It’s widely assumed that the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon is poised to endorse married priests for isolated rural communities, and yesterday Retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Xingu, Brazil, told reporters that two-thirds of the bishops gathered in Rome back the idea. Yet in all honesty, it’s a little early to know exactly what all 184 synod fathers really think.
Pre-synod consultations focused more on laity, especially indigenous persons, rather than bishops, and so far the talk in the hall has been sufficiently vague as to leave options open.
However, there’s at least one synod bishop who’s gone public with skepticism about the so-called viri probati, or tested married men, albeit in his typically soft-spoken, gracious, and nuanced manner: Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and an erstwhile missionary in Colombia, one of the Amazon nations represented in the synod.
Ouellet, who turned 75 in June and thus has reached the formal retirement age, has been a fixture on the global Catholic stage for almost twenty years, with a profile as a “compassionate conservative” - a big heart, a gentle touch, and real curiosity about other points of view born of genuine intellectual chops. Theologically he’s cut from much the same cloth as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, and he was a longtime contributor to the journal Communio co-founded by the young Joseph Ratzinger.
Though he probably wouldn’t have chosen it as his battleground, in effect the debate over married priests at the 2019 Amazon synod could be Ouellet’s last hurrah, his final opportunity in a meaningful setting to make the case for tradition in a time of runaway change.
On the cusp of the synod, Ouellet released a new book titled Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy, which is now out in Spanish and Italian, coming soon in Portuguese, and slated to be published in English by EWTN.
Ouellet is not a controversialist by nature, but obviously he knew the book was appearing just before a summit in which the viri probati would figure prominently.
The synod opened with Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a longtime champion of the viri probati, reporting that in the consultation phase many voices from the Amazon “requested that the path be opened for the ordination of married men resident in their communities.”
During a Vatican briefing Tuesday, Vatican communications czar Paolo Ruffini said that while there have been different “accents” on married priests, “everyone agrees it’s a question.”
Against that backdrop, Ouellet has been, at least publicly, the voice of caution.
During a presentation of his new book before the synod, Ouellet told reporters he’s “open” to the debate over the viri probati, but also skeptical because the Church in the Amazon struggles to train even non-ordained catechists adequately. Training indigenous people to serve as deacons or priests, he said, would be an even bigger challenge.
“I remain skeptical out of conviction and knowledge of the Catholic tradition,” he said - hinting, by the way, “there’s someone who is even more skeptical who has authorized the debate,” a clear but unspoken reference to the pope.
On Tuesday, the day after the synod opened and Hummes had his say (drawing strong applause inside the hall), Ouellet was at it again.
“Celibacy has an incomparable evangelizing power,” he told a program of COPE, the radio network of the Spanish bishops’ conference. A priest, he said, “needs total surrender, and his priesthood is a spiritual fatherhood to help [his] children grow through the proclamation of the Word and the sacraments.”
He argued that what the Amazon really needs is a new “vocational culture,” which would include both consecrated women and celibate priests as well as laity, married couples and families.
(The full interview, by the way, was vintage Ouellet. While touting celibacy he also defended the synod’s Instrumentum laboris, or working document, which came under heavy fire in traditionalist quarters for allegedly flirting with heresy, including its treatment of nature and indigenous religions. “I’m a little sad about the controversies,” he said. “It seems to me that there were unilateral attacks, unsubstantiated or excessive criticisms [of the text], which isn’t perfect, but which tries to describe the situation to facilitate understanding.”)
It remains to be seen if Ouellet’s kinder, gentler witness will succeed where the harsher, more pugnacious approach of others, at least so far, has failed.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that although Ouellet is generally seen as more conservative than his boss, Pope Francis has kept him on board for six years in one of the Vatican’s most sensitive positions, in charge of appointing new bishops around the world.
In part, of course, that may be a political calculation - Ouellet has credibility in conservative circles but is extremely loyal to the pope, so he can occasionally give Francis cover when he’s under fire. (Ouellet’s open letter last year to Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, defending the pope against charges of a cover-up of abuse charges against Theodore McCarrick, is a classic example.)
In part, too, it’s probably a reflection of the fact that Ouellet is not only smart and competent, but, on a personal level, extremely likeable.
However, here’s a thought experiment: Is it possible that in a lot of ways Francis and Ouellet are the same person, just refracted through a different set of experiences?
Both were born into Catholic families at the extremes of the Americas, and both had jobs as young men outside church circles - Francis in a chemical lab, Ouellet fighting forest fires. Both are members of religious orders - Francis a Jesuit, Ouellet a Sulpician - and both came of age in the immediate post-Vatican II years. Both were involved in formation, Francis as a novice master, superior, and rector, Ouellet as a seminary professor.
Both became bishops under John Paul II in their mid-fifties, and both were sometimes seen as a thorn in the side of their governments, Francis in Buenos Aires and Ouellet in Quebec. Both at times have also faced trying personal circumstances, Francis in relationships with his Jesuit family, Ouellet with his younger brother Paul, an artist and retired teacher, who pled guilty to sexual offenses against two teenage girls in 2003.
Perhaps the key difference is the defining challenge each man faced as a local bishop.
For Francis, it was the 1998-2002 “Great Depression” in Argentina, which caused the economy to shrink by almost 30 percent and left 50 percent of Argentines poor, 25 percent desperately so. Francis was compelled to step into the breach, and he emerged a champion of the victims of “savage capitalism.”
For Ouellet, it was the hyper-secularized ethos of Francophone Canada, where just 11 percent of baptized Catholics actually attend Mass and where the state often appears hostile to religion. While he was the Archbishop of Quebec, for instance, the province wanted to require even Catholic schools to drop religion courses in favor of “ethics and religious culture,” with teachers forbidden to present themselves as believers. Given those dynamics, Ouellet repeatedly was obligated to defend tradition and Catholic identity.
That’s not to say Francis is insensitive to tradition, or Ouellet to poverty, but that circumstances arguably nudged each man in somewhat different directions in terms of their outlooks, priorities and agenda.
When Francis and Ouellet look at each other, perhaps, they see someone who, in a parallel universe, could easily be themselves. The fact that Ouellet was widely seen as a candidate in the conclave that ultimately elected Francis in 2013 probably induces such ruminations too.
What impact this may have on the outcome of the Amazon synod is anyone’s guess, but it does suggest that when Ouellet takes the microphone, at least one set of ears in the hall is likely to perk up - and it belongs, really, to the only person in that hall with the power to do much about what he hears, making him the ultimate wild card in the deck.