Pope Francis suggested in an interview last year that the Catholic Church’s rule that priests be celibate “can change” and admitted he was tempted by a woman as a young seminarian.
He said that the married clergy of the Eastern churches are “very good priests” and those pushing for the same in Roman Catholicism do so “with a certain pragmatism.”
For now, though, “the discipline of celibacy stands firm,” he said, adding that priests should quit if they can’t abstain from sex or if they get a woman pregnant.
The former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s comments — published in the Spanish-language book “On the Heavens and the Earth” and translated by the Catholic news website Aleteia — were made when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Father Thomas Reese, a Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said he was surprised by the remarks because “the last few popes have been pretty clear they were not open to changing it or having a discussion about it.”
While Bergoglio certainly wasn’t advocating for a rule change, “it looks like he may be willing to talk about it,” Reese said.
The future pope began the conversation with a personal anecdote from his years as a seminarian.
“I was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle’s wedding,” he said, according to Aleteia. “I was surprised by her beauty, her intellectual brilliance … and, well, I was bowled over for quite a while.
“I kept thinking and thinking about her. When I returned to the seminary after the wedding, I could not pray for over a week because when I tried to do so, the girl appeared in my head. I had to rethink what I was doing.”
He said he had to choose between the girl and the priesthood, and though he picked the latter, he knows not everyone would.
“When something like this happens to a seminarian, I help him go in peace to be a good Christian and not a bad priest,” Bergoglio said.
“In the Western Church to which I belong, priests cannot be married as in the Byzantine, Ukrainian, Russian or Greek Catholic Churches. In those Churches, the priests can be married, but the bishops have to be celibate. They are very good priests,” he added.
“In Western Catholicism, some organizations are pushing for more discussion about the issue. For now, the discipline of celibacy
stands firm. Some say, with a certain pragmatism, that we are losing manpower. If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option.”
He said that “for the moment” he was in favor of maintaining the celibacy rule “because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures.”
But, he added, “It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”
In the meantime, though, he said celibacy should not be treated with a wink and a nod. Any priest who strays and becomes a father
“has to leave the ministry,” he said.
“Now, if a priest tells me he got excited and that he had a fall, I help him to get on track again. There are priests who get on track again and others who do not,” he said.
“The double life is no good for us. I don’t like it because it means building on falsehood. Sometimes I say: ‘If you cannot overcome it, make your decision.'”