William McDonough


The Christian church begins its new year with the first Sunday of Advent, and this year, on the same weekend, Americans kicked off a month of holidays, extending from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Both observances are meant to foster a sense of hope and new beginnings. Yet this Advent, I was struck by the sad irony that on November 29, two days into the church’s season of hope, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education chose to release its Instruction on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries and to holy orders.

Several years ago, in a talk on Advent, the great German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann pointed out that some languages (German and Latin, for example) have two words for the English word “future.” In Latin, futurus is that which develops in a predictable way out of the present. Moltmann said that to think of the future only in this way is a failure of hope; by itself this is “the planner’s future,” a way of trying to control life and thus a way of posing as God. The other Latin word for future, adventus, indicates the future as coming toward us from God, as breaking into our plans and making a claim on our lives. We are not in charge of this future, but seek to embrace it as part of God’s providential care for us. To practice the virtue of hope is to open ourselves to the future’s claims on us.

Many things can be said about the Vatican’s Instruction on gay candidates for the priesthood. Here I want to argue that it is a failure against hope. It indulges, at least materially, in one of the two cardinal sins against hope, presumption. Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae, wrote of this sin that “one thinks one has...greater knowledge...than one has.” Jesuit philosopher William Lynch noted that hope “keeps reality open and keeps declaring that not all the facts are in.” In at least two places, the Instruction engages in presumption.

First, this is the only Vatican document on homosexuality in recent decades that does not allude, in any respect, to the possibility that we have more to learn about homosexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of homosexuality that “its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.” The source of this acknowledgment is surely the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s request that theologians “deepen...their reflections on the true meaning of human sexuality,” and, as a result, “make an important contribution in this particular area of pastoral care,” a request expressed in its 1986 letter to Catholic bishops on The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.

An openness about what is yet to be learned about homosexuality can be found (more than in Vatican documents) in the 1990 U.S. bishops’ statement Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning. The U.S. bishops write, first: “The medical and behavioral sciences do not as yet know what causes a person to be homosexual. Whether it is related to genetics, hormones, or some variation in psychosocial upbringing, the scientific data presently seem inconclusive.” The bishops then conclude: “Lifelong learning [about sexuality] requires commitment to a process that unfolds and deepens through the years....We ask you [Christian educators] to grow through prayer, reflection, study, and dialogue as you journey with those you serve. Know that we are with you in that ongoing process of discovery.” In contrast, one looks in vain for a hint that the Vatican congregation thinks the church has anything at all to learn about homosexuality.

The second offense against hope in the Instruction is its statement that persons who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies “find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.” This assertion, made without any philosophical or empirical support, is also a novelty in Vatican teaching. Homosexual people are not able to relate “correctly” to men and women? Really? How does the Congregation for Catholic Education know this?

Furthermore, why would anyone seeking to foster hope, especially in a homosexual person, trust the Vatican on this? To do so might even lead to what Aquinas calls the other cardinal sin against hope, despair. Of that sin Aquinas wrote: “one who despairs judges...that for him, in that state, on account of some particular disposition, there is no hope of the divine mercy.” I am not saying that I fully understand homosexuality, but I am saying that the Instruction’s bald assertions might rob some homosexual persons of hope.

My hope for our church in this respect stems from a statement by the International Theological Commission in conjunction with Pope John Paul II’s Lenten apologies of the year 2000. In explaining how it is possible for a pope to apologize for past church teachings, the commission wrote: “Not every act of authority has magisterial value, and so behavior contrary to the gospel by one or more persons vested with authority does not involve per se the magisterial charism.”

Surely the church will apologize one day for this Instruction’s presumption, since our magisterium, by definition, cannot act against hope. It is indeed sad that, as the new year begins for both church and society, we need to turn away from the church’s teaching authority to find living models of hope.



James Martin


Responses to the Vatican’s November 29 Instruction banning men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from ordination varied dramatically. At one end of the interpretive spectrum was Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former head of the Dominicans, who claimed it “cannot be correct” that the document is an outright ban on gay priests, since there are “many excellent priests who are gay.” Those arguing, in varying degrees, for a similar approach included Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Conference of Major Superiors for Men, and the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, which said that at the heart of one’s vocation, “there is no question of sexual orientation, but instead the responsibility to follow Christ in a coherent manner.”

At the other end of the spectrum was Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, who supported a narrower application, saying, “Absolutely, it does bar anyone whose sexual orientation is towards one’s own sex and is permanent.” Others argued for even more stringent interpretations. Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, wrote that the document “would seem to mean that they [gay priests] never should have been ordained in the first place.”

The church’s longstanding tradition is that every Vatican document must be interpreted. “Ecclesiastical laws must be understood in accord with the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context” (Canon 17). And, as the editors of Commonweal noted, bishops, seminary rectors, and religious superiors will have the final say in the Instruction’s application (“Instruction from Rome,” December 16, 2005).

Still, bishops, seminary rectors, and religious superiors aren’t the only ones who will interpret the Instruction. How gay seminarians, gay priests, and, in particular, gay men discerning a vocation interpret the Instruction will be equally important.

Consider the last cohort. In reading the Instruction, many self-aware gay men will probably identify themselves as having a “deep-seated homosexual tendency.” Two prominent gay Catholic thinkers, the writer Andrew Sullivan and the theologian James Alison, take the document at face value. On his Web site, Alison wrote, “The Instruction is clear, straightforward, and logical, and I don’t think any service is done by attempting to represent it as anything other than what it does.” Like many minority groups, gays and lesbians are acutely aware of language that seeks to exclude them. For both Alison and Sullivan, the document says that anyone who understands himself as gay is not to be admitted to orders.

Despite the broad-minded interpretations of some bishops, the gay man interested in the priesthood can’t predict whether he will encounter a seminary rector who thinks like Radcliffe or like D’Arcy. And what young man will want to join an organization that—at least as he sees things—now publicly opposes his admission?

The Instruction, then, is noteworthy not simply for how it is applied by rectors but for how it is received by gay men. It’s difficult to imagine a gay man (or a man struggling to understand his orientation) feeling more encouraged to pursue a vocation after reading it. The result will be a diminution in future vocations to the priesthood.

Current gay seminarians will also have to interpret the document. Some have told me that they had anticipated the directive and, though greatly disappointed in the Instruction, remain firm in their vocations and confident in God’s call. One said that his superiors, spiritual directors, and colleagues, along with his own time in prayer, have confirmed his vocation over the years, and that in this light, the divine call supersedes the Instruction from Rome. Other gay seminarians are more worried. They agonize over whether they can ignore a Vatican document they believe clearly applies to them.

How will the document be received by celibate gay men already ordained? To begin with, the Instruction states that homosexuals cannot reach “affective maturity.” And, in an aside, the Instruction states, “Such people [that is, gay men] find themselves in a situation that seriously obstructs them from relating correctly to men and women.”

This means official Vatican policy is that homosexual men—and by extension celibate gay priests—by their very nature are unable to relate to their fellow human beings. No matter how one parses it, this is a harsh statement, unsupported by empirical evidence. What will gay priests, who have spent years hearing confessions, preparing couples for marriage, and ministering to the dying make of such a sweeping judgment? Ironically, it comes a few sentences after the document states, quoting the Catechism, that homosexuals should be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

In noting that its publication comes in response to “a particular question, made more urgent by the present situation,” the Instruction seems to lay the blame for the sexual-abuse crisis at the feet of gay priests, conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. (Experts in psychology and psychiatry convincingly refute this analysis.) Likewise, the Instruction sets aside the example of thousands of celibate gay priests who have lived their vocations with integrity. Such statements, delivered without acknowledging the faithful service of celibate gay priests, will be received by gay priests with dismay. At best, these men will grit their teeth in anger and get on with their work; at worst, they will feel demoralized and, ultimately, consider leaving the priesthood.

The full effect of the Instruction will not be known for years. It will take time to gauge how bishops and religious superiors apply it, and whether the Vatican will issue subsequent statements if it suspects the document is being interpreted too loosely. It will take time for gay seminarians and gay priests to discern whether the document calls their vocations into question. And it will take time to show whether those young gay men now considering the priesthood will feel discouraged enough to abandon their dreams.

On balance, though, the Instruction will give conservatives what they’ve been demanding for years: fewer gay men entering seminaries and religious orders. Some claim straight men will rush in to fill the vocation gap. That’s wishful thinking. When asked about this theory, Katarina Schuth, OSF, an expert on U.S. seminaries, said, “People who say that have obviously spent little time around seminaries.” In other words, the Instruction doesn’t affect only potential or current gay priests. It will mean fewer priests staffing parishes, schools, hospitals, and retreat centers. That’s something the whole church should be worried about.


Related: Paul Stanosz, "Gay Seminarians"
The Editors, "Wanted: Manly Men"

William McDonough is professor of Theology and coordinator of the Masters in Theology Program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2006-01-13 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.