The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education has issued a document on admitting homosexual men to Catholic priesthood.
A Eureka Street comment commends its emphasis on maturity as the criterion of admission to priesthood.
‘The recent Vatican document on admitting homosexual men to ordination reflects broader issues that trouble most churches in the West. But the question has also distinctively Catholic aspects.
The larger issue concerns the moral status of sexual relations between homosexual partners. Should these be judged by the same criteria of fidelity, permanence and lifelong commitment by which we would judge heterosexual relationships? Or are they morally unacceptable precisely because they are between people of the same sex? Christians who address this question must also make complex and far-reaching judgments about the authority of scripture and of its received interpretation.
The ordination of people in public homosexual relationships focuses these issues. Because ministers in their public lives are expected to embody the teaching of Christ, the ordination of people known to be in a homosexual relationship naturally calls into question any judgment that homosexuality is contrary to Christ’s teaching.
The coming together of sexuality and authority in the question of ordaining practising homosexuals arouses powerful emotions that have threatened to divide the Anglican Communion. This precise issue does not directly affect the Catholic Church, most of whose clergy are required to live celibate lives.
Catholic teaching about homosexual practice is certainly unequivocal. It regards such practice as morally unjustifiable and inconsistent with scriptural witness, as this has been consistently interpreted.
But within the Catholic Church, as in other churches, many people publicly question this teaching. Because the lives and attitudes of priests who preach the gospel are important in sustaining or weakening assent to teaching, the Vatican has an interest in the selection of candidates for ordination.
It would be aware that the sexual orientation of many clergy is likely to be homosexual.
The Instruction itself builds on previous Vatican documents. It presents the ideal of a mature priest as a criterion for admission to priesthood. The mature priest can live happily and faithfully a celibate life, presumably without sexual repression, suppression, depression or expression.
The document then turns to the admission of homosexual men to ordained ministry. But its appeal to maturity means that its conclusions would be pertinent also to heterosexual men.
It begins by excluding practising homosexuals. This follows both from the moral judgment about homosexual practice and from the demands of celibacy. Sexually active men, whether homosexuals or heterosexuals, might have difficulty in living celibacy faithfully and happily.
The core of the document has to do with ‘homosexual tendencies’. It distinguishes between a transitory and a more deeply rooted condition. A transitory condition indicates a lack of emotional maturity, and the document prescribes a delay of three years before entry into a seminary, presumably to encourage the development of a secure sexual identity.
The Instruction also excludes those with ‘a more deep-seated tendency’. This phrase is also found in previous documents, but it is nowhere closely defined. Its meaning is significant, for if it implied no more than that people recognise their homosexuality as abiding, it would reflect negatively on the ministry of many priests and bishops in the Catholic Church. But in previous documents, tendency appears to denote not only sexual identity, but an inclination to act out sexual desires. A deep-rooted tendency would indicate a strong need to do so.
If this is so, men with such strong needs would be unlikely to be able to live a celibate life happily and faithfully. Nor, again, would heterosexual men with the same degree of need.
Finally the document excludes those who ‘support the so-called gay culture’. This presumably means living in such a way that one would be publicly identified as homosexual, and would reasonably be taken to support homosexual practice. Such a way of living would stand in conflict with Catholic teaching about homosexuality.
Although the reference to gay culture is vague, it suggests also a sense of identity in which sexuality and sexual preference are given strong weight. An identity sexualised in this way might also be inconsistent with the emotional maturity required to live celibacy happily. But so surely would support for a macho culture.
Contrary to forecasts, this instruction is not dramatic in its implications for current church practice. It will displease those who look for a re-evaluation of homosexual relationships. In setting the ordination of homosexual men in the context of the maturity required for a priest to live a celibate life, it makes modest but high demands. These would apply also to heterosexual candidates.
The large questions that trouble the churches remain. Accounting for culture in delineating the authority of scripture and its interpretation in the church, the implications of research on homosexuality and of the spiritual experience of homosexuals for ethical reflection, and the value of celibacy for the mission and witness of today’s church, will all require protracted attention.
The major challenge to the churches also remains: to develop a pastoral practice that accepts homosexual people and everything that is distinctive in their reception of the gospel neither as a threat nor affront, but as a gift.’ [30 November 2005]