ROME – Earlier this month, many Americans had the frustrating experience of tuning in to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses expecting to watch returns come in, only to discover a total informational vacuum. Problems with a new app, coupled with jammed phone lines and a variety of reporting errors, meant that we still don’t really know which Democratic candidate actually won the first skirmish of the 2020 campaign.

After months of build-up, the absence of any clear result was, to say the least, a bit of a let-down.

American Catholics may feel a sense of déjà-vu upon reading Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis’s 16,000-word apostolic exhortation concluding the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, which has been the object of speculation and fevered expectations ever since the gathering of prelates that occasioned it concluded last October in Rome. During the summit, debate over the viri probati, meaning tested married men who could be ordained as priests to serve isolated rural communities, was the most contentious issue, and ever since people have been wondering how Francis would rule.

In the end, what we got is the sound of silence. The pontiff opens by saying, “I will not go into all of the issues treated at length in the final document” of the synod, and proceeds to ignore the debate over married priests altogether. Advocates of the viri probati would be perfectly within their rights to point out that he doesn’t say “no,” but opponents would be equally justified in insisting that he also doesn’t say “yes.”

Indeed, reading Querida Amazonia, you’d have no idea the synod featured a discussion of married priests at all – not even in the document’s footnotes, which is where Francis handled the contentious matter of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia following two synods of bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015.

The silence certainly isn’t because Francis doesn’t want people to read his document or pay attention to the Amazon. Indeed, in the run-up to the release of Querida Amazonia, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a close papal ally and one of the prime movers at the synod, dispatched a letter to all the bishops of the world recommending, among other things, that they organize a press conference or other event to throw a spotlight on the document.

So why the effective punt on married priests? Five possible explanations suggest themselves, which aren’t mutually exclusive and may, in fact, all be part of the picture.

First, Francis obviously doesn’t feel that the celibacy question is the main event vis-à-vis the Amazon. His emphasis has always been on bigger issues, including saving the rainforest itself, protecting the indigenous persons and communities of the region, and dealing with social justice challenges such as land use and labor rights.

To a great extent, he appears to regard intra-ecclesiastical infighting as a distraction from that larger agenda. The point comes across clearly in the four great dreams the pope sketches in his document:

  • An Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.
  • An Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.
  • An Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.
  • Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.

Second, Francis may feel he didn’t have to wade into the married priests debate because the synod already handled it. In the preface to his text, the pope says he also wants to “officially present the Final Document which sets forth the conclusions of the Synod, which profited from the participation of many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region, since they live there, they experience its suffering and they love it passionately.”

In other words, his position may be that barring any express declaration to the contrary, the conclusions of the synod – in which more than two-thirds of the bishops voted in support of the viri probati – stand on their own, and require no elaboration from him.

Third, and related, the pope may feel that since what the synod recommended wasn’t a general dispensation from the celibacy requirement for priests but rather discernment in specific cases, there’s not really anything to say until such a case is presented. In other words, he’ll rule when a ruling is required and not before.

Fourth, Francis clearly is aware of the fracas that resulted from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI contributing an essay to a book defending priestly celibacy authored by Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, and may feel that a clear ruling now inevitably would be seen as either a rebuff or a concession to his predecessor.

Fifth, the pope’s strategic decision to avoid the married priests debate may be less about than the Amazon than other parts of the world, especially Germany. Right now the Germans are preparing for a two-year “synodal process” in which the celibacy requirement for priests is expected to come in for critical attention, not just in limited cases for practical motives but in principle.

Francis may be concerned that anything he’d say on the viri probati in the context of the Amazon would quickly be swept up into those debates, sparking a fire he’d just as soon not have to put out.

Bottom line: The absence of a clear result on married priests in Querida Amazonia doesn’t necessarily mean the debate is over. Instead, it may mean the issue will have to wait another day, and another set of circumstances, for the pope to feel inclined to take it up.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.