Gays & the Priesthood
The Truce of 2005?

By Richard John Neuhaus
First Things
February 2006

In his influential book The Courage to Be Catholic, George Weigel wrote about the “The Truce of 1968.” By that is meant the decision not to discipline the many theologians and priests who, in a public and concerted campaign, rejected the teaching of the 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). Now, in view of the widespread rejection—sometimes explicit, sometimes oblique—of the November 4 Vatican instruction on homosexuality and the priesthood, the question is asked whether we should be preparing ourselves for “The Truce of 2005.”

An editorial in the liberal magazine Commonweal, makes the connections:

Whether it is birth control, homosexuality, or the range of sexual contact permitted between spouses, church teaching offers little that speaks to the experience of the vast majority of faithful Catholics, who now insist that they know something about sexual morality that the Church’s leadership needs to learn. . . . There is hardly a Catholic alive who doesn’t have a colleague, a neighbor, a friend, a relative, or a child who is gay. Like Humanae Vitae, barring homosexuals from the priesthood would force many Catholics, both straight and gay, into internal or outright exile from the Church.

It is not surprising when Commonweal dissents from magisterial authority. It is also conventional that dissenters assert that a document is not really all that authoritative. And so the editors say that “the document was issued by a Vatican congregation, not by the pope, thus diminishing its authority.” In fact, the document bears the notice: “The supreme pontiff Benedict XVI, on August 31, 2005, approved this present instruction and ordered its publication.” That, it would seem, is very much like a document issued by the pope. But quibbling over the forms of the document is a distraction from the substantive questions engaged.

It may be thought that the dissent of the editors of Commonweal is predictable and not terribly important. There is something to that, and, as we shall see, it is by no means the most important dissent. But the connection with Humanae Vitae and 1968 is suggestive. Recall that the Truce of 1968 was put in place when Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, then archbishop of Washington, D.C., attempted to discipline those who had openly rejected the teaching of the encyclical, only to have the rug pulled out from under him by higher authority in Rome.

Weigel writes that “everyone involved understood that Pope Paul VI wanted the ‘Washington Case’ settled without a public retraction from the dissidents, because the pope feared that insisting on such a retraction would lead to schism—a formal split in the Church in Washington, and perhaps beyond. The pope, evidently, was willing for a time to tolerate dissent on an issue on which he had made a solemn, authoritative statement, hoping that the day would come when, in a calmer cultural and ecclesiastical atmosphere, the truth of that teaching could be appreciated. The mechanism agreed upon to buy time for that to happen was the ‘Truce of 1968.’” We are still, according to Weigel, living with the consequences of that decision:

Whatever the intentions of those who negotiated the Truce of 1968, the net result of this remarkable episode was to promote intellectual, moral, and disciplinary disorder in the Catholic Church in the United States. The lesson learned was that rejecting moral doctrines solemnly proclaimed by the Church’s teaching authority was, essentially, penalty-free. Obedience to what the Church taught to be the truth, and obedience to legitimate ecclesiastical superiors, were now, somehow, optional. That disorder and indiscipline followed should not have been surprising.

The recent instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education is not, strictly speaking, doctrinal. It is a directive based upon moral doctrine and might best be described as a prudential judgment made by “legitimate ecclesiastical superiors” and to be followed by all under their authority. Further, while it is issued by the authority of the pope, it does not, unlike Humanae Vitae, carry the more solemn weight of an encyclical. That having been said, it requires a measure of exegetical agility to interpret some of the criticisms of the instruction as anything less than a rejection of the Church’s constantly held doctrine regarding human sexuality, and homosexuality in particular. The teaching is that homosexual desires are objectively disordered and homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral. This is joined to a call to respect and extend pastoral care to those who are burdened by same-sex desire, helping them to respond, along with sinners of every kind, to the “universal call to holiness.”

The Quality of Dissimulation

The instruction says that the Church “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” Immediate objections came hard and fast to all three stipulations. What does it mean to “practice homosexuality”? Is support for the civil rights of homosexuals a form of support for “gay culture”? And, most of all, what is meant by “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”? Some of these questions are understandable and no doubt honestly asked. Many of the challenges to the instruction, however, reflect a continuing decline in the quality of dissimulation practiced by those who reject the magisterial teaching of the Church.

There is, for instance, a mix of candor, defiance, and evasion in a December 8 letter sent by the provincial, Father Robert Scullin, S.J., to the members of the Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus. He writes: “The instruction’s call to affective maturity as a necessary condition for a healthy celibate priesthood and religious life affirms the long-standing goal of our formation program—both initial and continuing. All of us must continue to work toward an integrated affective sexual maturity if we wish to be of greater service to the Church and civil society. We continue to invite all qualified young men of either orientation who desire to lead a celibate chaste religious life to consider joining us on our mission. We welcome them and are proud to have them among us.”

In short, and the instruction notwithstanding, the Society of Jesus will continue to do what it has been doing. (The reference to “either orientation,” with its implicit exclusion of the bisexual and transsexual, is somewhat surprising.) The above provincial is very displeased, however, by a member of the province who “outed” himself as gay in the Detroit Free Press. Father Thomas J. O’Brien, S.J., criticizes the teaching that homosexuality is objectively disordered. “There is plentiful evidence that this is not true,” he writes. “Lesbian sisters and gay brothers and priests have, indeed, been models of relating to people—especially to the disenfranchised and excluded of society.” Of the instruction he says, “This document reveals a fundamentally disordered view of gender and sexual orientation.” Affirming the invaluable contributions made by homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, and transsexual persons, Fr. O’Brien concludes: “Thankfully, God is greater than any religion or any church.”

Referring to Fr. O’Brien’s public statement, Fr. Scullin, his provincial, writes: “I can appreciate the distress that led him to speak out. Yet we are first members of an apostolic body, and so personal actions, however compelling we feel them to be, have consequences for all our brothers and all our works.” Fr. Scullin therefore asks that “no Jesuit take any controversial public step without prior, direct consultation with the provincial.” Fr. Scullin in no way suggests that he disagrees with Fr. O’Brien’s rejection of church teaching, only that it should be kept within the family, so to speak. As he puts it, “This is our way of proceeding.” It is a way of proceeding that candidly says (at least within the family) that the instruction will be ignored, while asking Jesuits to be publicly discreet about their repudiation of the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

While members of other religious orders, some diocesan priests, and even a few bishops who have cultivated a reputation for being “gay-friendly” have sharply criticized the November instruction, the Jesuits do seem to be in the vanguard of the attack. Father Thomas Reese, S.J., who recently resigned as editor of America, a Jesuit weekly—or was removed, depending on which account one credits (see First Things August/September 2005)—complains, “The Vatican is making decisions about the appropriateness of ordaining homosexuals in total ignorance of how many current priests are homosexuals, how well they observe celibacy, and how well they do ministry.”

The instruction makes the point that nobody has a right to be ordained to the priesthood and that the final decision rests with the Church which is responsible for her own ministry. To which Fr. Reese responds, “If someone is called to the priesthood by God but denied it by church officials, then it is not a violation of a human right; it is a violation of a divine right—the right of God to call whomever he chooses to the priesthood.” Presumably, the individual discerns whether he—or, for that matter, she—is called to the priesthood, and the role of the Church is limited to ratifying that discernment. Needless to say, this is not the way the Catholic Church understands the vocation to priesthood.

Cognitive Dissonance

Father John Coleman, S.J., is acclaimed by some as one of the leading intellectual lights among contemporary Jesuits. He teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and is a frequent contributor to America and Theological Studies, a Jesuit quarterly. He recently addressed the annual meeting of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries. “I am, simultaneously, a gay man, a professional sociologist, and an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “Not surprisingly, these different, even conflicting, roles and their expectations sometimes cause me to experience intense cognitive dissonance.”

The dissonance, he said, results from “the universal love and outreach of Jesus to all, even sinners, versus a sense that homosexuality, if practiced, is against the teaching of Christianity.” When people succeed in integrating their identities, Fr. Coleman said, it “will lead to something new, and for some, an oxymoron: a GLBT practicing Christian and practicing homosexual.” That gives rise to the questions, he said, “Can you ordain them? Can you have holy union ceremonies?” The Jesuit policy, he said, is not don’t ask, don’t tell, but, rather, do ask and do tell. “You’re not going to have integrated, mature sexuality unless you process it—and therefore yes, ask; yes, tell; yes, process.”

It should not be thought that these are simply expressions of unhappiness with the instruction from Rome. What can only be described as Jesuit repudiation of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is considered and apparently entrenched in the leadership of the Society. Theological Studies, the Jesuit academic quarterly, publishes articles such as “The Open Debate: Moral Theology and the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Persons.” Father James F. Keenan, S.J., professor of moral theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Massachusetts, leaves no doubt that he thinks it is a legitimate debate and it is wide open. He cites numerous gay and gay-friendly Catholic thinkers who agree with him. “In comparison to the other Christian churches, the Vatican’s position has changed only a little even though a lively debate exists within the Church at every other level. The Vatican’s teaching remains so because its contemporary exponents privilege as a condition of truthfulness a teaching’s unchanged status.”

Put differently, the “contemporary exponents,” including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, impermissibly “privilege” their view on the assumption that two millennia of consistent Christian reflection and teaching may have a bearing on truthfulness. The authors whom Fr. Keenan favorably cites challenge the reluctance of the late moral theologian, Richard McCormick, also a Jesuit, to affirm that the homosexual condition and homogenital acts are “good and normal.” It is said that McCormick has been outdated by developments that “initially appear threatening and disruptive” but lead to a recognition that “homosexuality can be a new name for its own embodying manifestation of Godlife.” Pope John Paul’s extensive writings on nuptial sexuality are criticized for “privileging gender complementarity and providing grounds for excluding the moral validity of expressed same-sex love.”

Homosexuality was once viewed in terms of inversion, and Fr. Keenan is taken with the suggestion that we should find consolation “in God’s revolutionary movements of inverting all things.” He concludes his reflection with this:

The open debate is an extensive one, occurring throughout the Catholic world. As they engage in this debate, moral theologians do not superficially validate personal lifestyles but rather propose a variety of criteria for assessing the morality of the way ordinary gay and lesbian persons live their lives. The debate helps us to see, then, that the Catholic tradition is rich, human, and capable of being relevant to help gay and lesbian persons find moral ways of living out their lives and the ways they are called to love. Gay and lesbian persons respond by offering, from their experience, a variety of ways of imagining not only their own self-understanding, but the way we are called to be Church. Like other groups of people who have been oppressed by, among others, the Church, they help us to see that by silencing and marginalizing them, we do harm to them, ourselves, the Church, and the gospel.

Again, the Jesuits are not alone in proposing a thoroughly revisionist sexual morality. They seem to be the most outspoken, however, perhaps because they command more effective instruments of communication and control numerous colleges and universities in this country and elsewhere. Then too, and despite the Jesuits’ diminishing numbers, prestige, and influence, there are still those who think the word “Jesuit” carries a certain intellectual cachet.

Also among those who accept the Church’s sexual ethic, there are significant differences in the understanding of the recent instruction. Father Bruce Williams, a Dominican teaching at the Angelicum in Rome, writes that the term “homosexuality,” as used in this and other Vatican documents, always has reference to genital acts—the doing of them or the desire to do them. Thus the instruction is not so much concerned with what might be called personality types but with people who act or are likely to act in ways clearly incompatible with living a life of chaste celibacy. Fr. Williams explains:

These criteria [specified by the instruction] would appear not to exclude a good number of men who might be broadly described as “gay” in common parlance. Consider a man who was homogenitally active in the past and overcame or outgrew this activity in young adulthood. He still experiences warm affection toward men, but homogenital temptations are extremely infrequent and always dismissed quickly and easily. He has never been sexually attracted to women, though he relates normally and even warmly to them also. He does not participate or take an interest in “gay culture,” though he does favor some particular political initiatives aimed at securing civil rights for homosexual people.

He is comfortable with who he is by the grace of God, and wants to give himself to the Lord’s service as a celibate priest. He is not “in the closet” about his sexuality, but sexual orientation does not enter into his self-definition; it simply is not an issue in his life, nor is he driven to make an issue of it in dealing with others. Many people might still label such a man as “gay”; he might even accept this designation, understanding it as an acknowledgment of some affectional and lightly erotic but essentially non-genital bearing toward other men. One could argue whether the appellation “gay” is appropriate here; but, as far as I can see, one cannot plausibly argue that this man has “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or “supports gay culture” in the sense conveyed by the new Roman instruction.

As many cultural observers have noted, the success of the gay ideology in recent decades has almost obliterated the memory of those who used to be called bachelors. They were understood to be those who could get along, or preferred to get along, without sex or marriage. Today it is the entrenched cultural orthodoxy that, whatever the “orientation” of one’s sexual desire, that desire and acting on that desire are essential to one’s identity and psychological well-being. Fr. Williams offers the important reminder that, contra our sex-obsessed culture, there are many people, including men who discern a call to the priesthood, for whom sex is simply not that big a deal. (Studies indicate that that is also the case with many married couples, although some of them are a bit embarrassed about it.)

The Priestly Sacrifice

A somewhat different perspective is pressed by Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne, Indiana. D’Arcy has extensive experience in seminary formation, has been a bishop for thirty years, and is widely respected for his thoughtful straightforwardness. (Not incidentally, as an auxiliary bishop in Boston he many years ago raised the alarm about priestly sex abuse in the archdiocese. For his efforts, he was exiled to Fort Wayne in 1985.) In response to the Roman instruction, Bishop D’Arcy writes:

To be happy, a priest must be convinced in his heart that he would be a good father and good husband. Like marriage, the priesthood involves making a gift of oneself to another. Pope John Paul II called it an officium caritatus, that is, an Office of Love. It cannot be an escape for someone who is afraid of marriage, believed he would not be happy in marriage or would not be a good spouse or father. The priest gives up something very beautiful—a lifelong relationship with a good woman, children, and grandchildren. [These are] needs that are deep within our humanity. He gives it up for something beautiful—to be a priest and shepherd after the heart of Christ. He must believe that Christ is calling him. It is a sacrifice. It’s supposed to be a sacrifice. It is not a sacrifice in the same way for a person with deep-seated homosexual tendencies. He is not drawn to marriage in the same way. Thus, immediately, there is a division in the priesthood.

Some have said that, if this document is implemented, it will lead to a shortage of priests. I do not believe that. I think the way out of the shortage is to ordain young men of quality—not supermen, which would eliminate all of us—but good men who would also make good husbands and fathers, and who can make a gift of themselves to others. These, in turn, will draw similar men.

“There is a division in the priesthood.” I expect most bishops and priests would agree with that, and can cite chapter and verse from their own experience. Those who write about a “lavender mafia” that dominates some seminaries, chancery offices, and church bureaucracies may sometimes overstate the matter. But it is no surprise that like attracts like. Generally speaking, men who are attracted to men are attracted to men who are attracted to men. Sociologists call it elective affinity.

Father Bruce Williams, O.P., and Bishop D’Arcy both affirm the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and welcome the new instruction. Fr. Williams titles his essay, “Rome and Gays: A Nuanced Response.” Bishop D’Arcy says, in effect, that it is such nuance that got us into the present mess. While the Church must be loving and pastorally concerned in dealing with everyone, he says, when it comes to the priesthood, the word must go forth that the Church is looking for manly men.

Those who are sharply critical of the instruction are slicing and dicing definitions of “transitory” and “deep-seated” same-sex desires, and disingenuously claiming to be puzzled by what on earth the instruction can mean by “gay culture.” By “gay culture” the instruction means the culture of which many of these critics are part. Particularly upsetting to some is the understanding that, if the criteria set forth by the instruction were applied when they were ordained, they would not have been ordained. The fact that they are priests, and that they think they are good priests, is, they say, decisive proof that gays can be good priests. It has a certain syllogistic charm.

The truth is that, by the criteria set out in the instruction, many who are priests today would not have been ordained. The further truth is that many of these men have turned out to be good and holy priests, despite the temptations attending the disability of same-sex attraction. The yet-further truth is that many are not good and holy priests. Rome has made a prudential judgment: With respect to giving candidates the benefit of the doubt, too many risks were taken in the past. The benefit of the doubt must now be given to protecting the integrity of the priesthood. With the new “normalization” of homosexuality in the general culture, with the acceptance of that normalization by many priests and not a few bishops, and with consequences such as the sex abuse scandals, the Church simply cannot afford to take the risks that were taken, frequently with the best intentions, in the past.

The Smell of Mendacity

There is a smell of mendacity surrounding much of the response to the instruction. The definitional slicing and dicing, the claim that the instruction means by “maturity” that one is happy being gay, rather than that, as it explicitly says, deep-seated same-sex desire is evidence of an “unfinished adolescence”—it is all evasion and mendacity. With many of the critics, it is possible to cut through the obfuscation by simply asking whether they accept the Church’s teaching that homosexual desire is disordered and homogenital acts are intrinsically immoral. The emphasis here is not on the disorder but on the act. If it is agreed that the act is immoral, then it follows that the desire to commit the act is disordered. One cannot have a rightly ordered desire to do wrong.

Those who reject the instruction and the moral doctrine on which it is based—Jesuits being conspicuous but by no means alone—render a perversely valuable contribution. They have clarified what is at stake. Which brings us back to the Truce of 1968 and what could, God forbid, turn out to be the Truce of 2005. Although the instruction reiterates the consistent teaching of Scripture and tradition through the ages, and although the document is explicitly approved by the pope and issued by his authority, will it be allowed, as it was allowed with Humanae Vitae, for official representatives of the Church to reject the doctrine and the directives, and to do so with impunity? There can be no doubt that the rejectionists have thrown down the gauntlet in challenging the still-young pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Of course, the pope, because he is the pope, need not respond on the terms or within the timetable set by those who seem determined to precipitate a crisis of authority. But a discernible and decisive response is required if such a crisis is to be avoided. In the absence of a clear response, it is more than possible that the effective leadership of this pontificate, now just getting underway, will be gravely weakened.

Among those who greatly admired Cardinal Ratzinger and were elated by his election as pope, there is a palpable uneasiness. As of this writing, he has not made what are perceived to be needed personnel changes at the top levels of the Curia. Benedict’s first major appointment, that of Archbishop William Levada to succeed him at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, occasioned widespread puzzlement. With particular pertinence to the present discussion, Levada, for all his considerable gifts, did not distinguish himself in his teaching, and his seeing to it that others taught, the Church’s moral doctrine during his ten years as archbishop of San Francisco, a city commonly called the gay capital of the world.

Troubling also to those who watch this pontificate with hopeful concern is Benedict’s appointment of George H. Niederauer as Levada’s successor in San Francisco. While in Salt Lake City, Bishop Niederauer had a reputation of being, as it is said, gay-friendly. He broke with other religious leaders in opposing a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The announcement of his appointment to San Francisco was met with great public rejoicing by Dignity, New Ways Ministry, and other gay advocacy groups.

In an interview with his diocesan paper in Salt Lake City, Niederauer seemed somewhat ambivalent about the recent Vatican instruction. He is asked about requisites for being ordained to the priesthood, and takes the aforementioned position of dissenters on what is meant by “affective maturity”:

Niederauer: One implication is the need for what this document calls “affective maturity,” meaning that all the loving and relating that a priest does must be centered in Christ and consistent with the priest’s commitment to Christ and the Church. This kind of single-heartedness does not allow for a relationship in any priest’s life that would weaken his commitment to Christ and his Church. Another implication of this affective maturity is that every celibate priest needs to be free to relate in a warm, human way to the men, women, and children to whom he ministers, in a manner that is genuine and still consistent with his commitment to Christ the Priest.

Interviewer: That’s all fine and good, but can a man who is homosexual be an effective priest?

Niederauer: If any priest has the affective maturity described above, and in the document, then with God’s grace, he can effectively minister as a priest. What the Church, the bishop, and the seminary must determine in the course of a priestly candidate’s formation is whether the candidate has the gifts of affective maturity, has made them his own, and is living them out faithfully.

Bishop Niederauer does say, “In addition, it would be inconsistent for the priest and confusing for the Catholic faithful if a priest differs from the Church in any of its moral teachings.” He does not say, at least in this interview, what that moral teaching is with respect to homosexuality, and, perhaps more significantly, he does not say what should be done, if anything, about priests who are inconsistent and causing confusion to the faithful; never mind that they are, according to Catholic teaching, imperiling their souls and the souls of others.

The statement by Niederauer that attracted most attention, however, was this: “Also, some who are seriously mistaken have named sexual orientation as the cause of the recent scandal regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests.” This is nothing short of astonishing. One can agree that it was not the cause, meaning the only cause. There is, for instance, the negligence and complicity of bishops, and of the seminaries in their charge. But to deny, as the bishop seems to be denying, a causal relationship between homosexual priests and the sexual abuse scandal is, well, astonishing. Research commissioned by the bishops themselves shows, as the whole world now knows, that more than 80 percent of the instances of abuse were with teenage boys and young men. It does not require a Ph.D. in psychology to recognize—although a Ph.D. in psychology might be helpful in denying—that men who want to have sex with boys are more likely to have sex with boys than men who do not want to have sex with boys.

Those who several years ago tried to deny the obviousness of the connection have, with notable exceptions, run out of delusions. Even the editors of Commonweal write:

At least in this regard, Rome’s concerns are not entirely misplaced. It is no secret that something went terribly wrong in U.S. seminaries in the late 1960s, the 1970s, and even into the 1980s. Both gay and straight priests, as well as former seminarians, acknowledge that, as many priests left to marry, the proportion of priests who were gay increased dramatically, and in some places, gay subcultures flourished. What role this breakdown in discipline and morality played in the sexual abuse of minors is not clear, but the idea that it played no role in a pattern of abuse in which 80 percent of the victims were male is untenable.

The appointment of Archbishop Levada to head CDF was certainly Benedict’s decision, as was the appointment of Bishop Niederauer to succeed him in San Francisco. According to informed sources, the latter appointment was made on the recommendation of Archbishop Levada.

A Defining Test

And so it is that we are faced with what may be a defining test of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. As all who know him can attest, he is in personal relations a gentle man and averse to unpleasantness. He cannot relish the prospect of a direct confrontation with major institutions such as the Society of Jesus. Early on in his pontificate, John Paul II made an effort to bring the Jesuits into closer alignment with church teaching and authority, and ended up with little to show for it. As is his custom, the father general of the society, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, remains publicly aloof.

With this pope, as with all popes, there is the fear of schism. That was a great fear in 1968. Public confrontation would undoubtedly spark a media storm of historic proportions, but, after the dust settled, where would the rejectionists go? Lefebvrism of the left, whether in this country or elsewhere, cannot hold much appeal.

Roma locuta est, causa finita est. Or so the great Augustine is supposed to have said. With respect to homosexuality and the priesthood, Rome has spoken and the question is anything but settled. An official visitation of U.S. seminaries is currently underway, and is scheduled to be completed in May. The findings will be sent directly to the curial congregation that issued the recent instruction, and the next steps will be up to the congregation in response to the directives of the pope. But that does not address the question of what will be done, if anything, about theologians and priests, backed by bishops and religious orders, who have thrown down the gauntlet in publicly rejecting the Church’s teaching and authority with respect to human sexuality.

In 1968, an effort was made to hold accountable those who are solemnly vowed to the service of the Church. And then Rome caved. We are still living with the unhappy consequences of the Truce of 1968. Of course the Church will survive. We have Our Lord’s promise on that. But no one who cares about this pontificate and the integrity of the Church’s ministry can contemplate with equanimity the consequences of a Truce of 2005.


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