LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
For centuries, since the early days of the Roman Catholic Church, priests have been required to be unmarried in order to emulate Christ. But a shortage of priests in remote places has the church now considering allowing married men to be ordained. That proposal and others will be taken up by bishops who are at the Vatican for a three-week meeting on environmental issues facing the Amazon. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The first pope from Latin America has made the fate of the planet one of his signature issues. He called the meeting, known as a synod, to address the ecological, social and spiritual needs of the Amazon's Indigenous peoples. Their rainforests are ravaged by fires and deforestation often caused by agribusiness, miners and loggers. Father Peter Hughes, an Irish missionary in the region, stresses the link between Francis's 2015 document on the environment and Amazon people's spiritual link with nature.
PETER HUGHES: People of the Amazon, as we all know, have their own vision - their own cosmic vision of reality, where all of life is interconnected. This mantra of interconnectedness that the pope underlines is the bedrock of his spirituality and of Christian spirituality.
POGGIOLI: In addition to 185 bishops, mostly from the Amazon region, synod participants include scientists and environmentalists. Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, says the great novelty of this synod is that Indigenous peoples will be the teachers, Catholic priests the students.
CARLO PETRINI: (Through interpreter) This is revolutionary. For centuries in that region, the cross went hand-in-hand with the sword, destroying local cultures and spirituality. Now it's the priests who must go through a process of enculturation, not the Amazon peoples. And Catholic conservatives are screaming, heresy.
POGGIOLI: Some of the pope's opponents charge that the synod's working document was inspired by pagan, anti-Christian ideas. But one of the main organizers, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, says it's the result of an unprecedented two-year listening exercise with 87,000 people across the nine countries of the Amazon basin.
CLAUDIO HUMMES: (Through interpreter) It's the voice of the local church of the Amazon, of its people, its history and also the voice of its land.
POGGIOLI: The most controversial proposal concerns the shortage of priests that deprives the faithful of attending Mass for many months. The working documents suggest the possibility of ordaining older, married men, highly respected in their communities. If approved, this would be an exception to the rule of priestly celibacy. But conservatives liken this to a rejection of the Catholic religion. Criticism of the synod is coming, also, from another side.
SIMONE CAMPBELL: It seems to me that the purpose of the synod will be missed.
POGGIOLI: Sister Simone Campbell, leader of the Nuns on a Bus (ph) campaign advocating social justice, says its goal is to improve the quality of the church in a region.
CAMPBELL: And when I discovered that yet again, the voices of the women who are the principal ministers in the Amazon region were going to be small in representation but absolutely nothing in a vote.
POGGIOLI: The Vatican points out that more women are participating - 35 female experts and nuns - than in any previous synod. Sister Simone still hopes that, as it gets under way, rules could be adjusted to treat women as full participants, like men, with the right to vote. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.