Following the consternation in Bolivia following the revelation of serial sexual abuse of minors committed by a deceased Jesuit, the bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Pando and head of the Communication Commission of the Bolivian Bishops’ Conference, Eugenio Cóter, considered the possibility of optional celibacy for priests.

The scandal came to light when the nephew of the deceased Spanish Jesuit priest, Alfonso Pedrajas Moreno who served in Bolivia, found a diary among his personal effects that reveals that the priest had sexually abused as many as 89 minors and that the Jesuit authorities were aware of the abuse and covered it up.

The nephew informed the John XXIII school where the priest was principal; the Spanish prosecutor’s office; the Jesuits; and finally the Spanish newspaper El Pais, which broke the story April 29, shocking Bolivians and sending reverberations throughout the Catholic Church.

In this context, Cóter gave an interview to the FM radio station Erbol in which he referred to "changes that must be made" in the Church. Among them, was his proposal that celibacy be optional for priests since a relationship allows for "an integration of the affective, sexual, bodily dimension."

When delving into the possibility of optional celibacy, the bishop of Pando alluded to some debates that took place within the framework of the Amazon Synod (2019) and the controversial German Synodal Path, which in March of this year approved measures aimed at allowing the ordination of women as deaconesses, the blessing of homosexual unions, and the normalization of lay preaching at Mass — among other matters far removed from the teaching of the Church.

"So it is a subject that is there on the table for reflection that will arrive in Rome in October, with the bishops, the delegates of the bishops of the world in this synodal path that is taking place," he said, reported Erbol.com.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’" (Mt 19:12) (CCC 1579)

“Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord,’” the Catechism continues, “they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”

In addition, Pope Francis on different occasions has disagreed with the proposal of optional celibacy. 

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On the return flight to Rome from World Youth Day in Panama in 2019, Pope Francis recalled a phrase from Saint Paul VI: "I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy" and noted that he personally believes that “celibacy is a gift to the Church.”

"I do not want to put myself before God with this decision," the pope said on that occasion.

The pope reaffirmed this position in an interview for the Spanish-language book “El Pastor” (The Shepherd) by biographers Sergio Rubín and Francesca Ambrogetti to be released by Origen in June 2023: "Let the pope who succeeds me provide for it if he deems it appropriate.”

The Holy Father has also noted that celibacy "is a discipline" but that he "respects the tradition of the Church in the West."

Contrary to this position, Bishop Cóter said that in the event that celibacy would no longer be mandatory, it could be a “helpful element” in preventing sexual abuse by the clergy.

However, in his opinion, "the determining element" for abuse to not occur "is that there are no predispositions," arguing that "most cases occur in a family context, where despite the fact that there is a marital relationship between the couple, something happens that later unleashes this situation on the children.”

The bishop explained that in religious vocation formation settings, when a young man wants to enter the seminary or a young woman enter a congregation, "the psychological profile made by a professional is requested, so that there is a precaution." In addition, "during the formation  process, attitude testing is repeated" in order to "identify personalities that present symptoms of distortion.” 

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Bishop Cóter considered that one must also foster spirituality, relationships with others and with God. Otherwise, the process that should be "growth and commitment" becomes "a process of inhibiting (growth) and being closed in on oneself," he said.

In “El Pastor,” Pope Francis observes that “if one lives celibacy badly, it’s torture, it’s something impossible. But if one lives it with the fecundity of the ministry for which one opted, it’s not only bearable, but also beautiful,” clarifying that “for this one must have a vocation.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.