Posted December 4, 2005
More Insights and Discussion on the Vatican Document on Gays
At the moment, we have posted a number of articles on the Vatican Document
on our website, thanks to columnists like John L. Allen of the National
Catholic Reporter and others. It is our hope that the information we
selected will enable us to get a balanced picture of the gay issue. In the
past, this was an issue, but not of the proportion it has grown to. Our
times are now putting the spotlight on it like never before. It is a
challenge to learn, and understand in order to make wise judgements and
bring the best of wisdom to this issue. It is a time in which facts, not
innuendo, speculations and hearsay, must rule our judgement.
John L. Allen, Jr. From Rome
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Dec. 13, 2002, some three years ago, I offered an update in "The Word from
Rome" about a Vatican document then in preparation on the ordination of
homosexuals. Here's what I wrote:
"Bishops with a blanket policy against the ordination of gays will be
confirmed by the new document, but others favoring a case-by-case approach
may be able to read it in a way that permits that stance … In that sense,
the new document will certainly cause an explosion in the press, but it may
not change a great deal in terms of existing practice."
My gift for prognostication, it should be said, is notoriously spotty - I
once predicted that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would not be elected pope. In
this case, however, at least judging by early reaction to the new
instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, I seem to have
been a bit closer to the mark.
In the wake of the document's official Nov. 29 release, some commentators
have indeed taken it as a prohibition of anybody with a same-sex attraction,
regardless of their psychological maturity or capacity for celibacy.
This was the unambiguous thrust, for example, of the official commentary
published in the Nov. 30 L'Osservatore Romano by French Monsignor Tony
Anatrella, a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family and the
Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral.
"Candidates who present 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies,' that is, an
exclusive attraction with regard to persons of the same sex (a structural
orientation) - independently of whether or not they've had erotic
experiences - may not be admitted to seminaries and to sacred orders,"
Anatrella criticizes the "permissive attitude" that says as long as a
candidate is capable of celibacy, he may be ordained. In fact, Anatrella
asserts that gay priests experience a whole host of other difficulties.
He offered these examples: "Closing oneself off in a clan of persons of the
same type; exaggerated affective choices; [becoming] a narcissistic position
in front of a community that [the gay priest] disturbs even to the point of
dividing it; a mode of vocational discernment that seeks candidates in his
own image; relations with authority based on seduction and rejection; … an
often limited vision of truth and a selective way of presenting the gospel
message; particularly in the areas of sexual and conjugal morality, these
are habitually zones of relational and intellectual confusion and
ideological combat, disapproved by a correct search for truth and the wisdom
On a more theological level, Anatrella argues that gay priests cannot
effectively incarnate a "spousal tie" between God and the church, nor the
"spiritual paternity" a priest is supposed to exhibit.
While Anatrella's essay does not carry the weight of the original
instruction, observers say it represents a quasi-official explication of its
Yet among many bishops, religious superiors and seminary rectors, the
document is being read in very different ways. Some believe they can make a
distinction between a same-sex orientation in itself, which would not
necessarily disqualify a candidate, and "deep-seated homosexual tendencies,"
meaning a fixation on sexuality that raises questions about a candidate's
maturity, his commitment to church teaching, and his capacity for chaste
"The instruction is not saying that men of homosexual orientation are not
welcome in the priesthood," said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of
Westminster, England, in a prepared statement. "But it is making clear that
they must be capable of affective maturity, have a capacity for celibacy and
not share the values of eroticized gay culture."
Auxiliary Bishop Herve Giraud, president of the Commission of the French
Bishops' Conference for Ordained Ministry, said his reading is that "the
question is not so much to know if a candidate is homosexual, but to
distinguish his capacity for pastoral relations."
(CNS/Reuters) Priests in Rome wait near the Vatican's press office Nov. 29
for release of the official Vatican document on homosexuality and the
A Nov. 23 statement from the Swiss Bishops Conference also read the document
in this fashion. "When, for a particular man, homosexual tendencies make
impossible a life of sexual abstinence, then admission to ordination is not
possible," it said. Yet, the Swiss statement clearly asserted that "a
homosexual tendency lived out in sexual abstinence does not exclude one from
The Belgian bishops issued a statement along the same lines.
"The Vatican instruction makes a point of recalling that if the homosexual
orientation of a candidate proves to be an obstacle with regard to freely
chosen celibacy, or in terms of right relations with men and women, this
candidate may not be admitted to the seminary," their Nov. 29 communiqué
The Dutch bishops, in a similar Nov. 29 statement, said that the point of
the instruction is to ensure that "every priest is able to establish
pastoral and affective relations with others which are compatible with his
celibate state of life."
Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, likewise seemed to endorse a more permissive
reading in a Nov. 29 Vatican statement.
The instruction, Skylstad said, would rule out a candidate "so concerned
with homosexual issues that he cannot sincerely represent the church's
teaching on sexuality." The question of whether "homosexually inclined men"
can be good priests, Skylstad said, therefore depends on how they live and
what they teach.
The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the largest umbrella group of
men's religious orders in the United States, said that the aim of the
document is "men who are well integrated and psychologically mature,
faithful to church teachings, and who posses a clear understanding of the
meaning of, as well as the spiritual and emotional capacity to commit to
chaste celibacy for life."
In summary, the presidents of the English and the American bishops'
conferences, the French bishop in charge of priestly life, the bishops'
conferences of Switzerland, Belgium and Holland, and the chief
representative of men's communities in the States, all have said in various
ways that even under this document, a same-sex orientation by itself will
not exclude candidates from the priesthood.
By no means, however, is this a universal consensus among bishops.
Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., in the United States, for
example, told The Washington Post that Skylstad's interpretation is "simply
"I would say yes, absolutely, it does bar anyone whose sexual orientation is
towards one's own sex and it's permanent," D'Arcy said. "I don't think
there's any doubt about it. ... I don't think we can fuss around with this."
Logically enough, some observers wonder if, in light of this conflicting
welter of interpretations, the Vatican will issue further official
clarification. I put the question on Dec. 1 to a church official who advises
several Vatican congregations.
The official said he does not expect new pronouncements.
Despite the language of Anatrella's commentary, he said, the point of the
document was not principally to ban each and every candidate with a same-sex
orientation, but to "raise the bar" to ensure that the church is not putting
potential abusers into the priesthood. (This despite the fact that work on
the document began well before the most intense period of the sexual abuse
"Everybody knows there are gay men who are fine priests, and everybody knows
that being gay doesn't mean somebody is a pedophile," he said. "This is not
about scapegoating homosexuals."
"However, everybody also knows there are gay priests out there who should
never have been ordained, who are fixated on sexuality and who have caused
all kinds of problems. The church has a responsibility to be sure that
adolescent males in its care are not at risk from homosexual priests who are
not chaste. That's the obvious truth, but nobody wants to say it."
This official said the same point applies to heterosexual candidates, but
that gay priests face a different set of pressures, since a priest is much
more likely to have unsupervised contact with adolescent males than with
Time will tell, but for now it seems the church may be left with the same
dynamic that often follows Vatican pronouncements -- a tough-sounding
document, applied and interpreted in varying ways.
One dimension of this story that has perplexed many observers, including a
number of Vatican officials, was the endless cycle of leaks and
counter-leaks leading up to publication of the document, often producing
widely varying accounts of what it would contain. Veteran reporters working
for prominent secular news outlets such as The New York Times and Corriere
della Sera, to say nothing of the Catholic press such as NCR, published
"scoops" that often seemed flatly contradictory.
It's been tempting for some to conclude that reporters were either just
making things up, or that their stories were written for particular
ideological motives. While such things are not impossible, I suspect a more
basic force is at work, and it would be wise to file this point away for
Reporters are dependent upon sources, and in the Catholic church different
sources sometimes have strong motives for wanting to construe Vatican
documents in different ways. When sources talk to us about a forthcoming
document or policy decision, therefore, sometimes their description is
filtered through those hopes or fears.
In the case of the instruction on gay priests, those Catholics most in favor
of a strong ban wanted the most sweeping document possible, and hence
probably tended to emphasize its toughest aspects. Ironically, liberal
critics of the Vatican's position on homosexuality probably did the same
thing, underlining from their point of view how "out of touch" the Vatican
Many bishops and church bureaucrats, on the other hand, seeking to avoid
public relations problems and to preserve room for flexibility in
interpretation, often try to minimize the force of these documents,
especially when they have a disciplinary component. They tend to emphasize
nuance and ambiguity. Thus when they're talking to a reporter, they may be
describing the same document, but it will sound quite different.