Vatican Shows Some Sensitivity to Homosexuals

By Andrew M. Greeley
Arizona Daily Star
December 1, 2005

A headline about the new Instruction from the Vatican read, "Vatican bans active gays from priesthood." One might add that it bans active straights from the priesthood, too.

Perhaps the celibacy rule will change. But as long as it applies, those who are in sexual relationships of either sort will not be ordained. That is not new, and indeed it is not news.

In fact, the new Instruction says merely that under some circumstances gays can become priests, and under other circumstances they cannot be ordained. It leaves local officials - bishops and seminary rectors - to decide in individual cases.

The document is a stinging defeat for those Catholic conservatives in Rome and in this country who have been blaming gays for the sexual abuse crisis and wanted to ban them completely from the priesthood.

The issue comes down to whether a homosexual orientation is something people choose or something they cannot change.

The convictions of Americans on this question are undergoing modification, as is the understanding of the church. An estimated 33 percent of the conservative Christians (evangelicals) believe it is something they cannot change, as do 61 percent of mainline Protestants and 68 percent of Catholics, based on data from the General Social Survey.

Moreover, my own reanalysis of the data collected by the Los Angeles Times (in my book "Priests: a Calling in Crisis") shows that about a sixth of Catholic priests are gay and that two out of three of them are celibate, not greatly different from the three out of four among the straight priests.

The Instruction is in some sense anti-climactic. After all the preliminary publicity, it confirms the practice that sensible and prudent bishops have been following.

Indeed, the document goes further than any other Vatican document of which I am aware in defending homosexuals. "They must be accepted with respect and sensitivity; every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives."

There have been complaints from some priests about the role of the confessor and the spiritual director in the process of decision making for someone who wants to be a priest.

The confessor is bound by the seal of confession, the spiritual director by grave obligation to respect privacy.

Both may suggest privately to a man that perhaps he ought not to be a priest whether the man is homosexual or heterosexual, but that is as far as they can go. Such a function is hardly new.

Like the rest of humankind, the church struggles to adjust to the new insights humans have acquired about sexual orientation.

The Instruction breaks new ground in its insistence on respect for gays and its condemnation of "unjust discrimination" against them. It thus represents a victory, albeit perhaps a modest one, for gays.

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a Catholic priest, teaches at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona.


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