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Posted December 2, 2005

Bishops, seminary officials react to
document on gays and priesthood

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) A Vatican document putting restrictions on admitting homosexuals to seminaries and ordaining them to the priesthood has drawn both praise and criticism from U.S. bishops and seminary officials.

While some praised it as a reaffirmation of church teaching on sexual morality and the need to assure the commitment to celibacy by candidates to the Latin-rite priesthood, others said the document is also hurtful to priests and seminarians who are homosexual and celibate.

Several bishops and seminary administrators said that the criteria in the Vatican document about judging homosexuals is already compatible with what is being done in the United States and noted that the document does not offer any specific procedures for screening seminarians, leaving bishops and religious superiors with flexibility in applying the criteria.

The document, called an instruction, was issued by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education Nov. 29. It said that the church cannot allow priestly ordination of men who are active homosexuals, who have "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies or who support the "gay culture."

Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Sacramento, Calif., said that screening processes and procedures for discerning people with sexual problems have toughened since the clergy child sex abuse crisis erupted in the U.S. church in 2002.

These procedures include a second evaluation several years after a candidate has entered the seminary, he told Catholic News Service.

Bishop Garcia is a former professor and dean of students at two seminaries.

Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George in a prepared statement said that the document's criteria is "entirely consistent with the teaching of the church for the past 2,000 years. To portray the instruction as 'gay bashing' or 'gay banning' is to misrepresent it."

Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils, said the document "is very hurtful to priests who are celibate and homosexual."

The Vatican instruction says that homosexuality impedes their ministry and that they would have trouble relating to men and women, Father Silva told CNS.

Dominican Father Charles Bouchard, president of Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, said that he agrees with the criteria in the document but the tone is "needlessly offensive" to seminarians and priests who are homosexuals and celibate.

"It has raised doubts about their vocation," he told CNS. At the same time, "there is no new teaching or norms in the document," said Father Bouchard.

"Twenty years ago we wouldn't accept homosexual candidates as described in the document," he added.

Father Bouchard said that a weakness of the document is that it focuses on homosexuals without pointing out that there also are strict requirements for heterosexual candidates who would have problems with celibacy.

"It almost makes it sound like, 'If you are a heterosexual, you are home free in the seminary.' And that is not the case," he said.

Dominican Father John Farren, rector of St. John's Seminary operated by the Boston Archdiocese, said that the document does not put into doubt the vocation of a seminarian with a homosexual tendency.

"It says the vocation needs to be considered fairly and honestly. Each individual has to be judged on the merits of his own case," he told CNS.

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNS that the document has to be understood within the context of criteria applied to all seminarians aimed at producing well-integrated personalities ready for church service and aimed at "screening out persons oriented in ways that cloud their ministry."

If a candidate "has a deep-seated heterosexual impediment" to ministry, he should also be excluded, said Bishop Skylstad.

In a prepared statement, Bishop Skylstad agreed with the restrictions contained in the Vatican document and called it "timely" and an expression of "Christian realism about what is expected in candidates for the priesthood."

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, former rector of the North American College in Rome for U.S. seminarians, said that a homosexual who exhibits none of the criteria opposed by the Vatican document and feels he may have a vocation "shouldn't be discouraged" from becoming a seminarian.

He told CNS that it is often hard to judge if a person has "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies and noted that the Vatican document offers no definition or specific way of determining this.

Discerning such a tendency is a delicate task that needs to be done in confidential sessions that seminarians have with their spiritual directors and confessors, he said.

One sign of this tendency is "someone constantly plagued by temptations," said Archbishop Dolan.

Several other bishops said that homosexual orientation alone would not disqualify a priesthood candidate.

Bishop Matthew H. Clark of Rochester, N.Y., said in a prepared statement that the main issue in judging whether a seminarian can live a celibate life is "sexual maturity, not sexual orientation."

Any candidate who meets the requirements for ordination is accepted "regardless of orientation," he said.

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said that in his diocese "priests with homosexual orientation have exercised their priestly ministry in a chaste, faithful, loving and pastorally effective manner."

The Albany Diocese "will continue to assess each candidate on his ability to measure up to all the expectations of an affectively mature person and public minister of the church," he said in a prepared statement.

Several people said, however, that seminary and priestly life presents more dangers to a homosexual than a heterosexual.

"The heterosexual man who enters the seminary does not enter a school with attractive young women," said Bishop John M. Darcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.

"The homosexual candidate, however, is forced to live closely with other males. In fact, he will live most of his life with males," he said in a prepared statement. "This is not fair to him for his spiritual growth."

Agreeing with the bishop was Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of the monthly magazine First Things and a New York archdiocesan priest.

"The all-male environment of a seminary is not only a great risk but also an enormous burden" on a homosexual, he told CNS.

The issuing of the document by the Vatican "is clearly a sign that a number of priests and seminarians are not living according to church teaching," he said.

Bishop D'Arcy, who was seminary spiritual director for 15 years, said one of the reasons for a focus on homosexuality and the priesthood is the clergy child sex abuse crisis.

He said that a 2004 statistical study commissioned by the U.S. bishops' National Review Board "found that 81 percent of the abuse took place against males" and that "a large number of victims were post-pubescent males."

This means that "a large portion of clergy sex abuse did not involve pedophilia," said Bishop D'Arcy.

Bishop Skylstad said that there is "no empirical evidence" that homosexuality in the priesthood is directly responsible for the sex abuse crisis.

He said that is why the bishops support a "causes and context" study of the crisis to better understand sexual tendencies that could be risk factors.

The study is expected to be completed in three years.