Bishop Accountability

Ordination and Same Sex Attraction

By Andrew R. Baker
America, Vol. 187 No. 9
September 30, 2002

Every bishop possesses the sacred duty of discerning the suitability of candidates for holy orders. St. Paul’s advice to Timothy is fitting for all bishops, especially today: “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone” (1 Tim. 5: 22). The church’s life and the way it manifests itself as the sacrament of salvation for the entire world leans inextricably on the shoulders of her priests. The supernatural “health,” one could say, of the church depends heavily on the fitness of candidates for ordination.

In the aftermath of the scandal of clerical sexual abuse of minors, the church and society have focused partly on the role of homosexuality. The question has arisen as to whether or not it is advisable for a bishop to admit a man with predominantly homosexual tendencies, or what some call “same sex attraction” (S.S.A.), to the seminary and/or present him for holy orders.

Thanks to a recent Circular Letter in 1997 from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments concerning the suitability of candidates for holy orders, some guidance and assistance from the Holy See have already been given in order to tackle the thorny and difficult issue of suitability.

The letter says that a vocation is based on “a moral certitude that is founded upon positive reasons regarding the suitability of the candidate.” Next, it mentions the fundamental reason not to admit a candidate to holy orders. The document says: “Admission may not take place if there exists a prudent doubt regarding the candidate’s suitability (Canon 1052 §3 with Canon 1030). By ‘prudent doubt’ is meant a doubt founded upon facts that are objective and duly verified.” Later, the congregation advises that it would seem “more appropriate to dismiss a doubtful candidate” than to lament the sadness and scandal of a cleric abandoning the ministry.

In other words, the congregation seems to suggest that even if there is only a “prudent doubt,” based on objective facts, about the suitability of any candidate, the best and safest course of action is not to admit him to holy orders. The church does not ask for certitude that a man does not have a vocation but simply that a doubt has arisen through a prudent examination of evidence. Even though there may be a lack of certitude but a definite prudent doubt, a proper ecclesiastical authority should judge the candidate to be unsuitable.

What about a candidate with S.S.A.? Does it introduce a prudent doubt about suitability resulting in not admitting an applicant to a formation program or not issuing the call to holy orders?

In order to determine the existence of a “prudent doubt,” it would be helpful to clarify the meaning of the term “homosexuality.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as “an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex.” Some may experience a wide range of intensity or different types of attractions to persons of the same sex, as some experts propose. Although, in the context of determining suitability for ordination, it would seem appropriate to limit the definition of the term “homosexuality” to describe those with exclusive or predominant tendencies, because a “prudent doubt” can be better verified objectively based on the clear presence of the disorder. With this clear information, a bishop can then make his decision concerning suitability.

Some have described S.S.A. as a sexual “orientation.” At first glance, this description may seem to have some merit. The sexual attraction of someone with S.S.A. is “toward” persons of the same sex, and this “tending toward” could easily be described as an “orientation.” However, to classify homosexuality as an “orientation” may obfuscate the serious disorder that exists and the distortion that has been introduced into a biblically inspired Christian anthropology.

Genesis speaks of God creating an image of himself by making man “male and female.” In this dual and complementary relationship of persons, man finds within himself or can, in a certain sense, “read” in his body and in the body of a person of the opposite sex, a tendency to “leave his father and mother” and “cling” to the other (Gen. 2: 24). The sexual orientation, the “tending toward” another of the opposite sex, is “written” in man’s created constitution. It is part of what Pope John Paul II calls the “nuptial meaning of the body.” Any other tendency to “cling” to another (be it to persons of the same sex, children, beasts, objects) is an aberration of the divine economy in which God reveals himself by creating an image of himself in the orientation of male to female and female to male.

The “orientation” of those who have another attraction, other than the divinely constituted one, is not a true “orientation.” It would be better described as a “disorientation.” It is fundamentally flawed in its disordered attraction because it can never “image” God and never contribute to the good of the person or society. This is why the Catholic Church teaches that the disorientation of homosexuality is “objectively disordered.” Homosexuality may be an inclination, tendency or condition but it is fundamentally “dis-orienting” in that it tends toward a corrupt end. The attraction as such is not a sin. Only when one chooses to pursue the attraction in thought or deed does the disordered inclination become a disordered, and therefore sinful, choice.

Nevertheless, homosexual tendencies are aberrations that can and should be addressed by both the individual and by competent experts with the aid of behavioral sciences as well as by spiritual means, including prayer, the sacraments and spiritual direction. According to some experts, S.S.A. can be treated and even prevented with some degree of success. But does it introduce a “prudent doubt” when determining suitability for ordination?

There are a number of significant negative aspects to S.S.A. that contribute to a “prudent doubt” with regard to the suitability of a candidate for holy orders.

First and foremost among them is the possible simultaneous manifestation of other serious problems such as substance abuse, sexual addiction and depression. With more than one serious disorder, a candidate may find it difficult to respond to the demands of formation, and the seminary or religious house may struggle to accommodate the extra needs involved in the healing process of the individual.

Likewise, there is an increased possibility that persons with S.S.A. may be more familiar with certain patterns and techniques of deception and repression, either conscious or subconscious, which were learned in trying to deal with their tendencies in a largely heterosexual environment. After years of hiding or of being confused about their abnormal attractions, it is possible that duplicitous or pretentious behaviors could appear. These kinds of personal defects make the moral formation of the candidate much more difficult and can negatively affect the formation of the other candidates.

Another aspect that would contribute to a “prudent doubt” concerning a candidate with S.S.A. is a question about his adherence to church teaching. There are many men and women with S.S.A. who uphold and defend the church’s teaching on homosexuality. But if someone with S.S.A. is insecure about dealing straightforwardly with his disordered attractions or has some doubts about their disordered character, he may tend to possess a distorted and erroneous view of human sexuality. Thus, there exists the risk that such an individual will struggle with or even deny the clear teaching of the church regarding his disordered inclinations and any acts that might flow from these tendencies.

Part of the distortion of S.S.A. is the tendency to view the other person of the same sex as a possible sexual “partner” or even to reduce the other (also a temptation for heterosexuals) to a sexual object. In such a clearly male environment as the seminary and the priesthood, the temptation is ever-present for those with the disorder. This temptation could present very difficult circumstances and the overwhelming presentation of the object of their attraction (men), which is naturally part of an all-male and intensely close community, could make their efforts to live chastely or to be healed of their disorder very difficult.

Furthermore, as has been the unfortunate experience in some seminaries and dioceses, cliques may form based on the disordered attractions. This could hamper the healing process that might be possible for some, because the effeminate affective manners and a certain “acceptability” of the disorder are often promoted in such groups. Also these cliques can confuse young heterosexual men in the growth of their understanding of manhood and in developing skills and virtues to live a celibate life, because they can often see modeled in members of these cliques a disordered view of human sexuality and of proper masculine behavior.

Another question for determining suitability for a candidate with S.S.A. is whether the individual can live celibacy. Celibacy is a vocational choice to which one is bound by a vow or promise to live chastely for the sake of the kingdom of God by foregoing the good of marriage and family life. It is a sign of one’s identification with Christ, one’s availability for service to the church and of the spousal union between Christ and the church in the kingdom of God.

People with homosexual tendencies can live certain aspects of celibacy, but their commitment is significantly different from that of heterosexuals because it compromises two fundamental dimensions of celibacy.

On the one hand, celibacy involves a sacrifice of a good for a greater good. It sacrifices ordered and good inclinations toward spouse and family for the sake of the kingdom. For someone with S.S.A., an act of binding oneself by a vow or promise to abstain from something that one is already bound to avoid by the natural law (attractions toward someone of the same sex) seems superfluous. To avoid doing something (heterosexual acts) that one does not have an inclination to do is not a sacrifice. The struggle to live chastely may be extremely difficult for someone with homosexual tendencies, and these struggles would truly be meritorious and virtuous as acts of chastity, but not necessarily of celibacy.

Likewise, the spousal dimension of celibacy seems unclear for those with S.S.A.. Celibacy is a way of living the spousal character of Christ’s relationship with his bride, the church. Through the celibate life, the priest redirects his sexual attraction to the opposite sex toward another “body,” the church, which is a “bride” in a complementary spousal relationship. He exercises a spiritual fatherhood and lives a supernatural spousal relationship as a sign to the church of Christ’s love for her. Someone afflicted with S.S.A. cannot redirect his inclination toward a complementary “other” in a spousal relationship, because homosexuality has disordered his sexual attraction toward the opposite sex. It then becomes difficult to be genuinely a sign of Christ’s spousal love for the church.

If it can be said that a man with homosexual tendencies can live a celibate life, at the very least it is lacking some important elements due to S.S.A., and it could be another reason to conclude that there exists a prudent doubt as to his suitability for holy orders.

It would seem that if there are firmly established facts, both from an objective psychological evaluation and an examination in the external forum of past and present behavior and choices, that a man does indeed suffer from S.S.A. as an “exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex” (Catechism, No. 2357), then he should not be admitted to holy orders, and his presence in the seminary would not only give him false hope but it may, in fact, hinder the needed therapy and healing that might come from appropriate psychological and spiritual care. It may be that a man could be healed of such a disorder and then he could be considered for admission to the seminary and possibly to Holy Orders, but not while being afflicted with the disorder.

The Pauline exhortation not to “lay hands too readily on anyone” is a heavy responsibility for any bishop; but if a candidate’s suitability is scrutinized with prudence, the act of “laying on of hands” will bear abundant fruit in the lives of those who will be touched by the ministry of a priest.

The Rev. Andrew R. Baker, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., is on the staff of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

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