Bishop Accountability
  ‘Acting More Humanely’: Accepting Gays into the Priesthood

By Edward Vacek
America, Vol. 187 No. 20
December 16, 2002

Shortly after the start of the second millennium, St. Peter Damian wrote a long condemnatory treatise entitled The Book of Gomorrah. He demanded what is now being called zero tolerance of clerics who had engaged in homosexual behavior. In response, Pope St. Leo wrote that, while denouncing these sins, he, “acting more humanely,” would allow these clerics to regain their rank if they repented and had not been guilty of protracted and promiscuous behavior.

As the third millennium begins, a movement is afoot to exclude homosexuals from orders, not because they have been sexually active even for a short time, but simply because they are homosexual persons. Earlier this year, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the official Vatican spokesman, suggested that the ordination of gay men is invalid. Some canonists have argued that canon law prohibits homosexual seminarians. Some bishops already exclude gay men from entering the seminary. And the Vatican recently confirmed that it is preparing a document on seminary formation, which may ban gay men from orders. One spokesperson said that the time for its promulgation would be up to the Holy Spirit.

My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will take a long, long time.

Not Now

During the past year, the Catholic Church, as portrayed in the media, has at times seemed like a man caught peeping into a women’s bathroom: that is, efforts to explain things have just made the situation worse. The actions of both priests and bishops have led some people to give up on the church. After a painful year, we have apologized, asked forgiveness and have finally begun to repent.

Now, therefore, is not the time to invite the spotlight again. Polls show that the American public is becoming ever more sensitive to discrimination against homosexual persons. In such a climate, the hierarchy should avoid the appearance of blaming gay men for its past failures. Often themselves accused of hypocrisy, the bishops should avoid promoting the kind of hypocrisy that either a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” or a “Do ask, do tell” policy would certainly foster.

Losing More Credibility

But if the Vatican feels it must exclude gay men from the priesthood, I hope it will not rely on the weak arguments currently being advanced. Using such reasoning will further undermine the church’s credibility on sexual topics. Bad reasoning hurts people.

I tell my students that it is difficult to think about sex. People can fairly easily pant, picture or pontificate about sex. But it is hard to think deeply, clearly and cogently about it. So as a service to the church, let me suggest why some of the proposed arguments might do more harm than good.

Bad theology, not unlike bad practice, can drive people from the church and from God. We can assume, I hope, that when the papal spokesperson suggested that the ordinations of gay men, past and present, are invalid, he was having a bad day. Such an outrageous suggestion, if true, would most likely end apostolic succession, because it would invalidate countless ordinations down the centuries. It would, as Bishop Thomas Gumbleton remarked, “call into question the integrity of our whole sacramental system” (Am., 9/30).

A Trial Balloon?

In his recent article in America (9/30), the Rev. Andrew R. Baker pursues several lines of reasoning to justify a ban on ordination of gay men. He offers, first, a prudential argument that gays in our time should not be ordained. Second, and more controversially, he uses the theological claim that the homosexual (dis)orientation is objectively disordered to support his argument that gay men can be neither truly celibate nor proper images of God. Because Father Baker serves on the staff of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome and because his arguments resemble those reported elsewhere from the Vatican, it is important to examine these two types of arguments.

Father Baker prefaces these arguments with the rule that bishops should not ordain a man when they have a prudent doubt whether he will be a good priest. In ecclesiastical jargon, a “doubt” usually means that one cannot decide. The bishops are told that if they cannot decide on a candidate’s suitability for the priesthood, they ought not resolve the doubt in favor of ordaining the candidate. This position is parallel to the long-standing practice, in cases of divorce, of resolving doubt in favor of the institution of marriage rather than in favor of the divorced couple (though some today urge putting people ahead of institutions). But the position is quite plausible.

According to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, this “prudent doubt” concerns the “suitability” of a candidate. Suitability for what? The answer in canon law is obvious: suitability for priesthood. Father Baker’s answer, however, is not so obvious.

Father Baker does not list the qualities that a priest must have and then demonstrate that gay men do not or cannot possess such qualities. The fact that so many fine priests are gay would make it very hard or impossible to show that gay men are not suitable for priesthood. Bishop Gumbleton’s article, for example, refers to several excellent gay priests whose lives demonstrate that at least some gay men are quite fit for ordination.

Rather, Father Baker has several other concerns, one of which is that gay men are somehow not suitable for the hothouse closeness of seminary life. He worries about the disruptive quality of “cliques” in the seminary. While that may still be a problem, in my experience it seems more and more a thing of the past as gay men no longer think of themselves as either social outcasts or as in the social vanguard. Today there are groups of gays, just as there are groups of “jocks” who recreate together, groups of Africans and of Asians who like to gather for special meals, groups of “artistic types” who perform music together and so forth. People also belong to more than one group, and such informal groupings tend not be destructive or divisive. Rather, they fit within the polyphony that is contemporary seminary life.

Perhaps some have a fantasy about gay men being tempted to have sex with other gay men in the seminary. Doubtless, that happens. It is also well known that heterosexual seminarians sometimes engage in sex with women during their seminary years. These things occur, and usually they are dealt with. Let me add, however, a few observations. First, modern seminaries often are configured with separate bedrooms, bathrooms and showers. Second, gay men learn early on how peacefully to be around members of their own sex. The simple point is that contemporary gay and straight seminarians can and do comfortably live under the same roof.

Presumably, at the moment they enter a seminary, most men, if not all, are not suitable for ordination. That is why the church makes them undergo four to five years of rigorous formation and education. The question is whether at the end of this training, they are suitable for ordination. And that particular question seems to be an empirical one. Father Baker himself writes that the heterosexual seminarian may be quite psychosexually immature, vulnerable and uncertain about his manhood. He also claims that some gay men can be healed, so to speak, of their problems. So it would seem that gay men should at least be allowed to enter the seminary.

Father Baker rightly observes that some gay men suffer from cultural rejection. He comments that if, as a consequence, a man has become a pathological liar, a drunk, an addict, seriously depressed or sexually confused, there may be a prudent doubt about whether he should be ordained. Agreed. Still, it is a long leap of bad logic to argue that because some gay men may have these problems, therefore all gay men should be excluded from ordination. Try this: some heterosexual bishops have committed adultery, therefore no heterosexual should be consecrated a bishop.

The suggestion that such difficulties might be more problematic for gays than for straights highlights an important observation made by Father Baker. Any judgment of “prudent doubt,” he says, must be “founded on facts that are objective and duly verified.” In particular, then, anyone making such judgments must be especially vigilant about the possibility that his own views reflect latent homophobia. Thus, any bishop who makes such a judgment would be well advised to have, say, a gay priest of good reputation to advise him. The church should avoid even the appearance of homophobia, which the Washington State Catholic Conference described in 1983 as a worse evil than that of homosexual acts.

“Objectively Disordered”

The linchpin in the Vatican view is that homosexuality is an “objective disorder.” For the purposes of this article, let me concede but also clarify that term. In the view of the Vatican, for heterosexuals there is one, but not more than one, legitimate “outlet” for sexual desires. The same is not true for homosexuals. The significance of this point, however, is unclear.

The phrase “objective disorder” has often and rightly been heard as unnecessarily offensive. But for those who know the Catholic tradition, the phrase is not surprising. In fact, we have a long history of saying that heterosexuality is objectively disordered. For in addition to being an inclination to procreative sex, heterosexuality also includes an inclination to lustful thoughts, masturbation, fornication and other evils. From Paul and Augustine through Thomas Aquinas and Alphonsus Liguori up to the Second Vatican Council, we have argued in our theology and in our canon law that marriage is a “remedy” for this disorder.

Our tradition has been conflicted when it comes to sex. At one point some in the hierarchy taught that, practically speaking, no man ever engages in sexual intercourse with his wife without committing at least venial sin. Thus, for some people celibacy was, in part, a way of avoiding sin. (Even now, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that chastity is the virtue, never fully attained, of overcoming this disorder and of striving toward integration.)

Priests, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are not asexual. They have urges toward sexual acts that are disordered. But each priest has his own task of growing in the virtue of chastity. Some do this more easily than others. Overall, the goal of chastity, which the catechism describes as “integrity” and “integrality,” remains always on the horizon for both gay and straight priests.

Furthermore, it would be unwise, even adolescent, to limit the orientation of heterosexuality and homosexuality to a genital focus. The two orientations, rarely found in their pure form, include a broad sexual attraction directed more to one-half of the human race than to the other half. Heterosexual men are not attracted to just one woman; they have a general attraction to many if not all women. Similarly, homosexual men have a general attraction to being with men, and there is surely nothing disordered about such an attraction. When the church says that homosexuality is “objectively disordered,” it refers instead to the particular desire for genital sex with members of the same sex. While for both gay and straight celibates these general attractions can turn particular and exclusive, for the most part they do not.


Father Baker also argues that gay men cannot be truly celibate for two reasons, each of which has significant negative consequences for the church’s theology.

First, he judges it “superfluous” for a gay man to vow to abstain from something that he is already bound to avoid by the natural law. Unfortunately, this reasoning also renders “superfluous” the vow of celibacy taken by all men and women in religious orders; the church teaches that, as non-married persons, they are already bound by the natural law to abstain from sex.

Second, Father Baker argues that celibacy necessarily involves sacrifice, but that it is no sacrifice for a gay man to give up the heterosexual marriage he does not desire. Hence, he says, they are not truly celibate. This seems a novel and unnecessary doctrine, and not just because it makes even heterosexuals who have no particular desire to get married unsuitable for the priesthood. Here Father Baker also seems to be invalidating the vow of celibacy that gay priests have taken over the centuries. In his judgment, they may have lived chastely, but they did not live celibately. Thus, it would seem, their ordination vows were empty. As a consequence, it would seem that the church has participated in and encouraged fraud.

Surely gay priests often feel they are making a sacrifice. Let me offer an analogy that works within the Vatican assumption that the homosexual orientation is disordered. If one woman gives up chocolate as part of her Lenten fast and another gives up chocolate because of the same Lenten fast but also because she is unhealthily overweight, both persons are making sacrifices and both merit God’s blessing. Straight and gay celibates make similar sacrifices.

Moreover, what celibates chiefly give up is marriage, not simply heterosexual intercourse. Vatican II made it abundantly clear that marriage is in the first place the shared, covenantal life of two sexual persons. The blessings of such a covenant—as with the covenant between God and the church—extend far beyond and may not even include genital activity. Gay celibates forgo such blessings.

Metaphorical Arguments

My college philosophy teacher warned of the dangers of drawing conclusions from metaphors. The Genesis metaphor, “image of God,” has been given many different interpretations down the ages. But Father Baker offers a novel theological position when he locates the image of God not in our being rational, or relational, or males and females, but rather in our sexual orientation. Homosexuality, he writes, is an “aberration” from God’s creation of “an image of himself in the orientation of male to female and female to male.” This position seems to say that gay men, because they are not heterosexually oriented, do not image God. If so, the fine things that Pope John Paul II has said about the dignity of being made in the image of God do not apply to gay men and lesbian women. (Perhaps this position underlies the comment in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” [1986] that seemed reconciled to violence against homosexual persons.)

My high school English teacher warned against mixing metaphors. Hence my editorial ears perked up when Father Baker writes that “the priest redirects his sexual attraction to the opposite sex toward another ‘body,’ the church, which is a ‘bride.’” The intention, of course, is to say that only heterosexual male priests can have a proper, spousal relationship with the bride, the church. Nevertheless, at this point my theological ears were hurting. Consider the implications that follow from such metaphorical thinking. First, priests should be somehow sexually attracted to the church. Second, sexual desires are imaged as directed to a body, not to a person. (The alternative, that gay priests might somehow be more attracted to the person of Jesus Christ, not just his body, is not considered.) Third, since women religious also take vows of celibacy, these women could apparently redirect their sexual attraction to the “bride” only if they were lesbians. Last, and worse, we would have to say that since the “body” of Christ is his “bride,” Christ is married to his own body, and that body is female.

My point: avoid drawing conclusions from these metaphors.

After teaching sexual ethics for over two decades, I have come to the conclusion that in sexual ethics, most of us begin with our conclusions—for example, that rape is wrong. Then, if ever, we seek reasons to justify our conclusions. If Father Baker’s essay is indicative, the Vatican seems to be engaged in this sort of process.

The same is true for me. My experience of many fine gay priests inclines me to think there must be something wrong with any set of reasons that tries to show these men are not good priests. My argument is simple. From the fact that there are gay men who are good, celibate priests, it follows that gay men can be good, celibate priests. There is no basis for Father Baker’s broad prudential doubt.

If my analysis is correct, I hope that curial officials will recognize that at the very least, they need better reasons for excluding gay men from the priesthood. Indeed, it is my hope that they will see that there are no such better reasons. Finally, I hope that “acting more humanely,” they will welcome the many fine gay men who desire each day to go up to the altar of God.

Edward Vacek, S.J., is department chair and professor of moral theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.