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Can Married Priests Help Save the Amazon?

Pope Francis's latest amendment to Catholic doctrine connects to other policies he's promoted in the past.

Pope Francis meets with representatives of indigenous communities from the Amazon basin (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, The New York Times reported that Pope Francis had “open[ed] the door to limited ordination of married men as priests.” Specifically, in trying to meet the pastoral needs of the Pan-Amazon region, including remote communities in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela, the Vatican mentioned in a planning document that the Church may start ordaining married or elderly viri probati, the Latin term for men of proven character. “It is the kind of exception to the celibacy requirement that church experts say—and church traditionalists worry—could be a step toward the ordination of married men in other areas of the world,” reporter Jason Horowitz wrote.

Any move to chip away at clerical celibacy, mandated since the twelfth century, is potentially a major step in the Church’s history. It’s also another source of controversy for a pontiff who has attracted both praise and condemnation for his efforts to make Catholicism a more welcoming and accommodating faith. Given the likely pushback and its potentially momentous implications, one might wonder why Pope Francis decided to compromise on this mainstay of canon law merely to reach a little further into the sparsely populated Latin American rainforest. While early coverage made much of the move as a way to help the Catholic Church compete with evangelical Protestantism, the shift arguably has as much to do with the needs of underserved individuals in remote areas, as well as broader theological points Pope Francis has made about protecting the environment, and the Amazon in particular. All three reasons have political implications—something Francis is uniquely equipped to appreciate. 

Francis, as the first pope to hail from Latin America, is intimately familiar with the challenges the Church faces on that continent, including the urgent task of defending against an ongoing evangelical and Pentecostal onslaught, the driving forces of a Protestant wave that has made deep inroads across the region in recent decades. Brazil, for example, remains the most populous majority-Catholic country in the world. But while 91.8 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic in 1970, by 2010 that number had fallen to 64.6, with a loss of about 1.7 million followers in the last decade alone, according to the most recent census. Self-proclaimed evangelicals have jumped from a 6.6 percent of the population in 1980 to 22.2 percent of the population in 2010. 

That explosive evangelical growth has transformed the country’s politics, favoring an increasingly moralistic and fervent right wing. Protestant churches have seen their most rapid growth in poor communities, areas once attended to by grassroots Catholic associations called Ecclesiastical Base Communities that aimed to teach residents how the emancipating spirit of the gospel could be applied to the reality of their lives. This kind of engaged piety, turning religious conviction into communitarian action, is widely seen as one of the most important progressive innovations of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Pope Francis was ordained in 1969, a time of leftist insurrection and religious effervescence across the continent, spurred by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), or Vatican II, an ecumenical meeting convened by Pope John XXIII to reassess and reassert the role of the Catholic Church in a world drastically reshaped by World War II. The idea that the Vatican, with its doctrine of papal infallibility, would invite open debate about official religious doctrine shocked religious and irreligious people around the world. The council summoned between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops and thousands of observers, auditors, sisters, laymen, and laywomen to four sessions at St. Peter’s Basilica over three years—an unprecedented level of openness driven by clear reformist zeal.

Vatican II had special meaning in Latin America. Among its most transformational elements was the recognition of churches of the so-called Third World as being just as important as those in Europe and North America. Another crucial move was the permission Vatican II granted for mass to be conducted in local languages rather than Latin—a bid to make the Church more accessible, to welcome adherents much as Francis is eager to do today. In Brazil, Vatican II ushered in a new spirit of change and openness. A meeting of Brazilian bishops in 1967 noted that “society is changing each day more quickly and the ecclesiastical structures don’t always accompany this change. The parish and the diocesan structures require, in a general sense, profound modifications.” This sentiment, shared broadly among many sectors of the Church across Latin America, would inspire the spread of liberation theology, a progressive movement within Catholicism that called on the clergy to care particularly for the needs of the poor and dispossessed, to teach the most vulnerable segments of society that they should actively seek to change their earthly conditions rather than accepting their suffering as the cost of God’s favor in the afterlife. 

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, this perspective led many priests to engage directly in politics—in some cases even joining Marxist revolutionaries against military dictatorships—in the name of protecting their flock. Later, many of these same members of the cloth would embrace partisan commitments, with Catholics playing an important role in the creation of Brazil’s Workers’ Party. The Workers’ Party highlighted the political potential of liberation theology, with progressive priests helping to raise political consciousness in poor and working-class neighborhoods in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, offering the legitimacy of the Church in support of strikes and other forms of protest, and ultimately blessing (unofficially, as the Vatican itself has always been wary of the politicization of liberation theology) the actions of one party over another.

Just as Brazilian clergy five decades ago recognized the need to adapt outreach methods to meet changing demands, Pope Francis appears to be doing the same today. And going by other recent Vatican actions, that may mean brushing up against a rightward turn in Latin American politics.

Pope Francis has paid special attention to Brazil before. The press statement released last year by the Holy See announcing the shift in pastoral methods for the Amazon, in keeping with the Pope’s June 2015 encyclical on the environment, proclaimed that the “social—and even cosmic—dimension of the mission of evangelization is particularly relevant in the Amazon region, where the interconnectivity between human life, ecosystems, and spiritual life was, and continues to be, apparent to the vast majority of its inhabitants.” One of the most intriguing aspects of Francis’s papacy, from the Latin American perspective, is his interest in the Amazon as a community of faith but also as a site of profound ecological importance. Earlier this year, the Pope met with Raoni Metuktire, the leader of the Caiapó tribe, to discuss how the Church might aid the fight against deforestation. 

That meeting in the Vatican came amid tensions between Brazil’s indigenous population and far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to encourage commercial endeavors in the rainforest while opposing any increase to protected indigenous lands. As Cláudio Hummes, a Brazilian cardinal who is very close to the Pope, particularly on environmental matters, explained at the time, “economic interests and the technocratic paradigm are against any attempt at change and are ready to impose themselves with force, violating the fundamental rights of the populations in the [Amazonian] territory and the norms of sustainability and protection of the Amazon.” It can be surmised, in other words, that the Catholic Church’s representatives in the Amazon might stand against the actions of rapacious developers intent on exploiting the Amazon in deeper and more devastating ways. Pope Francis, like men of the cloth moved decades ago by the reformist impulses of Vatican II, does not shy away from the political implications of his decisions, even if it means implicitly challenging a sitting president. The move to potentially ordain some married men in the Amazon is, in this context, as much a political act as a theological one.   

There is no doubt that religious competition is motivating the Catholic Church’s calculations in Latin America, as elsewhere: The same was true in a post–Vatican II political context in which a renewed evangelizing energy, communicating to the faithful in language and deeds they could understand, flourished. There has long been a relatively small Protestant presence in Brazil, but its current influence can be traced to the creation of the evangelical, non-denominational Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in 1977, which now claims over 5 million members along with a TV station and multiple newspapers and radio stations. While Bolsonaro himself is not an evangelical Protestant, there has never been a Brazilian president more aligned with their interests or intent on pleasing them (he has promised to name the first evangelical Protestant to the country’s Supreme Court).

Protestant churches have grown in large part because they are fulfilling a social role once played by Catholic grassroots forces like the Ecclesiastical Base Communities, religious institutions at the neighborhood level that offer a measure of support, mutual aid, and spiritual nourishment in a country still riven by vast inequalities. As the Catholic Church gradually retrenched over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, it opened the door to evangelicals and Pentecostals meeting these needs. Maintaining a Catholic presence in areas as remote as the Amazonian jungle is partly Francis’s attempt to correct that mistake.

There are obviously a host of factors shaping Pope Francis’s decision-making regarding the celibacy (or lack thereof) of the clergy. But understanding the particular history of Catholicism in Brazil helps make clear why he would court considerable controversy by opening the question of priestly celibacy. It also helps highlight what a bold gambit this shift represents—for reasons going well beyond Catholic doctrine.