How to Ignore the Vatican's Ruling on Gay Priests

By Michael Sean Winters
The New Republic
November 30, 2005

The unfortunately named (and unfortunately issued) Vatican document "Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders" is the first major document of Pope Benedict XVI's reign, but it has occasioned a very old Catholic pastime: finding ways to misinterpret, twist, or just plain ignore a Vatican ruling.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the archbishop of Westminster, adopted the most straightforward approach: pretending that the Vatican didn't mean to say what it just said. The English cardinal issued a statement that said, "The Instruction is not saying that men of homosexual orientation are not welcome in the priesthood." In fact, the entire point of the document is to say that homosexuals are not welcome in the priesthood.

The Swiss Bishops' Conference tried a slightly different maneuver: focusing on the dicta. The Vatican document contains much high falutin' language about the priest conforming himself to Christ, alongside its bigoted and arcane notions about human sexuality; and the Swiss bishops chose to emphasize the former while downplaying the latter. "At the heart of our reflections on becoming a priest," they wrote (translation mine), "there is no question of sexual orientation but instead the responsibility to follow Christ in a coherent manner." Okay, I can live with that.

Here in America, the president of the Bishops' Conference, Bishop William Skylstad, courageously reminded the Vatican of the power of God's grace and threw up a scriptural quote from Jesus: "For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible." (Matthew 19.23-26). One wonders what the Vatican drafters of the document thought when they encountered this response to their suggestion that homosexuals are simply too "disordered" to be ordained.

Conservatives had a hard time defending the document. They tried to focus the discussion on practical considerations, arguing that gays would be too tempted by the all-male environment of seminaries. Father Richard John Neuhaus, a leading Catholic neoconservative, said, "The all-male environment of a seminary is not only a great risk but also an enormous burden," echoing an opinion voiced both in Rome and in America. This concern for the temptations of seminaries has no basis in fact. In the age of the Internet, you do not need to find a temptation down the hall; and as an ex-seminarian, I can assure the Vatican that none of my former classmates was a candidate for the Chippendales.

Meanwhile some conservatives floated their own willful misrepresentations of the text. Bishop William Lori, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, asserted that the document "is not, as some have concluded, a response to the sexual abuse crisis in the United States," although the text claims its proscriptions are "made more urgent by the current situation." Does the bishop think the "current situation" is a reference to Hurricane Katrina?

There is a reason this kind of document is open to such widely divergent interpretations by Church leaders: It was designed that way. Americans raised in a pragmatic political culture like to have things spelled out; we want terms defined and no loose ends. But Vatican documents are designed to achieve a studied ambiguity. Besides, as a priest explained to me, "Rome always wants to be able to say in 50 years, 'Oh, well we never meant that!'"

To take an example from the text, the last sentence of the document asserts that these norms prohibiting homosexuals are needed to guarantee that the Church has "suitable priests." The obvious implication is that a homosexual can't be a suitable priest--which is very offensive to the many fine gay priests and bishops currently serving the Church. But, when I raised this point with a Vatican official, he said that same sentence provided an out: "If a bishop ordains a gay man and someone questions him on it, he can reply that he found him a 'suitable' candidate and that was what the Vatican document was all about."

The most startling fact about the document was that it was not approved by the Pope "in forma specifica," which means that it has the lowest possible level of authority a Vatican document can possess. This lack of specific approval only further confirms that the document, however ugly and offensive, will change very little. Whatever the anti-gay prejudices of certain prelates, Catholics have been perfecting the art of ignoring the Vatican for centuries.

Michael Sean Winters has written about Catholicism for TNR, America, and The New York Times Magazine.


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