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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Enough Said

The Church asks of homosexuals who wish to be priests what it also asks of heterosexuals — along with much else, that is: the willingness and demonstrated ability to live chaste, celibate lives. As will become clear once the current shouting dies down, that is the basic message of the new Vatican document on admitting homosexuals to the seminary, which stirred up so much noisy comment when it was released late last month.

Naturally the media weren't much help. Two headlines in The Washington Post and The Washington Times on the same day, November 30, illustrate that. Here's the Post: "Bishop Says Edict Allows Some Gay Priests." And the Times: "Vatican Bars All Gays As Priests." Take your pick. If the media covered the weather like that, people would understandably be upset. But this — so it sometimes seems — is only religion, so what difference does it make?

The key passage in the document from the Congregation for Catholic Education says this: "The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture.'"

The first and third of those three criteria aren't open to dispute. No reasonable person thinks practicing homosexuals and gay activists make good bets as Catholic seminarians and priests — any more than sexually active heterosexuals or proponents of a coarse machismo masculinity would be.

But the second criterion looks problematical at first. It bars those who "present deep-seated homosexual tendencies." What are "deep-seated" tendencies? The document doesn't spell it out, and isn't that a mistake?

As a matter of fact, it's good sense. Individual cases are individual cases and must be treated as such. Someone quasi-obsessively dominated by his sexual orientation presents problems not presented by someone for whom sexuality is one element in a functionally integrated personality. The working assumption of a document like this is that it will be applied by local authorities who know the difference.

Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the relationship between the new document and the "apostolic visitation" of American seminaries now taking place is somewhere between negligible and non-existent. The document's origins date back to the late 1990s, with the first press mentions having occurred in 1999. By contrast, American cardinals requested the seminary visitation during a meeting with the pope at the Vatican in 2002. Moreover, among the 90-some questions that the seminary visitation teams are supposed to address, only one deals with homosexuality.

This is not to deny what was said last year by the all-lay National Review Board created by the bishops to monitor their response to the sex abuse crisis: As the numbers show, the vast majority of abuse cases involved homosexual behavior. Moreover, in the 1970s and 1980s a "gay subculture" had come to exist in some seminaries, and it's important to find out whether that problem has been corrected. But the notion that this is only an investigative process aimed at rooting out gay seminarians and faculty is simplistic at best. In many ways, it should be understood on the model of a secular academic accreditation process.

The hysteria that greeted the new document was symptomatic of our troubled cultural climate at a time of super-abundant pro- and anti-homosexual propagandizing. The Church, however, has its own agenda and its own work to do, and addressing the issue of homosexuality, though necessary on pastoral grounds, is hardly the largest part of it. The new document says what needed to be said. Leave it at that.

  • Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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