That depends what you mean by 'gay'


A new Vatican document says that men who "practice homosexuality, posses deeply-rooted homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture" should not be permitted to enter seminaries or become ordained priests.

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Fr. Raymond de Souza

It is a document that demonstrates the Church's basic disposition toward sexuality: it is vitally important, but is not all-important.

Some history is in order: The last time the Vatican formally addressed this question was in 1961, and the answer was simple and clear: Men with homosexual tendencies should not be ordained. Since then, the intervening sexual revolution has greatly changed the cultural environment, and so the whole subject has become rather more nuanced and complex. Given that the term "gay" is used to describe a wide range of experience and behaviour, more specificity is required.

The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, which is responsible for seminaries, began work on this instruction some five years ago. Because of the delicacy of the subject, it proceeded slowly.

Then in 2002, the sexual abuse crisis hit. There were polemics on all sides of that, leading the American bishops to commission a comprehensive, independent study, which examined some 10,667 cases from 1950 to 2002. The study revealed that 81% of all cases involved priests abusing boys or adolescent males. While the independent commissioners refrained from asserting any causal link, noting at the same time that many priests with a homosexual orientation served well, they highlighted the high preponderance of homosexual abuse as an item requiring attention.

The premise of this new Instruction — which was released officially on November 30 — is that a priestly vocation is not a right, but a gift. Therefore, no one can claim a right to be ordained a priest. Anyone familiar with seminaries knows this, as men are commonly dismissed, often not for any malfeasance, but simply because it is judged that God has not given the man a priestly vocation.

A second premise is that priests must live the Gospel they are ordained to proclaim. In our culture, that most especially means being able to live the ancient Christian ethic on sexuality. A man who has lived a promiscuous life with women is not suitable for the priesthood without a long period of repentance, conversion and testing.

This distinction is considered risible by those for whom sexuality is the dominant force in identity, but it does in fact address the concrete situation of many men. Such men, with careful discernment, are still potential candidates for the seminary.

Homosexuality raises another set of questions. The settled teaching of the Church for millennia is that homosexual acts (like all sexual acts outside marriage) are immoral. And that the desire to engage in them is "disordered." It does not mean those with homosexual tendencies are ill, or incompetent or even in sin. But it does mean a priest cannot be someone who fosters such tendencies in himself, or others, let alone engages in homosexual acts. It would constitute an impossible contradiction.

But the Church does not believe that sexual appetites constitute the whole of a personality. Indeed, the Church never officially uses the ambiguous term "gay" or "homosexuals," but rather the more unwieldy formulation "persons with homosexual tendencies" or "persons with homosexual orientations." Sexuality is important, but it is not everything. It is not supposed to constitute an identity.

So at the heart of the new instruction is that it rejects as suitable for the priesthood those whose identity is defined by what Catholic doctrine regards as a disordered sexual tendency. It could hardly be otherwise — a man who defines his identity in relation to homosexuality would be defining himself in terms directly contrary to the Christian sexual ethic.

There are, of course, many men with homosexual tendencies who do not so define themselves. Common parlance may call them "gay men," but it would be more accurate to describe them as men who live with homosexual tendencies. This distinction is considered risible by those for whom sexuality is the dominant force in identity, but it does in fact address the concrete situation of many men. Such men, with careful discernment, are still potential candidates for the seminary.

The Instruction addresses these situations, saying that the status of such candidates must be clear for at least three years before ordination. That does not mean three years without homosexual relationships. (Given that men are in the seminary during this three-year period, any sexual relationship would be disqualifying.) Rather, it means there must be a period when it is clear that candidates with homosexual tendencies are not defined by them.

A difficult task? To be sure, the Instruction admits as much. But the task of guiding souls and discerning priestly vocations is a delicate one which defies easy capture by headlines.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "That depends what you mean by 'gay'." National Post, (Canada) November 24, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2005 National Post

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