U.S. Catholics Are Divided over New Directive on Gays

By Neela Banerjee and Katie Zezima
The New York Times [United States]
November 28, 2005

Grappling with the implications of a Vatican directive issued last week that would bar most gay men from seminaries, Roman Catholics at several parishes around the country yesterday offered sharply contrasting interpretations of its impact on the priesthood, on the potential for sex abuse by clergy members and on the church itself.

More than three dozen interviews at churches in Los Angeles and around Boston, Washington and Austin, Tex., underscored that Catholics were as divided as the rest of the country in their attitudes about gay men and lesbians. Roughly half the Catholics interviewed praised the Vatican document as upholding church teachings, which consider homosexuality "objectively disordered." But just as many parishioners criticized it as unfair to gay men, saying that a priest's commitment to celibacy should be the issue, not his sexual orientation.

Similarly, some Catholics said that because the majority of victims in the scandals involving sexually abusive priests were boys, barring gay men from the priesthood would reduce the likelihood of such abuse in the future. But others said there was no link between homosexuality and pedophilia, especially many parishioners in Boston, an archdiocese profoundly affected by the sexual abuse scandal.

Both sides largely predicted that if the directive, or instruction, was vigorously enforced, it would reduce the number of priests ordained in the Catholic church at a time when it is grappling with an acute shortage of clergy members. Yet supporters of the Vatican's stance said that such a step was necessary to root out priests whom they considered dangerous.

"If it is part of church doctrine, we'd be better off with 5 percent less priests, but who conform to church doctrine, rather than a few more," said Travis Corcoran, 34, the owner of an online DVD rental company, as he left an early Mass yesterday at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, Mass., near Boston. "It's the same way if there's a shortage of school bus drivers. If you drug-test school bus drivers and the result is there are a few less school bus drivers, that's better."

Work on the document began years ago in the tenure of Pope John Paul II, but last spring, Pope Benedict XVI cast the issue in terms of the recent sexual abuse scandals, saying there was a need to "purify" the church. The document, which was published last week on an Italian Catholic Web site, would exclude from the priesthood men "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture.' "

It would allow into the priesthood those who had "clearly overcome" what it deemed "transitory" homosexual impulses at least three years before ordination as a deacon, the last step before priesthood. The document did not define "overcome."

Bernadette Ruiz, a stay-at-home mother of three boys in Austin, Tex., echoed many Catholics who said they thought the directive discriminated against gay men by targeting them for greater scrutiny and possible expulsion.

"Once you enter the priesthood, you give up sexual activity, whether you're straight or gay," Ms. Ruiz said as she left Mass yesterday at St. Catherine of Siena in southwest Austin. "We're taught to love and forgive and be open. To single out people is to go against what we're being taught."

She added: "Some people, they make it seem like if a priest is gay, they are less than a priest. I don't believe that."

But proponents of the instruction applauded the Vatican for reaffirming a longstanding position on homosexuality, especially in the face of growing acceptance of gay men and lesbians in the West. "Somebody has to have standards, not just politically but morally," said Sharon France, 65, a retired building supply executive from Phoenix, who attended Mass yesterday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles with her husband, Tom, 69.

Mr. France said the ban should go even further to encompass anyone who had ever had homosexual tendencies. "I don't think you can make chicken soup out of chicken feathers," he said. "It should be either one way or the other."

Most supporters of the directive said they believed there was a link between homosexuality and the sexual abuse by clergy members that has recently rocked the church, and they said the initiative would make such scandals less likely in the future.

"There were good intentions in the past, with people saying, 'Let's pray for it, treat it,' and now we have to deal with it," said Robert Searby, 49, who was attending Mass yesterday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, Va., where his son, James, is a priest. "It should be done with charity, but that doesn't mean meekness."

But many Catholics said the directive served only to scapegoat gay men, rather than deal with what they see as the root causes of the sexual abuse. Those Catholics say that pedophilia is not tied to sexual orientation and that the church hierarchy is ignoring its own missteps in the scandals.

"They're afraid to look at themselves because they allowed the abuse to happen," said Kevin Thomas, 73, a retired social studies teacher from Woburn, Mass, who was at coffee hour yesterday at Sacred Heart Parish in Lexington, Mass. "All those people sent priests back in to abuse more and more."

Some worshipers, including Paul Bjarnason, 37, predicted that the directive, if carried out forcefully, could alienate gay Catholics. "Any time you have something like this, there is bound to be collateral damage," Mr. Bjarnason said as he watched his three young children play in the entry hall to Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. "I don't know if it changes much but it brings the issue to the fore, and so people will probably feel more shunned because of it."

Others still said they were disturbed by how the directive could winnow the church of good priests. "I'm disappointed in the Vatican," said Patsy Heuchling, 80, a retiree from Winchester, Mass., at a coffee hour after Mass yesterday at Sacred Heart Parish. "I know priests who are gay, and I fear it will make them uncomfortable - maybe even marginalized. I resent the missed opportunity to welcome young men who are gay, but are put off. We may never know the good priests we have lost from this."

Neela Banerjee reported from Annandale, Va., for this article, and Katie Zezima from Lexington, Mass. Cindy Chang contributed reporting from Los Angeles and Nathan Levy from Austin, Tex.


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