The formation of priests was one of Jorge Bergoglio's (now Pope Francis) constant concerns when he was Archbishop and Superior in the Society of Jesus. He had a conversation on the subject with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. This conversation appears in the book Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra (“On the Heavens and the Earth”) published in 2012 by the Sudamericana publishing company.
The following is an excerpt of that dialogue, in which then-Cardinal Bergoglio reveals the secret to living celibacy happily:
Bergoglio: When I was a seminarian, I was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle's wedding. 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. I was still free because I was a seminarian, so I could have gone back home and that was it. I had to think about my choice again. I chose again – or let myself be chosen by – the religious path. It would be abnormal for this kind of thing not to happen.
When this happens, one has to get one’s bearings again. It’s a matter of one choosing again or saying, “No, what I'm feeling is very beautiful. I am afraid I won't be faithful to my commitment later on, so I'm leaving the seminary.” When something like this happens to a seminarian, I help him go in peace to be a good Christian and not a bad priest. 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. Sometimes I joke with them and tell them that they have wives at home but they did not realize that they also got a mother-in-law as part of the bargain. 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.
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. 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. Personally, it never crossed my mind to marry. But there are cases. Look at the case of the Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. He's a brilliant guy. But as a bishop, he had a fall and resigned from the diocese. This decision was honest. Sometimes we see priests fall into this.
Skorka: And what is your position?
Bergoglio: If one of them comes and tells me that he got a woman pregnant, I listen. I try to help him have peace and little by little I try to help him realize that the natural law takes priority over his priesthood. So, he has to leave the ministry and should take care of that child, even if he chooses not to marry that woman. For just as that child has the right to have a mother, he has a right to the face of a father. I commit myself to arranging all the paperwork for him in Rome, but he has to leave everything. 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. Some, unfortunately, do not even tell the bishop.
Skorka: What does it mean to get back on track?
Bergoglio: To do penance, to keep their celibacy. The double life is no good for us. I don't like it because it means building on falsehood. Sometimes I say: “If you can not overcome it, make your decision.”
Skorka: I would like to clarify that a priest who falls in love with a girl and then confesses is one thing, and a case of pedophilia is quite another. Pedophilia has to be cut off at the roots. It's very serious. Two adults who love each other having an affair is something else.
Bergoglio: The idea that pedophilia is a consequence of celibacy is ruled out. More than seventy percent of cases of pedophilia occur in the family and neighborhood: grandparents, uncles, stepfathers, neighbors. The problem is not linked to celibacy. If a priest is a pedophile, he is so before he is a priest.
Now, when that happens, we must never turn a blind eye. You cannot be in a position of power and destroy the life of another person. In the diocese it never happened to me, but a bishop once called me to ask me by phone what to do in a situation like that and I told him to take away the priests' licenses, not to allow them to exercise the priesthood any more, and to begin a canonical trial in that diocese’s court. I think that's the attitude to have. I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporative spirit in order to avoid damaging the image of the institution. That solution was proposed once in the United States: they proposed switching the priests to a different parish. It is a stupid idea; that way, the priest just takes the problem with him wherever he goes. The corporate reaction leads to such a result, so I do not agree with those solutions. Recently, there were cases uncovered in Ireland from about twenty years ago, and the present Pope [Benedict XVI] clearly said: “Zero tolerance for that crime.” I admire the courage and uprightness of Pope Benedict on the subject.