Priests Citing New Problem in Gay Policy
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: November 24, 2005
A day after the disclosure of a new Vatican directive that deters most gay men from joining the priesthood, some priests say they are shocked by one easily overlooked clause. It says that spiritual directors and confessors in seminaries “have the duty to dissuade” any candidates “who show deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from joining the priesthood.
These priests said this would turn the confessional and spiritual counseling sessions, which seminarians previously regarded as private and supportive meetings, into a tool for weeding gay men out of seminaries.
“The relationship between a seminarian and his confessor or his spiritual director should not be about enforcing church documents, but to serve as spiritual guides,” said the Rev. Michael Herman, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago who has recently publicly identified himself as gay in order to speak out against the Vatican’s action.
“They’ve gone so far as to say your confessor’s and spiritual adviser’s role is to talk you out of” becoming a priest, Father Herman said.
His reaction to the document was echoed by other priests and Roman Catholic organizations, who said that the church’s decree was discriminatory and hurtful to faithful chaste gay priests and would only exacerbate an already dire shortage of Catholic clergymen.
But that was only one reaction to a Vatican directive that church experts say is intentionally sprinkled with undefined terms and left open to interpretation.
Some priests and church officials welcomed the document as a corrective to what they call a gay subculture in some seminaries. Others said it merely restated an existing policy and would have far less impact than advocates of gay priests and their opponents have claimed.
“There is nothing in this document that would require a change in the current practice,” said the Rev. James Bretzke, chairman of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco.
Father Bretzke said it had long been true that some American bishops and superiors who lead religious orders would automatically disqualify candidates for the priesthood who claimed a gay orientation, while other bishops would consider them.
“Unless you get a critical mass of bishops and religious superiors who say, Now we can’t admit any gay men, I don’t think it’s going to have any discernible effect,” Father Bretzke said. “There are lots of excellent gay priests and seminarians, and we have a priest shortage. We’re not exactly in a buyer’s market here. If you’re not going to ordain gay men, and not going to ordain married men, and not going to ordain women, well then who’s left? It’s not exactly a big pool.”
Estimates of the percentage of priests who are gay have varied from as low as 10 percent to as high as 60 percent. The directive applies only to seminarians, not to priests.
The document, written in Italian, was posted on an Italian Catholic Web site on Tuesday, one week before the Vatican was set to formally release it in Rome. It was signed by the heads of the Vatican office that oversees Catholic education and approved by Pope Benedict XVI.
Vatican documents dating as far back as 1961 have proclaimed that the church should not ordain gay men. But this document goes further in saying that a chain of church officials have the responsibility to make a “morally certain judgment” about whether a candidate’s sexuality would disqualify him.
“The church, even while deeply respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to seminary or Holy Orders those who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture,” it says in one key passage. “Such people, in fact, find themselves in a situation that seriously obstructs them from properly relating to men and women.”
The document does not define “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” and the meaning was debated yesterday.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a conservative journal about religion and public life, said the Vatican was referring to “dominant or exclusive same-sex desires.” Father Bretzke, at the University of San Francisco, said the Vatican meant “activities” like frequenting gay bath houses or bars, or looking at Internet pornography.
The Rev. Stephen P. Rossetti, a psychologist and president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., said bishops would require further consultations before they knew how to apply the document.
The document is clear, however, about the role of the spiritual director – a priest, a nun or even a trained lay person assigned to each seminarian to talk with him about his spiritual life, in meetings that are supposed to be private and confidential.
“If a candidate is actively homosexual or shows deep-seated homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director, as well as his confessor, has the duty to dissuade him, in conscience, from proceeding towards ordination,” it says. It does not suggest that spiritual directors violate confidentiality or inform others of the candidate’s homosexuality.
One gay priest in Boston who said he was afraid to be identified because of the current climate said his spiritual director knew of his sexuality and “in fact encouraged me to proceed toward ordination.”
This priest, who is now himself a spiritual director, said that if a gay man told him he wanted to join the priesthood, “I would evaluate him on the basis of the whole person.”
“The job of spiritual director is not to turn people away from vocation but to help them understand what God is calling them to do,” he said.
At least one gay seminarian has already quit in anticipation of the document’s release. Tim Powers, 30, said he left Holy Name College in Washington in October because he was struggling with celibacy and wanted to live a more honest life. Mr. Powers said he talked with his spiritual director about his conflict.
“Both she and I realized that it was something I had to try and figure out in a way that was both authentic and had some integrity to it,” he said. “The leaving part was really something I decided on my own.”