Toward a Holy Order
Homosexuality and the Priesthood

By Father Raymond J. de Souza
National Review
December 8, 2005

In the week since the Vatican released its new "Instruction" on the admission of men with homosexual tendencies to seminaries or to Holy Orders, there has been an impressive amount of commentary on what exactly it means. While the release of a Vatican document is always accompanied by commentators who argue mightily that it does not mean what it in fact plainly says, this time there is some genuine uncertainty about how best to interpret the Instruction — and from quarters which are by no means lacking in fidelity to Church teaching.

The key passage says that "those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture' should not be admitted to seminaries or ordained priests."

The first and third categories seem clear enough. A man who is sexually active with others — men or women — clearly cannot be admitted to the seminary unless and until he has learned to live chastely. As for the "gay culture," it seems obvious that a potential priest cannot support initiatives which encourage homosexual acts, or even the affirmation of the homosexual orientation as something good in itself.

What does "deep-seated" mean?

That leaves the second category: "those who present deep-seated homosexual tendencies."

The first thing to be observed is that the language chosen — after some five years or more of consideration — does not define a "deep-seated" homosexual tendency. It also seems reasonable to conclude that a homosexual tendency which is not "deep-seated" does not constitute a barrier to Holy Orders.

The Instruction makes it clear that bishops, seminary rectors, spiritual directors, and confessors are to make this determination. So, speaking only for myself, how would I apply the distinction between what is deep-seated and what is not?

Given the adolescent environment in North America today, it is not surprising that young men who are not in fact homosexual might have experienced homosexual tendencies. A youth culture of sexual libertinism, coupled with an assertive promotion of the gay culture in both high schools and on university campuses, makes this a growing phenomenon.

In a different way, this may also apply to places in the world where boys enter preparatory seminaries at a young age. A teenage boy who enters the all-male environment of a seminary, and lives his entire adolescence in such an environment, may experience homosexual tendencies. This is not due to a libertine environment (!) but simply the fact that the male sexual appetite is attracted by what it sees, and in an all-male environment what is seen is other men.

In such cases, it would seem that these tendencies are of the "transitory" nature which the Instruction indicates do not constitute a barrier to ordination if they are overcome for a period of time (three years).

The more difficult case is the man who experiences homosexual tendencies for a prolonged period of time, but lives chastely, unequivocally accepts the Church's teaching that the homosexual orientation is disordered, and, moreover, wishes to be free of homosexual tendencies. Does such a man have the "deep-seated" tendencies which are a barrier to seminary admission?

Different answers could be given.

A plausible reading of the Instruction is that "deep-seated" is opposed to "transitory," meaning that a homosexual tendency which endures for a prolonged period is "deep-seated." Some commentators have said that the Instruction judges such men unsuitable for admission to the seminary. If the tendency is enduring, it is therefore disqualifying.

I would answer slightly differently. I think "deep-seated" can plausibly be read as referring to how "deep" the tendency is rooted in the personality.

If a man habitually sees the men around him as objects of sexual desire, that would be a "deep-seated" tendency that would "hinder [him] from relating correctly to men and women," as the Instruction puts it. If the man understands himself in terms of his homosexual tendencies or orientation, that would also be a "deep-seated" phenomenon, as the personality itself is understood in reference to what is a disordered orientation.

It seems clear that the Instruction rejects as unsuitable for the priesthood those whose identity is defined by what Catholic doctrine regards as a disordered sexual tendency. It could hardly be otherwise — a man who defines his identity in relation to homosexuality would be defining himself in terms directly contrary to the Christian sexual ethic.

Yet there are also men who experience homosexual tendencies, but for whom such tendencies do not penetrate deep within the personality. The tendencies do not constitute a significant dimension of the man's identity, and are suffered and struggled against. Does such a man have the "deep-seated" tendencies the Instruction addresses? Clearly, a careful, searching, and honest examination would have to be undertaken, but it appears that admission of such candidates would not violate the letter or the spirit of the Instruction.

Common parlance may call all men who experience homosexual tendencies "gay men," but it would be more accurate to describe them as men who live with homosexual tendencies. This distinction is considered risible by those for whom sexuality is the dominant force in identity, but it does in fact address the concrete situation of many men. And there is wide variation in the degree to which those tendencies are suffered. It is likely that there are men who would be considered "gay" in the most expansive use of the term, but for whom homosexual tendencies are not a significant part of their identity. Perhaps they are enduring, but they are not "deep-seated".

Tendencies vs. Identity

The Instruction demonstrates the Church's basic disposition toward sexuality — it is vitally important but is not all-important. In relation to homosexuality, the Church stands foursquare against the cultural winds because she does not accept that a homosexual identity is a good, or even neutral, matter. Inter alia, this latter point extends an implied invitation to those dioceses which have "gay and lesbian ministry" offices to examine whether they in fact, wittingly or not, accept and affirm just that.

The teaching of the Church about the requirements of the moral law is clear. Because homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral, the desire to engage in them is "disordered." That does not mean the tendency or orientation is sinful in and of itself (as it may not be voluntary), nor does it mean that those who have such tendencies are ill, or defective, or, above all, lacking in human dignity.

The Church does not believe that sexual appetites constitute the whole of a personality. Indeed, the Church never officially uses the expansive term "gay" or "homosexuals", but rather the more unwieldy formulation "persons with homosexual tendencies" or "homosexual persons." The focus is on the person, not the appetite. Sexuality is important, but it is not everything. It is does not constitute an identity.

If nothing else, the Instruction rejects the idea that homosexuality can be a neutral, or even good, identity, as long as homosexual acts are avoided. Perhaps out of a desire to defend the dignity of homosexual persons, many Catholics have advanced the idea that homosexual tendencies are of no different moral quality than heterosexual ones, and that even a homosexual identity can be affirmed or encouraged, as it is at least morally neutral, if not good. That position is not the Catholic one, and the Instruction makes it clear. That's a hard saying for our culture, but it is the ancient Christian wisdom on sexual ethics, and prospective priests have to be able to live and articulate that.

The Value of "Gay Priests"

The release of the Instruction provoked much muttering that the Vatican was saying that "gay priests," as the formulation inevitably put it, were no longer welcome, or that their ministry was without value.

That does not logically follow. There are many qualities priests should have, and there are many requirements for admission to the seminary and for Holy Orders. To take a simple example, a seminary would not recommend for ordination a man who was invariably short-tempered and unpleasant. Yet there are many priests who are like that, and no doubt they do some good work. One would not point to the existence of such ill-tempered priests to argue against insisting that seminarians be pleasant and even-tempered.

Even more to the point, a man would not be ordained if he was known to have a girlfriend on the side. There are some ordained priests who do in fact have mistresses or girlfriends. While it constitutes a grave sin and a source of scandal, we know from experience that some of those priests do outstanding work and are praised for the fruits of their ministry. But the fact that such priests might also do good work does not mean that priestly candidates should not be held to the standard of celibate chastity.

The false criticism that the Instruction constituted an attack on the good work done by "gay priests" was made by Andrew Sullivan in a dramatic fashion. He posted on his website the famous photograph of Fr. Mychal Judge at the World Trade Centre, adding a caption to the effect that Pope Benedict had judged Fr. Judge's work to be of no social value because he was gay (a matter about which there are competing claims).

I have a certain attachment to that photograph myself. It hangs in my office. In fact, I ordered several copies and had them framed as ordination gifts for my classmates. In the photograph I saw a priest who emptied himself to the very end. I thought it Providentially important that the first registered death at the World Trade Center was that of a Catholic priest. The photograph, so evocative of the deposition from the Cross, spoke vividly about the priest acting in persona Christi.

Mr. Sullivan sees a gay man first. I saw a priest. I didn't even know that some claimed he was gay when I ordered the photograph. When I discovered that afterwards, it did not change my mind about the value of the photograph, or of Fr. Judge's witness. To say that this Instruction puts that in question is tendentious.

On the subject of "gay priests" one cannot overlook what the Instruction delicately phrases as "the current situation." In 2002, while the current document was already in preparation, the sexual-abuse crisis hit. There were polemics on all sides of that, leading the American bishops to commission a comprehensive, independent study, which examined some 10,667 cases from 1950 to 2002. The study revealed that 81 percent of all cases involved priests abusing boys or adolescent males. While the independent commissioners refrained from asserting any causal link, noting that many priests with a homosexual orientation served well, they highlighted the high preponderance of homosexual abuse as an item requiring attention. This Instruction was not motivated by the sex-abuse crisis, but it can legitimately be considered part of the wider response.

What difference will it make?

This Instruction can, and will, be interpreted in various ways. Some of those will clearly be motivated by a desire to do the opposite of what the Instruction intends. Other interpretations, including this one I hope, will try to be careful in applying what the Instruction calls for — nothing less, but also nothing more.

As for the situation on the ground, it is my sense is that bishops and seminary rectors who are inclined to follow Instructions from Rome have long ago begun to operate within the scope of this Instruction. Those who are not inclined to follow Rome on this, or other matters, will remain so disinclined.

Whatever ambiguities may remain in the Instruction, it is a clarifying and teaching moment regarding a delicate subject. And that alone, along with the courage it took to publish it, is a valuable contribution.