The summit was in Rome, the focus was on the Amazon.
But for Bishop Robert McElroy, leader of San Diego's diocese and one of only three Americans among the 185 delegates to the Vatican's Pan-Amazon Synod, the issues hit close to home.
McElroy returned to San Diego to find traditionalists in an uproar. Along with most of the delegates, McElroy had backed a plan to allow married men to serve as priests in remote Amazonian villages. He also joined the majority in urging Pope Francis to consider ordaining female deacons – throughout the global church.
"I am in favor of opening every office and position to women," he said, "unless it is doctrinally prohibited."
Count Thomas McKenna among those who believe that doctrine presents an insurmountable hurdle. Founder of Catholic Action for Faith and Family, a San Diego-based nonprofit, McKenna argued that women cannot be deacons, ordained ministers who can preach, baptize and conduct funerals. While unable to perform the priestly duties of celebrating the Mass and hearing confessions, they are seen as acting in persona Christi.
"Our Lord was a man," McKenna said. "How can a woman act in the person of Christ when she is not a man?"
McKenna also opposes ordaining married men in the Amazon basin, questioning why this exception wouldn't be made elsewhere.
"This isn't something new and unique," he said, noting that other parts of the globe have a shortage of priests. "Why is the Amazon such a special region? There is a political element in many of the churches in Europe, the Germans for one. They have a political agenda."
At first glance, the Pan-Amazon synod seemed to be a world away from San Diego. The gathering ended late last month with a 58-page report, decrying the deforestation and strip mining of a region that's larger than 18 Californias, touching on nine countries – Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana – and home to 2.5 million indigenous people.
The document, in fact, argues this area is unique, "a masterpiece of the creation of the God of Life. Its endless horizons of boundless beauty are a song, a hymn to the Creator."
That hymn, though, is being marred by ecological devastation as well as assaults and murders – what McElroy termed "martyrdom" – of villagers who protest the seizure of their lands by powerful mining, logging and ranching interests. Violence has made distant parts of the rainforest even more isolated, as McElroy learned when he asked a Bolivian bishop how long it would take him to return home from Rome.
"Once I hit the ground," the prelate said, "if I am lucky, it will take two days."
The roads, already rugged and difficult to navigate, now contain roadblocks – some erected by government forces, and others manned by insurgents.
"It is not easy to get around in many of these places," McElroy said.
At the synod, Amazonian villagers testified that they may wait a full year between visits by a priest. As a consequence, believers only receive Holy Eucharist, the central element of the Catholic Mass, once a year.
"The Eucharist is so important in these communities," McElroy said. "They have a right to the Eucharist."
To increase the supply of priests capable of bringing the Eucharist to these villages, the synod issued three recommendations: encourage more men to enter the seminary, studying to become priests; send ordained missionaries into these areas; and ordain viri probati, "men of proven virtue," including husbands and fathers already active within Amazonian parishes.
While at least one bishop – Erwin Krautler, an Austrian who had served a diocese in the Brazilian interior – expressed hope that this could lead to married priests throughout the church, McElroy insisted most bishops saw this as a limited emergency measure.
But he also noted that married priests are not unknown in the broader Catholic community, as they are common among the Maronite and Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches. In recent years, some Anglican churches have aligned with Rome, bringing with them married clerics, such as the Rev. Glenn Baaten of St. Augustine of Canterbury, whose services are held in the chapel of San Diego's Cathedral Catholic High School.
"They already exist," McElroy said of married Catholic priests. "This is not something new."
Critics, though, suspect the celibate priesthood is being dismantled, step by step.
"This is of course how revolutions work: Allow an exception in one theoretical case, and then watch as the implementation of this exception obliterates the principle in fact," wrote Michael Brendan Dougherty in the National Review.
While liberal and conservative Catholics alike agree that female deacons served the early church, they draw different lessons from this history.
McElroy noted that deaconesses focused on providing for the poor, especially orphans and widows. First and second century cultures would have frowned on men working closely with women.
The synod urged Pope Francis to revive a moribund commission to study allowing women to again serve as deacons. McElroy would support this move, noting that women – in the Amazon and elsewhere – are often parish leaders.
During the Pan-Amazon synod, delegates in small working groups "requested the restoration of women to the ordained diaconate, a long-abandoned tradition that could well address the Amazonian church's needs," wrote Phyllis Zagano, senior researcher-in-residence at Hofstra University and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women.
Moreover, Zagano and Boston University's the Rev. Erick Berrelleza note that a 2017 survey found most Catholics in the U.S. – 60% of all surveyed, and 77% of weekly Mass-goers – would welcome women deacons.
The church, though, is not a democracy. Charles LiMandri, a Rancho Santa Fe lawyer and chief counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, argued that a female diaconate would discard centuries of tradition and move the church closer to the day when women are ordained as priests.
"In my view," LiMandri said, "that is what many of the people who are pushing for this really want. A female diaconate is a step in that direction."
Opposing the ordination of women as deacons "doesn't take away from the important roles that women can and should fill in the church," LiMandri said. "But this isn't one of them."
Yet women have often been treated as second-class worshippers. Writing in the National Catholic Reporter last month, Zagano noted that church history is full of "legalized misogyny."
In the medieval church, "councils and individual clerics argued that women were unclean," Zagano wrote. "Touching a woman disqualified a man from touching the sacred, and there was documented distress about sexual relations. Cardinals and canonists alike routinely called women inferior, unclean and stupid."
The church, acknowledged the synod's final document, must do more to fully honor women as children of God: "In the ecclesial field, the presence of women in communities is not always valued. The recognition of women is sought for their charisms and talents. They ask to recover the place accorded by Jesus to women, 'where all of us, men and women, we all fit in.'"
The document recommended involving women in theological and liturgical leadership posts and that they be included in decision-making.
"May the Church embrace more and more the feminine style of acting and of understanding events," the report said.
Any changes must come from the Vatican, an institution known for its slow, deliberate pace. "We are handing this off to the pope," Bishop McElroy said of the synod's contentious issues.
He predicted the pontiff may rule on married priests in the Amazon by early 2020. As for female deacons, it may take more than a year before the revived Pontifical Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women forwards recommendations to Pope Francis.