Writing about the Vatican takeover of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) from bishops’ conferences (“Lost in Translation,” December 2), John Wilkins offered the rule of thumb he used when editor of the Tablet of London. “If the curial congregations became concerned about an issue, it should always be assumed that they had good reason,” Wilkins wrote. “But the methods they used and their answers could be wrong.”
That is a rule worth keeping in mind in the wake of the Congregation for Catholic Education’s November 29 “Instruction” banning men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from seminaries and ordination. Much ink has been spilled over what the phrase “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” means. Some Catholics, welcoming the document as a clarification of what “has always been taught,” argue that the meaning is plain: homosexuals, even if celibate, cannot be ordained. And even some defenders of ordaining gay men concede that the Vatican’s language is all too unambiguous.
Several bishops and bishops’ conferences have interpreted the Instruction differently: “deep-seated tendencies” to act on same-sex attraction would bar a candidate from ordination, not a seminarian’s underlying sexual orientation. It is further noted by others that the Instruction is directed to seminary rectors and bishops, and that individual bishops will continue to determine who is to be ordained. Moreover, the document was issued by a Vatican congregation, not by the pope, thus diminishing its authority. Like most edicts from Rome, everything depends on how it is interpreted and implemented.
Closing the priesthood to gay men, an orientation the church recognizes as involuntary and blameless, would be an extreme and unjust step to take. Whatever the complications surrounding the presence of a significant number of gay men in the priesthood, solving the “problem” in this way makes little sense. If nothing else, it is sure to drive gay priests deeper into a clerical closet, with all the potential that entails for moral and psychological damage and eventual scandal.
Timothy Radcliffe, OP, the former head of the Dominicans, responded to the Instruction with great tact (Tablet, November 26). He argued that it “cannot be correct” that Rome is barring homosexuals from the priesthood, for the self-evident reason that “there are many excellent priests who are gay and who clearly have a vocation from God.” Radcliffe, like many others, was equally perplexed by the Vatican’s vague language regarding characteristics such as “spiritual fatherhood” and “affective maturity,” capacities the document suggests homosexual men cannot possess.
Radcliffe does his best to read the Instruction in a positive light, but his analysis may be too artful. The Vatican’s subsequent release of a letter calling for the removal of rectors and seminary faculty who are homosexual has provoked fears of a purge. If the logic of the initial document suggests that homosexuality is an absolute impediment to “affective maturity” and a “true sense of spiritual fatherhood,” then homosexuals who are already ordained, even bishops, must be similarly incapacitated. If that is the Vatican’s position, the implications are dire.
It is commonplace to note that the celibate priesthood has historically drawn a disproportionate number of homosexuals to its ranks. The reasons are complicated. Certainly, the priesthood is a refuge or closet for many. Doubtless, the all-male society and sense of solidarity exert an appeal. In addition, the life of a priest can provide a gay person with a purposeful sense of vocation and a kind of surrogate family, which might otherwise be denied him. None of these reasons represents ignoble desires, nor need they create insurmountable problems, as long as the rule of celibacy is observed.
This is not to say that having a large number of gay priests in a church that considers homosexuality “intrinsically disordered” and condemns every aspect of the modern homosexual self-understanding doesn’t present profound challenges (see Paul Stanosz, "Gay Seminarians"). At least in this regard, Rome’s concerns are not entirely misplaced. It is no secret that something went terribly wrong in U.S. seminaries in the late 1960s, the ’70s, and even into the ’80s. Both gay and straight priests as well as former seminarians acknowledge that, as many priests left to marry, the proportion of priests who were gay increased dramatically, and in some places, gay subcultures flourished. What role this breakdown in discipline and morality played in the sexual abuse of minors is not clear, but the idea that it played no role in a pattern of abuse in which 80 percent of the victims were male is untenable.
By the ’90s reform of the seminaries was underway. Celibacy is now clearly understood to be obligatory. In that light, celibate gay priests are speaking out, defending the integrity of their vocations. These priests see a ban on homosexuals as a way of scapegoating them for the sexual-abuse crisis, while ignoring the malfeasance of bishops and obscuring the fact that only a small number of priests, whether homosexual or not, were responsible for those crimes.
For better and worse, the profound contemporary shift in the moral assessment of homosexuality mirrors a much broader acceptance of the positive value of sexuality, one the church itself embraces in celebrating the “unitive,” not merely the procreative value of the “conjugal act.” Admittedly, recognizing the good of sex does not mean all sexual relationships are good. At the very least, however, most Catholics no longer consider homosexual love to be inherently “evil.” Moreover, the church’s credibility with respect to sexual morality has greatly eroded in the aftermath of the sexual-abuse crisis. In this context, barring homosexuals from the priesthood appears to be another pastoral failure at the highest levels of the hierarchy. Whether it is birth control, homosexuality, or the range of sexual contact permitted between spouses, church teaching offers little that speaks to the experience of the vast majority of faithful Catholics, who now insist that they know something about sexual morality that the church’s leadership needs to learn. No one expects the Vatican simply to amend the Catechism. Nor should it be assumed that popular contemporary understandings of sexuality are beyond question. Far from it. Still, some measure of humility and generosity from Rome when pronouncing on the intimate lives of others would help. To be heard, one needs to listen.
There is hardly a Catholic alive who doesn’t have a colleague, a neighbor, a friend, a relative, or a child who is gay. Like Humanae vitae, barring homosexuals from the priesthood would force many Catholics, both straight and gay, into internal or outright exile from the church. Much, indeed, depends on how this Instruction is interpreted in the years ahead.
Continuing the Conversation: William McDonough & James Martin, SJ, The Vatican & Gay Priests