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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 wrote.

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 of God."

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 contents.

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 celibacy.

"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 priesthood.

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 pastoral ministry."

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 stated.

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 wrong."

"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 crisis).

"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 females.

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 future reference.

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 really is.

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.