The newly instated Pope Francis has some interesting ideas on the centuries-old tradition of papal and priestly celibacy. Namely, he believes that the rules requiring all priests to abstain from sex “can be changed.”
Before he was Pope Francis the man who was known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio spoke to Rabbi Abraham Skorka on the issue in a 2012 Spanish-language book “Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra” (“On the Heavens and the Earth”). In the interview, translated by the Catholic-oriented Aleteia, Pope Francis revealed that during seminary, he was “dazzled by a girl” that caused him to consider leaving the priesthood. He also stated that the papal celibacy rule is simply one of tradition and is flexible.
"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."
Pope Francis noted that at the time, he was free to leave the life of priesthood because he was still in seminary. Ultimately, however, he stayed on that road and stuck to the rule of celibacy. He then went on to say that in other Christian churches, priests are allowed to marry, and that this is not necessarily wrong.
“In the Western Church to which I belong, priests cannot be married as in the Byzantine, Ukrainian, Russian or Greek Catholic Churches,” he said. “In those Churches, the priests can be married, but the bishops have to be celibate. They are very good priests. 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.”
In the end, though, Pope Francis stated that he is in favor of maintaining the papal rule on celibacy.
“For the moment, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures,” he said. “What happens is that the scandals have an immediate impact. Tradition has weight and validity. Catholic ministers chose celibacy little by little. Up until 1100, some chose it and some did not. After, the East followed the tradition of non-celibacy as personal choice, while the West went the opposite way. It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”
Still, the pope’s opinions are somewhat radical compared to the centuries-long tradition of papal celibacy. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter notes that the pope’s remarks are somewhat shocking because “'For the moment’ and ‘for now’ are not the kind of qualifications one normally hears when bishops and cardinals discuss celibacy.”