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Issue Date:  December 9, 2005

Ban on gays subject to seminary practice


With publication of the Vatican’s long-awaited document on gay seminarians and the subsequent torrent of reaction, two questions now seem to loom as paramount: What does the document mean? How will it be enforced?

While the document has already been a media sensation, how much long-term difference it actually makes in the day-to-day practice of seminaries and religious communities may largely turn on how -- and whether -- these questions are officially resolved, for that could determine whether the ban on gays is absolute or applied on a case-by-case basis.

At the heart of the new document, officially released Nov. 29 but leaked to the Italian press agency Adista the previous week following distribution to the Italian bishops, is that men who are “actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture” cannot be ordained as priests.

Men who have experienced “transitory” homosexual impulses, however, could be ordained, as long as these impulses have been overcome for three years prior to ordination as deacons.

The principal focus of debate so far has been the phrase “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” Does it refer to the mere existence of a stable same-sex orientation, or could it mean a disproportionate fixation on one’s sexuality that not all homosexual candidates necessarily exhibit?

The former reading would exclude virtually all homosexual candidates, while the latter would leave open the possibility of admitting men with an enduring homosexual orientation who are nonetheless judged to be mature, balanced and capable of living a celibate life.

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seemed to endorse the second, more permissive reading in a Nov. 29 statement.

The instruction, Skylstad said, would rule out a candidate “so concerned with homosexual issues that he cannot sincerely represent the church’s teaching on sexuality.” The question of whether “homosexually inclined men” can be good priests, Skylstad said, therefore depends on how they live and what they teach.

“The answer lies in the lives of those men who, with God’s grace, have truly been dedicated priests, seeking each day not to be served but to serve their people, faithfully representing in word and example the teaching of the church in its fullness, including God’s revelation that sexual expression is intended only to take place between a husband and a wife in a loving, faithful and life-giving marriage,” Skylstad said.

Likewise, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the largest umbrella group of mens’ religious orders in the United States, issued a statement indicating that the aim is “men who are well integrated and psychologically mature, faithful to church teachings, and who posses a clear understanding of the meaning of, as well as the spiritual and emotional capacity to commit to, chaste celibacy for life.”

Given that the comments come from the elected president of the American bishops and the largest body of men’s orders, they may well represent a broad cross section of sentiment within the American church. Whether they represent the “legislative intent” of the Vatican, however, is another matter.

While the document itself does not settle the question of what “deep-seated tendencies” means, quasi-official commentaries issued by Vatican officials seem to buttress a much more restrictive reading.

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, gave an interview to Vatican Radio Nov. 29 in which he offered examples of “transitory” homosexual tendencies.

“There could be some curiosity in adolescence that’s not resolved,” he said. “Or there could be accidental circumstances, such as a drunken state, or particular circumstances such as a person who was in prison for many years,” Grocholewski said. “In these cases, the eventual homosexual acts do not come from a profound tendency, but are determined by circumstances. Or, these acts could be performed in order to please somebody for obtaining advantages.”

The common denominator in the cases cited by Grocholewski seems to be behavior that results from shifting circumstances, rather than a clear and stable same-sex attraction.

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a commentary on the instruction Nov. 30, written by Fr. Tony Anatrella, a French priest and psychoanalyst, and a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.

Anatrella’s commentary unambiguously asserts that the point of the instruction is not merely to insist upon celibacy, but to rule out men with a fixed same-sex orientation.

“Candidates who present ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies,’ that is, an exclusive attraction with regard to persons of the same sex (a structural orientation) -- independently of whether or not they’ve had erotic experiences -- may not be admitted to seminaries and to sacred orders,” Anatrella wrote.

Anatrella criticizes a “permissive attitude” that says as long as a candidate is capable of celibacy, he may be ordained.

In fact, Anatrella asserts that gay priests experience a whole host of other difficulties.

Anatrella offered these examples: “Closing oneself off in a clan of persons of the same type; exaggerated affective choices; [becoming] a narcissistic position in front of a community that [the gay priest] disturbs even to the point of dividing it; a mode of vocational discernment that seeks candidates in his own image; relations with authority based on seduction and rejection; … an often limited vision of truth and a selective way of presenting the Gospel message; particularly in the areas of sexual and conjugal morality, these are habitually zones of relational and intellectual confusion and ideological combat, disapproved by a correct search for truth and the wisdom of God.”

On a more theological level, Anatrella argues that gay priests cannot effectively incarnate a “spousal tie” between God and the church, nor the “spiritual paternity” a priest is supposed to exhibit.

While Anatrella’s essay does not carry the weight of the original instruction, observers say it does represent a quasi-official explication of what the instruction’s authors had in mind.

Once a Vatican document is published, however, it becomes a text of the church rather than just the people who wrote it, and sometimes those who didn’t want the document in the first place find ways to “limit the damage” through careful interpretation.

Something of that exercise seems to be underway now among bishops, superiors and seminary rectors who don’t support a rigid ban on gays.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said Nov. 25, reacting to the leak of the instruction to the Italian press, that church discipline bars from the priesthood anyone who is sexually active, or who advocates sexual activity outside faithful heterosexual marriage.

The instruction would not, Martin said, absolutely exclude homosexuals from the priesthood.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster, England, said, “The instruction is not saying that men of homosexual orientation are not welcome in the priesthood. But it is making clear that they must be capable of affective maturity, have a capacity for celibacy and not share the values of eroticized gay culture.”

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, England, told the BBC Nov. 29 that the document establishes “behavioral” tests for admission to the priesthood, leaving open the possibility that a homosexual candidate without behavioral difficulties could still be admitted.

The former master general of the Dominican order, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, in an essay in the Nov. 26 Tablet, wrote that the instruction does not ban men with a “permanent homosexual orientation,” because “there are many excellent priests who are gay and who clearly have a vocation from God.”

Vocations personnel in various locations have struck similar notes.

“My impression is that this is not any different from what we have been practicing here,” Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth, a professor of pastoral theology and national consultant on seminary education at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Nov. 24.

“It’s a bit vague, a bit open to interpretation, so it’s hard to say for sure how it might be enforced,” she said. “But it appears to describe what most seminaries now do -- really just a restatement of the 1961 prohibition against ordaining sexually active gay men.”

Fr. David Nuss, vocations director for the Toledo, Ohio, diocese, told the National Public Radio program “Talk of the Nation” Nov. 29 that he does not read the new document as a blanket ban on men with homosexual orientation.

“Tendencies or inclinations toward homosexuality, in and of themselves, are not a prohibition for admittance into the seminary or ordination,” Nuss said during a program on which an NCR reporter also appeared.

“Sexual activity is something that needs to be studied and that needs to be revealed and that needs to be discussed,” he said.

The document “shows a tremendous lack of understanding of human sexuality,” said Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, long an advocate for homosexuals within the church.

Gramick said the fundamental problem she sees with the document is that the writers “consider a homosexual orientation objectively disordered. That idea has to be questioned and examined. And upon examination with contemporary scientific information, they will find that a homosexual orientation is natural for at least 10 percent of the population. They don’t want to acknowledge that our knowledge grows, and that as we get more information we need to revise our theology.”

Even some commentators generally regarded as “conservative” have seemed open to a distinction between a basic homosexual orientation, and a “deep-seated tendency” that becomes unhealthy.

“The Vatican is prudent not to have an absolute ban on admission of homosexuals to the priesthood,” said William Donohue of the Catholic League in a prepared statement. “There are too many good men with homosexual tendencies who have served the church with distinction,” Donohue said.

“But there is a monumental difference between someone who is incidentally homosexual and someone for whom the gay subculture is central to his identity. Only those blinded by sexual politics will fail to make this distinction,” Donohue said.

All this suggests that the document may contain enough “latitude” to allow both those wishing to take a strong stance against gays, and those favoring a more case-by-case approach, to find justification.

Some Catholic critics of the document, however, regard efforts to find a more “open” reading as misplaced.

“It will be very tempting for Catholics, especially liberal ones, to focus on questions of ‘interpretation’ and ‘application,’ in the hope that the document won’t really mean what it says,” said Jesuit Fr. James Martin, a noted spiritual writer.

“They are talking about what the contemporary world commonly understands to be gay men, that is, men with a homosexual orientation. … There’s little that is unclear.”

Issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education, the document is an “instruction,” which means that it does not create new church law but rather clarifies existing policies. It was approved by Pope Benedict XVI, but is not a papal document. It is primarily addressed to bishops, religious superiors, seminary personnel and others involved in priestly formation.

Generally speaking, canon lawyers say that bishops have more latitude in applying an instruction to their local churches than laws issued by the pope himself in documents such as a motu proprio or an apostolic constitution.

In a separate issue, some critics have objected to language in the document that calls upon spiritual directors to look for signs of “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” among seminarians, and to attempt to dissuade candidates with such tendencies from ordination.

These critics argue that the effect of such language will be to make seminarians less likely to be honest with spiritual directors.

“The relationship between a seminarian and his confessor or his spiritual director should not be about enforcing church documents, but to serve as spiritual guides,” Fr. Michael Herman, an openly gay priest who serves as pastor of St. Sylvester Church in Chicago told The New York Times.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005

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