VATICAN CITY — Ordaining homosexuals “is absolutely inadvisable and imprudent and, from a pastoral point of view, very risky,” wrote the Vatican's point man on the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in an official communication.

Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, responding to a letter from a bishop, added that “a person who is homosexual or has homosexual tendencies is not, therefore, suitable to receive the sacrament of sacred orders.”

The Congregation (Vatican Department) for Divine Worship and the Sacraments published Cardinal Medina's letter in December in the congregation's bulletin. It was written last May to an unnamed bishop who had inquired about the propriety of ordaining homosexual men. The cardinal retired as congregation head in October.

Cardinal Medina said he drafted the response at the request of the Congregation for Clergy and in cooperation with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

News of the letter came shortly after The New York Times reported the Vatican dismissed a priest from his parish known in Italy for joining a homosexual pride march in Rome.

The priest, Father Vitaliano Della Sala, 39, was forced to leave his parish in Sant'Angelo a Scala, near Naples, on Nov. 28 for what the Vatican called “scandalous behavior,” reported the Times.

The letter and story show a Church cleaving closely to the doctrine about homosexuality as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In addition to stressing respect due to homosexual persons, the catechism teaches: “Basing itself on sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (No. 2357).

In the case of Cardinal Medina's letter, the bishop originally had sent his question to the Congregation for the Clergy, which passed it on to the sacraments congregation. After consulting with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Medina expressed “the following judgment” in a three-paragraph letter:

“The ordination to the diaconate or to the priesthood of homosexual persons or those with a homosexual tendency is absolutely inadvisable and imprudent and, from a pastoral point of view, very risky,” Cardinal Medina wrote.

Cardinal Medina wrote that in making its judgment the congregation took into consideration its experience in processing requests for laicization by some priests. It said it was publishing the response because it deemed it opportune to do so at this “particular moment.”

The letter touched on an issue that has received increasing attention at the Vatican. In October, sources told Catholic News Service that the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education was quietly circulating a draft document containing proposed directives against the admission of homosexuals to the priesthood.

The sources said part of the reasoning in the draft document was that since the Church considers the homosexual orientation “objectively disordered” such people should not be admitted to the seminary or ordained.

The Vatican press office later confirmed that a document was in the works but said it also would look at other ordination issues and be addressed primarily to local bishops and seminary rectors.

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, head of the education congregation, said in November that he would not comment on the reports until — and if — a document is published. He offered no target date.

The question of excluding homosexuals from ordination had been considered at the Vatican for years without finding a consensus. It received new attention in the wake of U.S. clerical sex abuse scandal. Most abusers were homosexuals.

Last year Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, said in a CNS interview, “Persons with a homosexual inclination should not be admitted to the seminary.”

In an article published by the Catholic magazine America in September, an American Vatican official at the Congregation for Bishops, Father Andrew Baker, articulated arguments against acceptance of homosexuals as priesthood candidates.

Father Baker said if a man has a predominant or exclusive same-sex attraction that in itself is grounds for bishops to have “a prudent doubt regarding the candidate's suitability” for receiving the sacrament of orders. Church law says if such a doubt exists the person should not be ordained.

Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls addressed the issue of homosexuality and the priest-hood in March, saying that men with homosexual inclinations “just cannot be ordained.”

“That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality,” he said. “But you cannot be in this field.”

These men's remarks might make it seem like the Vatican is just waking up to the problem, but Rome has been speaking out for some time. The question is whether dioceses and seminaries in the United States have been implementing its directives.

A 1961 instruction to the superiors of religious communities on “Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders” states:

“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.”

Even further back, Pope Pius XI, in a 1935 encyclical on the priesthood, said that those in charge of the clergy must not only foster and strengthen vocations but also “discourage unsuitable candidates, and in good time send them away from a path not meant for them.”

“Such are all youths who show a lack of necessary fitness, and who are, therefore, unlikely to persevere in the priestly ministry both worthily and becomingly,” Pope Pius wrote in Ad Catholici Sacerdotii. “In these matters hesitation and delay is a serious mistake and may do serious harm. It is far better to dismiss an unfit student in the early stages” to prevent him from being a “stumbling block to himself and to others with peril of eternal ruin.”

Closer to home Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., who is the newly elected chairman of the U.S. bishops' priestly formation committee, told the Register that he personally would have “serious reservations” in accepting a seminary candidate who is homosexual.

“I would say in the main that a person with a homosexual orientation would not be a good candidate for seminary life,” he said. “The temptations are too great: You're living in an all-male environment, your closest friends are men. You're putting a person in harm's way.”

Finally, in September, Pope John Paul II himself concurred in the opinion.

“It would be lamentable if, out of a misunderstood tolerance, they ordained young men who are immature or have obvious signs of affective deviations that, as is sadly known, could cause serious anomalies in the consciences of the faithful,” he said, “with evident damage for the whole Church.”