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An analysis of the new Vatican document on homosexuality
and the priesthood, dated November 4 and published in Rome
on November 29. [This article will appear in the January issue
of "Inside the Vatican" which also contains the
magazine's choices for the "Top Ten People of 2005."]
- by Inside the Vatican staff
Last month we published the text of the Congregation
for Catholic Education's new Instruction dealing with the
admission of homosexuals to seminaries, entitled Concerning
the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard
to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission
to the Seminary and to Holy Orders. This month we analyze
the gestation, purpose, background and tone of the text, what
it says and leaves unsaid, its significance, and reactions
to it. - The Editor
The long-awaited Vatican document on criteria
for the admission of men with homosexual tendencies to Catholic
seminaries, approved by Benedict XVI on August 31, 2005, was
officially published on November 29. (It is dated November
4, feast day of St. Charles Borromeo, patron of seminaries.)
There is no explicit connection made in the document between
its instructions and Borromeo, the zealous 16th century reformer
of seminaries and clergy. But Borromeo instructed priests
to never forget that they are shepherds of souls and to always
remember that nothing is as necessary as praying and meditating,
night and day, particularly before, during and following Mass.
"Thus we will be able to overcome the difficulties we
meet, countless as they are, each day," Borromeo wrote.
"In any event, this is what is demanded of us by the
task entrusted to us. If we act thus, we will find the strength
to give birth to Christ in ourselves and in others."
Why so long in coming? This document took almost 10 years
to prepare, and it is only three pages long. Why so long?
The brief answer is: because the subject is so explosive and
In 1996, the Congregation for Catholic Education was asked
to draw up criteria on homosexuality and the Catholic priesthood.
In 1998 and 2002, trial drafts were presented at plenary meetings
of the Congregation. During 2003 and 2004, John Paul II, who
had become increasingly concerned about homosexuality's impact
on the priesthood, was pushing the Congregation to complete
its work. A plenary session in February 2005 finally approved
the Instruction. It was published at the end of November.
Many things made a speedy writing of the text difficult.
The Education Congregation had to consult six other Vatican
departments in addition to the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger. All the while, changes
outside the Church were putting pressure on the Vatican. Homosexuals
in the West were campaigning for recognition of their identity
as a group and for acceptance of their practices.
Their considerable success led to unprecedented political
and social recognition and a sea change in the attitude toward
homosexuality among large segments of the public. Psychologists,
politicians, liberal Protestant churches and the media played
active roles in promoting the "Gay Revolution."
Like abortion, homosexuality came to be seen, in most industrialized
countries, as normal, moral and an acceptable choice for individuals
to make. Christians defending traditional teaching came more
and more to be depicted as prejudiced individuals denying
civil rights to a persecuted minority, homosexuals.
This moral summersault has made some in the Vatican want
to go slowly with public reaffirmations of teachings based
on Scripture and natural law. Liberal Catholics, even some
under the Pope's very window in the Vatican, have increasingly
been questioning Scriptural and Church condemnations of homosexual
From 1961 up to today, the official Instruction on homosexuality
and the priesthood was one approved by John XXIII in 1961.
It was strict, stipulating that entrance "to religious
vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted
with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since
for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute
This 1961 document was widely ignored. At most seminaries,
homosexuality has not been an obstacle either to admittance
or to ordination.
Many contend that most of the homosexuals who entered the
priesthood from 1970 to 1990 have remained celibate and lived
the lives of faithful priests. But there's considerable evidence
some did not keep their vows and have lived as active homosexuals,
ignoring or rejecting Church teachings. Fr. Joseph Fessio,
S.J., remarked on American national television in November
that 400 US priests have died of AIDS, conveying some idea
of the dimensions of the problem.
What does this have to do with the difficulty of drawing
up the new document? No one in the Vatican in recent years
has wanted to insult priests who consider themselves homosexual
but have lived exemplary priestly lives. Homosexuals within
the Church, especially those in positions of authority, in
religious orders, in the episcopacy and even in the Vatican,
quietly reminded their fellow priests that whatever must be
said must be said with Christian love. Such views were listened
to and carried weight. The long struggle to produce clear
criteria on homosexuality, dissent and sex abuse scandals
gives us a window on the state of today's Church. That the
Congregation did manage to produce a reasonably strong statement
is a ray of hope. It indicates that there still some committed
to reforming priestly training and limiting the corruption
that has demoralized Catholicism for 40 years.
Those who put the document together wanted to move bishops
and seminary directors to carry out their responsibilities
with greater dedication to Church teaching than in the recent
past. Equally important was that the document not stir up
irrational prejudices. They wanted a clear statement in accord
with Catholic teaching, not overly polemical, harsh, extreme,
or in any way uncharitable.
The document is brief, its language moderate and its focus
narrow. Its purpose is to correct one specific practice, not
to theologically or philosophically comment on contemporary
culture, evil or the concupiscence of humankind. Even the
Prefect of the Education Congregation, Cardinal Grocholewski,
speaking on Vatican radio simultaneously with its publication,
pointed out its ordinariness: "This document contains
nothing extraordinary because, on the problem of homosexuality,
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has pronounced
itself many times."
Thus, by design, the document does not have breadth or sharpness
of the 1961 Instruction, nor the directness of some of John
Paul II's statements on the subject. The authors of the document
did not think the world's bishops required an historical review
of teaching on homosexuality. Thus, the document quotes no
teachings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, or passages
from St. Paul, or Augustine, or other Fathers.
We can give the documents essential message in one sentence.
"The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons
in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to Holy Orders
those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual
tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture'."
The document draws on the Catechism's distinction "between
homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies" saying a candidate
to the seminary, while he may have "homosexual tendencies,"
must not commit homosexual acts. The tendency is not sinful,
the acts are "grave sins". Though same-sex desires
may be "found in a number of men and women" and
are "objectively disordered," nevertheless, these
individuals "must be accepted with respect and sensitivity.
Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should
be avoided." Those "who are actively homosexual,
have deep- seated tendencies or support the so-called gay
culture" cannot be admitted to a seminary. But, those
whose tendencies are not "deep-seated" can be admitted
after any transitory problem has clearly been "overcome
at least three years before diaconal Ordination." This
is the most undeveloped thought in the entire document.
The document is a functional directive. It would take a large
volume to treat homosexuality and the priesthood in any definitive
fashion. The Instruction is more an exhortation to take a
course of action than a developed argument as to why that
action must be taken. The document always uses general and
delicate terms. It does not employ the words "sodomy"
or "pederasty." It does not mention Pope John XXIII's
traditional document on the subject, nor John Paul II's direct
condemnations. Even when it draws on the Catechism, it chooses
more general language. The catechism says "homosexual
acts are acts of grave depravity," but the document tells
us they are "grave sins." Depravity is a particularly
heinous sin. On the crucial question of not admitting or ordaining
openly active gay men, the document is unequivocal. But to
try to answer whether it waters down the traditional teaching
of 1961, it might help to consider some statements from that
John XXIII's Document
Here are three quotes from the Instruction John XXIII approved
on February 2, 1961, Careful Selection and Training of Candidates
for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders.
1. "Advancement to religious vows and ordination should
be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies
to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life
and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers."
2. "If a student in a minor seminary has sinned gravely
against the sixth commandment with a person of the same or
the other sex, or has been the occasion of grave scandal in
the matter of chastity, he is to be dismissed immediately
as stipulated in canon 1371."
3."A very special investigation is needed for those
students who, although they have hitherto been free of formal
sins against chastity, nevertheless suffer from morbid or
abnormal sexuality, especially sexual hyperesthesia or an
erotic bent of nature, to whom religious celibacy would be
a continual act of heroism and a trying martyrdom. For chastity,
in so far as it implies abstinence from sexual pleasure, not
only becomes very difficult for many people but the very state
of celibacy and the consequent loneliness and separation from
one's family becomes so difficult for certain individuals
gifted with excessive sensitivity and tenderness, that they
are not fit subjects for the religious life."
What can we say about these quotes? Their tone is very different
from the new document. The 1961 text conveys a sense of authority.
The 2005 statement seems seems less confident that its criteria
will be faithfully followed. The bar against gays in the seminary
has been slightly lowered in the new document; greater reliance
is placed on the possibility of reform and conversion. Sins
that would have disqualified applicants or seminarians in
1961 would not so automatically disqualify them in 2005. It
is not clear whether the Vatican has become more accepting
of candidates with "homosexual tendencies," is relying
more on the power of grace to influence those who have given
in to homosexual tendencies, or feels it no longer has the
clout to strictly police its priesthood.
In one respect the document was instantly successful -- it
got the media's attention, reached a huge audience and was
intently commented on around the world.
The comments fall into three groups. At one extreme it stirred
up a frenzy of criticism among gays, liberals and the ruling
class of secularists. At the other extreme were traditional
Catholics who found it too limited and permissive. They complained
it failed to define homosexuality in depth, adopted what they
consider the overly-subjective three-year period of abstinence,
and lacked apostolic passion.
In the middle were the bishops, the target audience. Typical
was the response of Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput, who
spoke admiringly of the text's brevity, saying 1,500 words
work out "to about an average Sunday homily. And like
many of the best homilies, it [the Instruction] seeks to apply
common sense and the wisdom of the Church to problems of the
day." He specifically endorsed the main message: "the
Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question,
cannot admit to the seminary or to Holy Orders those who practice
homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or
support so-called gay culture."
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, found it confirming
"the perennial and traditional teaching of the Church,"
that those "afflicted" with "the unfortunate
and serious disorder are not suitable candidates" for
Holy Orders. He felt the document said what needed to be said
and was very close to what he was already doing in his diocese.
William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, who is also president
of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, stressed a view
he has often spoken out on: "There are many wonderful
and excellent priests in the Church who have a gay orientation,
are chaste and celibate. Witch hunts and gay bashing have
no place in the Church."
Matthew Clark, Bishop of Rochester, New York, likewise chose
not to emphasize the document's central message about banning
from the seminary men who have "deep-seated homosexual
tendencies or support the so-called gay culture." Speaking
directly to any gay men who might be contemplating applying
to a seminary, he said that in his diocese: "We try to
treat all inquiries fairly. You will be no exception."
In Ireland, which was recently shocked by revelations of
massive sex abuses in the Church, Dublin's Archbishop Diarmuid
Martin praised the document, while noting that it did not
exclude gays from entering seminaries. In London, the Archbishop
of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor praised the
text, noted its indictment of "an eroticized gay culture"
that exists in some seminaries, while concluding: "The
instruction is not saying that men of homosexual orientation
are not welcome in the priesthood." One surprising reaction
came from American traditionalists. They argued that the new
Instruction fails to hold the line on homosexuality and is
disturbingly ambiguous. They could not fathom why the Pope
had approved the document. In Europe, some saw the text as
an indication that Benedict has left behind his Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith role as disciplinarian and enforcer
and deliberately chosen the mantle of Father of all Christians,
figure of unity, dialogue and reconciliation, Pastor of lost
sheep, man of peace. Meanwhile, gay activists seemed uniformly
infuriated by the document, calling it negative, offensive
Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, and
the first openly gay Anglican bishop, attacked the Catholic
Church as soon as the text appeared. "I find it so vile
that they [Catholic leaders] think they are going to end the
child abuse scandal by throwing out homosexuals from seminaries.
It is an act of violence that needs to be confronted."
He took a swipe at Benedict XVI, saying: "Pope Ratzinger
may be the best thing that ever happened to the Episcopal
Church. We are seeing so many Roman Catholics joining."
The reason for this fury may be that the document was seen
as aiming at control of gay sex. But the document is rigorously
aimed at reforming Catholic seminaries, nothing else. Still,
restraining the sexual desires of any group is one thing this
culture and its media -- groomed on sexual myths and fantasies
-- gets worked up about. The heated responses to the document
recall the fury unleashed by Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968).
Both documents reveal the chasm that has opened between the
Church and Western culture in our time.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI
One of the initial statements on homosexuality from Pope
John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in October
31, 1986. On that date the Congregation for the Doctrine of
Faith issued its "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic
Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons." It
repeated traditional teaching, which would later appear in
the Catechism of the Catholic Church in1994: "Although
the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not
a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward
an intrinsic moral evil; thus the inclination itself must
be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore special concern
and pastoral attention should be directed to those who have
this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living
out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally
acceptable option. It is not."
As the extent of the abuse scandals became more and more
known, John Paul became increasingly insistent that the admittance
of homosexuals must be curtailed. On Holy Thursday, March
21, 2002, he sent a letter to all priests. Among other things,
there is this sentence: "Some of our brothers have betrayed
the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous
form of the mysterium iniquitatis (mystery of evil) at work
in the world."
In May 2002, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the
Discipline of the Sacraments, having consulted Cardinal Ratzinger,
sent this instruction to bishops: "Ordination to the
deaconate and the priesthood of homosexual men or men with
homosexual tendencies is absolutely inadvisable and imprudent
and, from the pastoral point of view, very risky. A homosexual
person or one with a homosexual tendency is, therefore, not
fit to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders."
In his last book, Memory and Identity (2005) John Paul II
calls homosexuality an "ideology of evil." As for
gay marriage, he writes: "It is legitimate and necessary
to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology
of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts
to pit human rights against the family and against man."
In a letter to the Congregation for Catholic Education on
February 1, 2005, when he was suffering from influenza and
approaching death, Pope John Paul was still deeply troubled
by the sex scandals that had brought tragedy to the Church
in the US, Austria and Ireland. He wrote to the Congregation
that would produce this new document: "Right from the
moment young men enter a Seminary their ability to live a
life of celibacy should be monitored so that before their
ordination one should be morally certain of their sexual and
Inside The Vatican (ISSN 1068-8579) is a Catholic news magazine, published monthly except July
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