Vatican defends married priest proposal on Amazon agenda

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Organizers of a Vatican meeting on the Amazon defended plans to introduce debate on married priests, saying Thursday the proposal represents the “the voice of the local church” and isn’t an official proposal of the pope.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri acknowledged the Oct. 6-27 synod on the Amazon has generated criticism, including from cardinals who have accused organizers of making “heretical” proposals in the working document.

Baldisseri told a news conference that such “freedom of expression” was allowed. But he stressed that the working document would be replaced by a final one voted on by Amazonian bishops, and was merely a summary of two years of listening to the Amazonian faithful.

Pope Francis, history’s first Latin American pope, called the meeting in 2017 to address the ecological, social and spiritual needs of indigenous peoples in the Amazon, where poverty is rampant, isolation hinders the church’s ministry and rapid deforestation is threatening the environment.

The most controversial proposal in the synod’s working document calls for Amazonian bishops to study whether older married men who are respected by their communities might be ordained to help address a shortage of priests that is so acute that the faithful can go months without having a proper Mass.

While such a proposal to ordain “viri probati,” or “men of proven virtue” has been around for decades, the Amazon meeting has brought it to the fore given Francis has said he is open to studying an exception to priestly celibacy for a particular location out of “pastoral necessity.”

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the retired archbishop of Sao Paolo and the main organizer of the Amazon meeting, defended the proposal as the fruit of two years of listening to some 80,000 people from the region.

“It is the voice of the local church,” he said of the working document.

Hummes said the lack of access to the sacraments for the faithful due to the priest shortage was gravely harming the church’s ministry in the Amazon. “The Eucharist builds the church,” he said, quoting St. John Paul II.

Baldisseri was also defensive when responding to questions about whether religious sisters would be allowed to vote on the synod’s final document. Sisters and Catholic women’s groups have demanded nuns be allowed to vote, especially at a synod for a region where women perform the lion’s share of the church’s work.

Baldisseri noted that more women are participating in this synod _ 35 female experts and nuns against 184 synod fathers _ than any previous one. And he acknowledged that in the past Francis had made an exception in allowing lay brothers _ not priests _ who were religious superiors of their orders to vote.

But he stressed that current Vatican norms reserve voting rights to priests and bishops. “I think we must stick with the norms, and the interpretation of these norms rests with the Holy Father,” he said.