Pope Francis has decided against opening up the Roman Catholic priesthood to married men.
Instead, an “apostolic exhortation” from the pontiff has focused on environmental damage after bishops from the Amazon highlighted the destruction of the region’s rainforests and exploitation of Indigenous people at a Vatican summit last year.
Beloved Amazon, the papal missive, does not refer to a call from the Amazon bishops to allow the ordination of married men. The issue has become the latest point of friction between conservatives and reformers within the church, with divisions thrown into sharp relief when Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, publicly declared his opposition to any changes to the 1,000-year-old tradition of celibacy in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Instead, Francis urged bishops to pray for an increase in priestly vocations and suggested more missionaries be sent to remote communities where Catholics can go for long periods without receiving mass.
“This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America … to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region,” he wrote.
A statement from the Vatican said: “The Amazon challenges us, the Pope writes, to overcome limited perspectives and not to content ourselves with solutions that address only part of the situation.”
The Amazon synod brought together bishops, Indigenous people and activists from nine countries for a three-week meeting at the Vatican. The synod’s final document called for the ordination of “viri probati” – married men of good standing – and for an increased role for women in the church.
The issue exploded into the open last month with the publication of a book, From the Depths of our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, which included an essay by Benedict. “I cannot keep silent,” the former pope, 92, said in a vigorous defence of clerical celibacy.
Amid furore over the book, Benedict later requested the removal of his name as the co-author with conservative cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea.
Although any easing of the celibacy rule was expected to be limited to specific circumstances, traditionalists feared it would inevitably lead to an end to the bar on married priests. Some said the proposal was heretical.
Progressives had hoped that Francis would back change, but the pope made his views clear last year when he told reporters: “Personally I think that celibacy is a gift to the church.”