Homosexuality and Holy Orders

VATICAN CITY — The title of the document is a mouthful but the message is clear.

The Vatican's new document is called: “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.”

The message about ordaining homosexuals: Don't do it.

The Nov. 29 instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education restates centuries of consistent Church teachings about sexuality and the holiness of the ministerial priesthood. But that hasn't stopped it from sparking a hostile reaction from many media outlets and from Catholic supporters of ordination of homosexuals.

The document's supporters point to psychology, theology — and recent history. Studies show that the priestly sexual abuse scandal in the United States overwhelmingly involved homosexual behavior.

“It's not a new norm,” Cardinal Zenon Grochelewski, prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education, said Dec. 1 (see the Inperson interview below). “It's not a novelty; we simply want to recall this, to highlight the teaching of the Church for all and to those who might have doubts.”

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome from 1994-2001, said that the document “makes de jure what most seminaries have de facto been doing.”

Said the archbishop, “In other words, the Holy See has codified and made precise what we all had come upon in a grass-roots style years ago.”

The Church teaching barring ordination of homosexual candidates has been addressed before.

A 1961 instruction to the superiors of religious communities on “Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders” banned it. A one-page 1985 memorandum from the Congregation for Catholic Education that was circulated privately to bishops reiterated the teaching. And in a 2002 speech, Pope John Paul II said, “It would be lamentable if, out of a misunderstood tolerance, [seminaries] 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, with evident damage for the whole Church.”

The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, in its bulletin Notitiae, Nov.-Dec. 2002, stated: “Ordination to the diaconate 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 not, therefore, fit to receive the sacrament of holy orders.”

But the recent instruction is the most specific, comprehensive and authoritative Vatican statement yet on the hot-button issue.

The new document teaches that “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.’”

In contrast, individuals who had experienced homosexual tendencies “that were only the expression of a transitory problem” could be suitable for ordination, the document states. But, it adds, “Such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate.”

The instruction notes that its conclusions derive from Church teachings on sexuality, set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in and other post-Second Vatican Council documents. The Catechism (No. 2357) 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.”

Much attention has been given to the document's mention of those who overcome “transitory” homosexual tendencies for at least three years. Is it a loophole?

A number of prominent Church leaders have suggested that it opens the priesthood to chaste homosexuals.

Cardinal Grochelewski emphatically rejects this interpretation.

“For people who have a transitory tendency, it's not the fruit of an internal inclination — there's a difference,” he said.

Such “transitory” circumstances might involve adolescent experimentation or experiences that occurred under the influence of alcohol, drugs or coercion, Cardinal Grochelewski said. The difference, he said, is that “they don't originate from an internal tendency but from other circumstances, those that are external, per se.”

Jesuit Father James Martin, associate editor of America magazine, also sees no “loophole” in the document.

“Over the next few months, we will hear from plenty of canon lawyers and theologians and bishops, as we have already, arguing, out of a genuine and compassionate desire to help the Church continue to accept celibate gay men into the priesthood, that the document needs to be interpreted in the most positive light possible,” he said in a Washington Post report Nov. 30. “But it is impossible, after reading the instruction, to escape the fact that when the Vatican says men with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies,’ it means what it says.”

According to the document, the primary reason for excluding even chaste homosexual candidates is that their homosexual inclination deprives them of the “affective maturity” required to be a good priest.

“Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women,” the instruction states. “One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist and co-author of the Catholic Medical Association's handbook, Homosexuality and Hope, said that psychological evidence confirms that homosexual men have maturity problems.

“That's a very accurate assessment,” Fitzgibbons said. “In order to be affectively mature, to have a healthy adult male personality, you have to know how to address emotional pain. But the prevalence of emotional pain is three to five times greater in those with same-sex attractions.”

Father John Harvey, founder of the Courage apostolate that ministers to Catholics with same-sex attractions who desire to live chaste lives and overcome such impulses, also thinks that a man who hasn't worked free of his homosexual identity likely lacks the emotional maturity required of a priest.

“Often times, as a result of early life trauma, he has a feeling of inferiority and it's quite deep,” Father Harvey said. “And often he expresses it in self-pity.”

The Congregation for Catholic Education did not release the document specifically to address the priestly abuse scandal in the United States. In fact, it was being prepared for several years before the scandal broke in 2002. But its application to the U.S. scandals is clear.

The John Jay Report, commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board for sexual abuse of minors by priests, discovered that 81% of 10,667 allegations of abuse reported between 1950 and 2002 involved young males, mostly teens.

The report also indicated that the ratio of homosexual abuse allegations to heterosexual allegations rose sharply during the 1960s and 1970s, a period during which many American seminaries became more accommodating in admitting known homosexuals. While the ratio of homosexual to heterosexual abuse allegations was less than 2 to 1 during the 1950s, the ratio climbed to more than 3 to 1 in the 1960s and to more than 6 to 1 in the 1970s.

National Review Board member Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, recently described the John Jay Report's findings about the link between homosexuality and abuse as a “bombshell.”

“I'm astonished that people throughout America are not talking about it, thinking about it, and wondering about what the mechanisms were that set this alight,” McHugh said.

Dr. Fitzgibbons concurred that priests who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies and who subscribe openly to the homosexual subculture are implicated in the abuse scandal.

Said Fitzgibbons, “These priests do not support the Church's teachings with regard to sexual morality,” he said. “In fact, they try to undermine it in high schools, colleges and seminaries. They've been doing this for more than 30 years. This undermining of sexual morality is the cause of the crisis in the Church.”

For his part, Archbishop Dolan cited another reason why men who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies and support the gay subculture are unsuited to the priesthood.

“The definition a person has to have of himself — a person who wants to give his life to Jesus in the Church — that definition has to be as a child of God, redeemed by the precious blood of his only begotten Son, called to be a disciple of Christ at the very core of his being,” said Archbishop Dolan. “That's the definition of self that you look for. If a man's self-definition is that he is gay, he is a homosexual, then that can't be.”

At the same time, Archbishop Dolan said the new document isn't the restrictive, nay-saying document it's being painted as. He sees it as an affirmation of what's best about seminaries and the priesthood.

“This Vatican document wants to ensure that seminaries are places where what is most pure and noble and virtuous, what is on the side of light and life — that those things triumph in our seminary system,” Archbishop Dolan said. “This is a deep, passionate call to emphasize and affirm what is most noble, uplifting and virtuous in the call to priesthood.”

Edward Pentin and CNS contributed to this report.