New York Times
September 22, 2005
ROME, Sept. 21 - Homosexuals, even those who are celibate, will be barred from becoming Roman Catholic priests, a church official said Wednesday, under stricter rules soon to be released on one of the most sensitive issues facing the church.
The official, said the question was not "if it will be published, but when," referring to the new ruling about homosexuality in Catholic seminaries, a topic that has stirred much recent rumor and worry in the church. The official, who has authoritative knowledge of the new rules, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the church's policy of not commenting on unpublished reports.
He said that while Pope Benedict XVI had not yet signed the document, it would probably be released in the next six weeks.
In addition to the new document, which will apply to the church worldwide, Vatican investigators have been instructed to visit each of the 229 seminaries in the United States.
Although work on the document began years ago under Pope John Paul II, who died in April, its release will be a defining act in the young papacy of Benedict, a conservative who said last spring that there was a need to "purify" the church after the deeply damaging sex scandals of the last several years.
The church official said the ban would pertain only to candidates for the priesthood, not to those already ordained. He also said the document did not represent any theological shift for the church, whose catechism considers homosexuality "objectively disordered."
Although the document has not been released, hints of what it will say are already drawing praise from some Catholics, who contend that such a move is necessary to restore the church's credibility and who note that church teaching bars homosexuals, active or not, from the priesthood.
Other Catholics say, though, that the test should be celibacy, not innate sexuality, and they predict resignations from the priesthood that can worsen the church's deep shortage of clergy.
"I'm hearing that some men will choose to leave, because if they don't, it would be like living a lie," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the American National Federation of Priests' Councils, who opposes a ban because it would be "extremely hurtful" to chaste gay priests who are serving the church.
But the church official who discussed the expected new rules said the document called for barring even celibate men who considered themselves homosexual because of what he contended were the specific temptations of seminaries.
"The difference is in the special atmosphere of the seminary," he said. "In the seminary, you are surrounded by males, not females."
The issue of homosexuality in the priesthood and seminaries has long been a difficult one, which the Vatican appears to be addressing, particularly in the United States, on two apparently connected fronts.
The visits to the American seminaries cover a wide range of concerns, but among those the investigators will be looking for is "evidence of homosexuality" and whether seminarians are being properly prepared to live celibately. Both the document and the investigation come under the authority of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education.
Taken together, the document and visits seem aimed at imposing a stricter standard on both the atmosphere at seminaries and on whom they accept as candidates for the priesthood. Archbishop J. Michael Miller, the congregation's secretary, noted at a meeting in Baltimore last week with more than 100 bishops, priests and lay people that the new rules would come as no surprise because there was an existing Vatican document barring homosexuals from the priesthood, according to two church officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they felt there might be repercussions if they spoke for attribution.
Archbishop Miller appeared to be referring to a 1961 document that recommended against ordaining anyone who has "perverse inclinations to homosexuality or pederasty."
But that document has been overlooked by seminaries in the United States for many years. Although practices vary, most American seminaries in recent years have not uniformly rejected candidates with a homosexual orientation, seminary officials say.
Instead, they try to ascertain case by case whether the candidate is capable of living in a chaste and celibate manner, often rejecting candidates who have been sexually active in the years before deciding to join the priesthood.
Many gay men have entered the priesthood, though, and they are increasingly open with their colleagues, their bishops and in some cases, even with their parishioners, about their sexual orientation. The Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former American seminary rector, contended five years ago in his book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood" that "the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession."
James Hitchcock, a conservative Catholic and a professor of history at St. Louis University, said some seminaries had reached the point of being "openly welcoming of homosexuals" and "don't even regard chastity necessary. "
"In that environment - and then you add to that the pedophilia scandals - probably the Vatican thinks that strong medicine is necessary for a serious disorder," said Mr. Hitchcock, who said he would nonetheless favor a system that allows for rare cases to be decided individually.
In fact, the degree to which the new rules would allow some slack appears to be a major question. It seems clear that the rules will be far more restrictive than current practice.
In what many church experts saw as a hint of the new rules, the archbishop leading the seminary visits was quoted last week by The National Catholic Register as saying even homosexuals not sexually active for a decade or more should not be accepted into seminaries.
But the church official said the rules were not absolute. The very definition of homosexuality, he said, is not fixed. And there may be rare cases in which a prospective seminarian who is confused about his sexuality might be accepted if the church decided he would still make a suitable, celibate priest.
"There is room for this," he said.
Still, Father Silva of the Federation of Priests' Councils and three other church officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared they would lose their jobs if they revealed dissension within church ranks, said several influential American church leaders had tried to persuade Vatican officials not to release a document about gay seminarians because it would create more problems in the priesthood than it would solve.
"People would do what they used to do, which is not be honest," said a gay American priest and professor at a Catholic college who did not want to be identified because he fears he could lose his church position if his sexual orientation was known.
"The irony is, if you look at the exact ages and seminary graduating classes of those priests who were convicted of sexual abuse in the past few years, they were not on the whole people who entered seminaries in the 1980's, when there began to be more openness about homosexuality," he said. "These were people from the old closeted days.
"So what the church is doing is repeating, in a weird way, the conditions they had before that gave rise to the abuse crisis."
But any move to ban or limit gay men from serving as priests would probably be popular among conservative Catholics, some of whom contend that heterosexuals hesitate to enter the priesthood because they have heard it is predominantly gay.
Mike Sullivan, of Catholics United for the Faith, a conservative advocacy group, said his group would favor a ban because putting a homosexual in an all-male seminary environment subjects that person to too much temptation, and increases his likelihood for failure.
"It's not appropriate to put an alcoholic in a bar either," he said.
On the general issue of homosexuality, official Catholic teaching, as explained in the catechism, says that while some people appear to have a predilection toward same-sex attraction, homosexual acts are impermissible and that homosexuals should remain chaste. But the church has also counseled understanding, and in 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed then by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, denounced the "unfounded and demeaning assumption" that homosexuals could not control their sexual behavior.
The church official said, however, that the church was entitled to make its own decisions, based on theology, about who is allowed to be a priest, comparing the issue to that of women, who are barred from the priesthood as well.
"Being a priest is not a right," he said. "The Catholic Church never ordains anyone on the conception of human rights."