A popular pontiff, Pope Francis receives hundreds of letters every day—but a recent one, signed by 26 women who would like his permission to have sex with their priest-boyfriends, was undoubtedly not like most of the others.
The letter, published by La Stampa newspaper’s Vatican Insider website on Sunday, began with a plea for the pontiff to take heart and make celibacy optional for the signatories’ paramours, who happen to be priests. “Dear Pope Francis, we are a group of women from all over Italy (and further afield) and are writing to you to break down the wall of silence and indifference that we are faced with every day,” wrote the women (who signed with their first names and a last initial). “Each of us is in, was or would like to start a relationship with a priest we are in love with.” Their phone numbers were also apparently made available in case the pope would like to call the women to discuss the issue.
The women, who reportedly met up on a closed Facebook group, say they represent only a “small sample” of an apparently large group of secret lovers of priests. According to Vatican Insider, the letter noted, “a lot has been said by those who are in favour of optional celibacy but very little is known about the devastating suffering of a woman who is deeply in love with a priest. We humbly place our suffering at your feet in the hope that something may change, not just for us, but for the good of the entire Church.”
The women admitted that they knew it was wrong to enter into amorous relationships with priests, and implied that, at least to some extent the priests respected their vows of chastity, but added, “in most cases, despite all efforts to renounce it, one cannot manage to give up such a solid and beautiful bond. Unfortunately, this brings with it all the pain of not being able to live it fully.”
Priests have been celibate in the Church since the year 1100, when the Vatican made it a hard and fast rule, but it is considered a discipline, not doctrine, which means Francis or any pope after him could lift it. And, according to George Sim Johnston in the Catholic News Agency, there are already married priests in the Latin American Church. “There aren’t many, because a priest may have a wife only in one circumstance: A Lutheran or Episcopalian minister who is already married and wishes to convert to Catholicism is allowed the option of becoming a Catholic priest, on condition that his wife gives full consent,” Johnston writes. “You don’t usually see these married priests, because they’re generally not given parish assignments; they teach in seminaries or work in the chancery.”
The women asked Francis to essentially grandfather in the same sort of scenario. “We would also like the men we love to live their priestly vocation fully, serving the community and continue the mission they have been passionately and devotedly engaged in for a great many years,” the women wrote. “We wish to stand by their side and support them in their calling which is strengthened by the vital force of love they discovered with us.”
The women then reportedly asked for a private audience with Francis to lay out the scenario they and their priestly lovers endure: “This continuous giving and then letting go is soul destroying. When this enormous pain leads to a definitive separation, the consequences are no less devastating and both parties are often scarred for life,” they wrote. “The only other alternatives are either for the priest to abandon the priesthood or for the relationship to carry on in secret.”
The Vatican press office deferred the matter, saying they didn’t discuss the pope’s “personal correspondence.” But as a cardinal, Francis (aka Jose Mario Bergoglio) was close friends with Jeronimo Podesta, a former bishop who left the Church to marry his secret lover. Francis even kept in touch with the former bishop’s widow, Clelia Luro, during the early months of his pontificate until Luro died last year.
And in an interview with Rabbi Abraham Skorka published in his book On Heaven and Earth, Francis said he personally wouldn’t marry, but it is basically never say never when it comes to abolishing the vow of celibacy from the priesthood. “For now, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all the pros and cons that some with it, because in ten centuries there have been more positive experiences than errors,” Francis said. “It is a question of discipline, not faith. It can be changed.”