VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Wednesday backed away from creating a major, new exception to Catholicism’s clerical celibacy rules, putting off a decision on whether to allow married men to serve as priests in the Amazon region.
Francis’ refusal to take up the issue delivered an unexpected blow to Latin American bishops who had recommended the change to address drastic clerical shortages in the Amazon and help remote areas that sometimes go years without Mass.
Francis last year had signaled a willingness to consider narrow changes in “the most remote places” to the church’s celibacy practice — a long-standing tradition but not dogma, meaning it can be altered. The pope also has emphasized that the church should be less top-down in its decision-making. So many Roman Catholics anticipated that he would greenlight the exception, or at least approve its further study.
Instead, he released a document — the official papal follow-up to the bishops’ Amazon meeting last year — that called for no substantive change. The document was in turn a poetic tribute to environmental beauty and a warning about its destruction. But on the topic of priestly shortages, Francis simply asked bishops to pray for more vocations and urged missionaries to head to the Amazon.
Those modest recommendations acted as a reminder of how Francis, despite a reputation as a reformer, has proceeded with caution in the face of deepening polarization within the church and traditionalist opposition to his papacy.
While traditionalists cheered the outcome as a victory, Francis’s more liberal allies were left to wonder whether questions about celibacy — as well as other potentially divisive reforms — might be on hold until the next papacy.
“Francis was afraid to split the church,” said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher and author of “The Loneliness of Francis.”
In a commentary released alongside Francis’ document, Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli said that the pope, “after praying and reflecting, has decided to respond not by foreseeing changes or further possibilities of exceptions” in the priesthood.
Before Wednesday, traditionalist factions within the church had warned that allowing an Amazon exception would more broadly revolutionize the Catholic priesthood and begin to unravel the tradition of priestly celibacy. They noted that North America and Europe are strained by priest shortages as well and that the Amazon could set a precedent for similar moves elsewhere.
“The voices of protest were successful,” said Juan Miguel Montes, the Rome representative of the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute, a conservative Brazil-based Catholic group.
In the Amazon, where clerics sometimes require military transport just to get from one remote town to the next, there was disappointment that the bishops’ argument in favor of an exception had not yet convinced the pope.
“I had high hopes about this, even if it would not solve all the problems of the Amazon and of the Church,” said Atílio Battistuz, a Franciscan friar in the Brazilian rainforest state of Para, where there are more than 600 Catholic communities. “I do not believe Pope Francis was against this decision. It is not the moment yet. The church is not mature enough for this.”
The church permits other exceptions to Catholicism’s celibacy rule. Eastern European rites that recognize the authority of the pope allow for married men in the priesthood. And in 2009, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, permitted a path for married Anglican ministers to become priests after conversions. The Vatican at the time emphasized that Benedict’s move did not signal a broader change to the celibacy requirement.
An Amazon exception, though, would be more significant than the others, because it would fall within the mainstream Latin Rite church, potentially leaving an opening future popes could widen.
Bishops, mostly from Latin America, set the course for the debate last year with a three weeklong meeting at the Vatican. Though they were discussing all manner of issues facing the region, including environmental destruction and the dangers facing indigenous communities, they made the biggest waves with their recommendation that the church ordain deacons who already had families as a way to sustain the church.
The backlash was unusually public and loud, even by the standards of other Catholic culture clashes. A band of conservative prelates warned that the priesthood risked losing one of the very things that made it special. One of the Vatican’s most influential and generally controversy-averse cardinals, Canadian Marc Ouellet, published a book defending priestly celibacy, reportedly giving two copies to Francis, while saying he was skeptical of the Amazon proposal.
And that was before Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI got involved — further inflaming the controversy, just as the Vatican was finalizing the new document.
The 92-year-old retired pope had vowed, when abdicating in 2013, to remain “hidden from the world.” Increasingly, though, he has made his opinions known. He was named as co-author, alongside a conservative cardinal, of a book to be published this month that ardently defends the necessity of clerical celibacy.
Benedict’s key gatekeeper, a German archbishop, has tried to distance the retired pontiff from the book. But Benedict’s co-author, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, has responded with a social media torrent of letters suggesting that Benedict was kept in the loop.
When Francis has spoken about celibacy, though he signaled an openness to narrow exceptions, he has made clear that he does not favor major changes, calling the practice “a gift to the church.”
“I would say that I do not agree with permitting optional celibacy,” the pope said one year ago during a news conference.
Some theologians and church pundits have argued that celibacy has contributed to the clerical abuse crisis, by promoting a culture in which sexuality, of all kinds, is plunged beneath the surface. But that viewpoint has little traction among church leadership.
The church’s celibacy tradition dates to the Middle Ages, and it was devised in part to keep priestly wealth inside the church, as opposed to being spread among heirs. Priests commonly had families in the first millennium of Christianity, as did some popes. But in modern times, celibacy has been affirmed again and again as a tenet of the religion, with Pope Paul VI in 1967 calling it a “golden law” that helped uphold priests in their worship of God.
Retired bishop Fritz Lobinger, a longtime advocate for married priests, said Wednesday that Francis had “held back a bit more than we thought” but still seemed to understand the necessity of better combating clerical shortages and might eventually find a way to do so.
“He has to be very careful,” said Lobinger, who wrote a book on the priesthood reforms that Francis has cited. “I did think he would take a more definitive acceptance of this proposal.”
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The Washington Post’s Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Heloísa Traiano in Bologna, Italy, contributed to this report.