There has been a notably wide variety of interpretations from Catholic leaders of the Vatican instruction, published on Nov. 29, concerning the admission of gay men to orders. It is difficult, therefore, to determine exactly what effect it will have on future applicants to seminaries and religious orders. Some Catholic leaders, like Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former master general of the Dominicans, have concluded that the document cannot be taken as a ban on gay men in the priesthood, since, in his words, there are many excellent priests who are gay. Others, like Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the answer lies less in a man’s orientation and more in the lives of those men who, with God’s grace, have truly been dedicated priests, seeking each day not to be served but to serve their people, faithfully representing in word and example the teaching of the Church in its fullness. Still others, like Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., view the document as an outright ban. "[I]t does bar anyone whose sexual orientation is towards one’s own sex and it’s permanent," he said to The Washington Post.
Like any Vatican document, this latest directive, in keeping with the Code of Canon Law (Canon 17) will have to be interpreted and applied, in this case by bishops, seminary rectors, vocation directors and superiors of religious orders. (Its official title is Instruction Concerning the Criteria of Vocational Discernment Regarding Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to Seminaries and Holy Orders.)
There is a valid concern that the priesthood should not become exclusively or even predominantly the domain of gay men. In the same way that one would not want to see all or most priests coming from a particular ethnic group, or from a particular region of a country, one hopes that the priesthood reflects the great diversity of Catholics. Similarly, the concern that a man not so identify himself with the so-called gay culture that it obscures his fidelity to the church is a prudent one. And the document’s restatement of the need to remain faithful to the promise of celibacy is an important one for any candidate, no matter what his orientation.
One area highlighted by the instruction is the need for affective maturity of the candidate. In the past, too many candidates with an unhealthy psychological makeup were accepted into holy orders, a decision that contributed to the eventual sexual abuse of children. Seminaries and religious orders should redouble their efforts to keep out any unhealthy candidates, and continue to weed out these candidates in the course of seminary training and religious formation, and should make sure as well that seminarians are trained to live celibate lives with integrity and peace.
It would be tragic, however, if this attempt by the Vatican to confront the sexual abuse crisis were the occasion for division within the church or prompted any increase in prejudice against gays and lesbians. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, homosexual men and women are to be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity (No. 2357). In Pauline theology, the church, as a body, is made up of many different members. Among them are some with a homosexual orientation. In the past, many of these men and women have served faithfully and with distinction in religious orders. And many gay men have served as celibate priestsin parishes, schools and retreat houses across the world.
Anything that seeks to remove gay men and women from the place that is theirs within the body of Christ by virtue of their baptism or to deny their contributions to the church should, of course, be rejected. So should anything that conflates homosexuality with pedophilia or ephebophilia. The connection between them is unsupported by any credible empirical evidence, and the scapegoating and vilification of gay priests is against Christian charity.
Some have predicted that the instruction will discourage gay men from applying to seminaries and religious orders in the future, and will lead to the ejection of celibate gay men from seminaries and religious formation programs. Others surmise that the wide variety of interpretations may reduce the impact of the document. But all can agree, in keeping with the instruction’s admonition about affective maturity, on the need for practices that can foster healthy growth in the men who enter seminaries and religious orders to ensure that the church will be served by those who are not only celibate, but also prayerful, mature and compassionate.
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