the same matter as discussed by Fernández and by Ivereigh: the separation of the priest from power and authority. When speaking about the role of women, Czerny says that “we have to read this in the broad Magisterium of Pope Francis, which points out the need to separate the power from the priestly ministry, since this combination is what gives rise to clericalism.”

The women are stunted by a strong clericalism in the Church, the Canadian prelate explains: “This relationship of ministry and power is what leaves women without a voice, without rights, and without possibility of making decisions in many cases.” Therefore, it is not about establishing an ordained ministry for women, but about attenuating the Catholic priesthood's duties and sacred offices.

But at the same time, Czerny still says that “women should have access – says the Pope – to ecclesial functions and services that do not require Holy Orders” and which would be recognized and commissioned by the local bishop. “Perhaps it is time to review the lay ministries that already exist in the Church, to return to their foundations and bring them up to date (…) and at the same time to create other new stable ministries.”

About the Synod's final document which had proposed married priests and the further discussion of the female diaconate, Czerny says that the Pope presents it “officially” and that in the Amazon, “all the pastors, consecrated men and women and the lay faithful be committed to its application.” 

Truncated concept of the priesthood

Lastly, let us briefly consider the words of Father Almeida who is an expert on Bishop Fritz Lobinger's proposals for the ordination of married men and women and who participated at a key and quite revolutionary conference in Bogotá in preparation of the October 2019 Amazon Synod that is even mentioned in the Amazon Synod's working document.

The Brazilian priest spoke in União da Vitória (Brazil) at a February 21 diocesan conference about the Amazon Synod and Pope Francis's exhortation. He stressed that the new concept is to reduce the priestly duties to the distribution of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance – which would make him a sort of traveling dispenser of these two sacraments – while at the same time giving “other functions to the laity, such as celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism, and assisting at Marriages.” Again, we see here a truncated concept of the priesthood and a strong role of the laity which would essentially run the local parishes. The priesthood would be pushed to the side.

At the same time, Almeida insists that the plan of ordaining married priests is still on the agenda. “Even some bishops and theologians let themselves be carried away by the opinion of the media that the Pope was against what the bishops suggested at the Synod on the question of married men, but this is not true,” he states.

The question is “a question of interpretation,” Almeida explains, because the Pope “says that he is 'presenting' the final document, without discussing what was proposed at the Synod.” Therefore, the Pope “is validating” the final document. 

“Bishops who feel the need may ask the Holy See to authorize them in more special cases to ordain married men – having this backing in canons of Canon Law where administrative rights are spoken of –  and with regard to canons that reserve the authority to the Pope, [they may ask] that he may return this authority to the diocesan bishop” the priest concludes.

All these four men are convinced of one thing: the deeper reform and transformation of the Church is not off the table.


  amazon synod, antonio almeida, austen ivereigh, catholic, married priests, michael czerny, priesthood, querida amazonia, victor manuel fernandez

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