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Posted December 2, 2005

Vatican document on homosexuals
raises series of delicate questions

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A long-awaited Vatican document drew a sharp line against priestly ordination of homosexuals, but in the process raised a series of delicate questions for church leaders and seminary officials.

The nine-page instruction, prepared by the Congregation for Catholic Education, said the church cannot ordain men who are active homosexuals, who have "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies or who support the "gay culture." Those who have overcome "transitory" homosexual tendencies, however, could be ordained, it said.

The document was officially released by the Vatican Nov. 29 after years of preparation.

The instruction's bottom line was that homosexual men should not be accepted into seminaries or ordained to the priesthood.

In recent weeks, some reports have suggested that the document would allow homosexual men to be ordained, as long as they had remained celibate for at least three years during seminary formation.

But the document does not say that; there is no discussion of "celibacy" of homosexual candidates. What it does say is that fleeting homosexual tendencies experienced in youth should not represent a bar to ordination -- as long as those tendencies are clearly overcome.

In other words, a candidate would have to mature out of a homosexual inclination well before ordination.

"This part of the text refers to someone who may have had an experience tied to the process of maturing during adolescence. It does not refer to someone who is homosexual and who has refrained from (sexual) acts in a three-year period," said an official of the education congregation, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It is talking about a phase in which someone has uncertainty about his sexual orientation, and it says this uncertainty must be definitively overcome," the official said.

The wording of the text is significant. It presumes that homosexuality is not a permanent identity but a set of "tendencies" or an inclination that can, in fact, be overcome.

But the instruction makes no attempt to define the difference between "deep-seated" or "transitory" tendencies. Nor does it say what criteria would be used to determine whether a candidate had overcome such tendencies.

Further, the text does not spell out who should determine whether a candidate for the priesthood has homosexual tendencies. It does not discuss psychological testing of seminary applicants, another key and controversial issue at the Vatican.

In fact, in late 2002 the education congregation was concluding work on a separate document on psychological testing in seminaries. But that text disappeared from the radar, and congregation officials today refuse to comment on its status.

The new instruction does mention the seminarian's spiritual director and confessor as people who should dissuade a homosexual man from pursuing ordination. That presumes, as the document states, that a spiritual director would "make sure that (a candidate) does not present disturbances of a sexual nature, which are incompatible with the priesthood."

But according to canon law experts in Rome, that could raise potential issues regarding the relationship of confidentiality between the seminarian and his spiritual director.

According to Msgr. Gerard McKay, a member of the tribunal of the Roman Rota, a spiritual director could ask a seminarian about sexual problems, but he could not then use that information to have the seminarian removed.

The idea that the instruction contains "nothing new" is not really accurate. A 1961 Vatican document on religious order priests said homosexuals should be excluded from religious vows and ordination, but that was one line in a lengthy document.

The new text addresses exclusively the question of homosexuality. That bothered some people even inside the Vatican.

"They should have written a more general document on self-control or on chastity," said one bishop who advises the Vatican on doctrinal and other issues.

"This instruction says very valid things, but there are many temptations or instincts that need to be controlled before ordination," he said. "Instead, they have written an instruction that singles out homosexuals, which can create misunderstandings."

The bishop said it was clear the Vatican was not taking a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude on homosexuality. The document urges bishops and seminary officials to make sure the norms are applied, which underlines that the Vatican is serious about this, he said.

In explaining why homosexuals should not be ordained, the instruction refers to the teaching of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," which describes homosexual acts as sinful and the homosexual inclination as "objectively disordered."

It follows, it said, that homosexuality is a bar to a priest's "affective maturity" and seriously impairs his ability to minister pastorally to the Catholic community.

Three years ago, in the first story published about the Vatican document, Vatican officials described its content in much the same terms to Catholic News Service. Why did it take so long for the document to appear?

"The core of the document never changed, even as the text evolved," the education congregation official said.

"Initial drafts took a wider view, saying much more about homosexuality in general. But after the complexity of the question was seen, it was decided to stick to the essential question of ordination," he said.

Although described by some media reports as Pope Benedict XVI's answer to clerical sex abuse, the decision to write the instruction predates the eruption of the sex abuse scandal and the pope's election.

Sources said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope -- suggested in 1996 that the education congregation prepare such a document. A first draft was completed in 1998, a second draft in 2002 and the final version this year.

While the clerical sex abuse scandal is not mentioned explicitly in the instruction, the text makes two possible allusions to it: when it says the question of homosexuality is made more urgent by the "current situation," and when it warns of not underestimating the "negative consequences" of ordaining homosexuals.

In private conversations, several Vatican officials have said it was important not to scapegoat homosexuals for priestly sex abuse. At the same time, others point out that many clerical sex abuse victims have been teenage boys.

Hosting a meeting of outside medical and psychiatric experts in 2004, Vatican officials asked them about homosexuality and ordination. Some felt homosexuality was not a cause of abuse but might be considered a risk factor; others said it would be unrealistic to expect homosexual seminarians to identify themselves as such.