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Vatican Bans Homosexuals

November 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The Vatican’s latest move to keep homosexuals out of the priesthood came in a long-awaited eight-page document. The Catholic Church’s new policy paper was published today after weeks of leaks and rumors.

Under the new instruction, the Church said it cannot admit to the seminary and to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called “gay culture.”

But the Church also said men may be ordained if they clearly overcome their transitory gay tendencies for three years before becoming a deacon, the last step before priesthood.

The document which reinforced previous statements by the Vatican made no reference to men already in the priesthood. It did say that the Vatican considers deep-seated homosexual tendencies a disorder.

It was the first major ruling of Pope Benedict XVI’s tenure. Work on the document began under John Paul II’s papacy. Reaction among Catholics in Rome was mixed.

PHILLIPE (Translated): A priest must be psychologically balanced. And it is the reason why in my opinion this document had to be released.

FATHER KEITH PECKLERS: There’s a certain implication in the document that homosexuals, gays and lesbians, are not capable of living affectively mature — emotionally mature lives.

And, of course, we know from modern psychology and just from the lives of gay men and lesbians that many do indeed live very faithful, generous lives.

KWAME HOLMAN: Release of the ruling follows revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in parishes from Boston to Los Angeles, which first came to light in 2002. Many of the claims involved the abuse of adolescent boys by priests.

In today’s publication, the Vatican said the question of homosexuality and the priesthood was, quote, made more urgent by the present situation.

MARGARET WARNER: For more now on the significance and implications of the new Vatican directive, we turn to Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, a Catholic publishing house. He is also a close friend and former theology student of Pope Benedict.

And Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.” He also writes for America Magazine, a Catholic weekly. Welcome to you both.

Father Fessio, what is your view of this directive? Is this wise policy for the Church right now?

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: Margaret, I think that the summary that was given on your program here was excellent. It’s nothing new in terms of teaching because the Church’s teaching has been unchanged for several millennia but it is new in the sense it’s been disregarded in many seminaries so I think it’s a very helpful and healthy thing that the church has made it clear that the homosexuality is not something neutral. It’s not a gift of God. It’s an affective disorder. That does not mean that those who are afflicted with it are bad persons. In fact they are images of God and due our respect.

MARGARET WARNER: But the Vatican is saying that essentially if you’re a homosexual it makes you unfit for the priesthood?

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: That’s correct.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Father Martin, your view of this.

REV. JAMES MARTIN: Well, I’d respectfully disagree with Father Fessio. I think that while it does change nothing that’s been on the books, it does change the actual practice of many seminaries and religious orders who in the past thirty or forty years have discovered that gay men can be celibate and healthy seminarians and later priests, and so I think what this document will do is really force a lot of people out of the seminary who have a real vocation and also demoralize a lot of really good celibate gay priests across the world.

MARGARET WARNER: So you would agree with Father Fessio that what the Vatican is saying here is that if you are homosexual sort of in your heart that you are unfit to be a priest?

REV. JAMES MARTIN: I think that’s very clear that the Vatican document is saying that. Now I know it’s going to have to be interpreted like any Vatican document. But it’s hard to read the document as saying anything other than that, and saying it very bluntly and saying it quite a few times in a few different ways.

MARGARET WARNER: Father Fessio, explain the reasoning here. If a man, a young man or a middle-aged man, for that matter, has been celibate for some time and is vowing to remain celibate as the Church requires to be a priest, why does it matter to the Church if in his heart he is homosexual or heterosexual?

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: Margaret, that’s a wonderful question. First of all, it should be clear to people that the Catholic Church has taught from the beginning that homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral, against God’s plan, against the natural law and are serious sins, and that, therefore, a tendency to indulge in those acts, or desire for them, is an objective psychological disorder.

Now that is a hard saying. It’s something that goes against what a lot of people think but that’s what the Church teaches. Now the reasons for that are very deep and more than we can go into here but they go to the very Trinity itself of God as being both union and fruitfulness and Christ incarnate, the Son of God being the bridegroom of His Church.

The Church has a very, very high view of sexuality in marriage. Paul expresses that in his epistle to the Ephesians that it’s a great mystery, a man and a woman, Christ and the Church. And so the document at the very beginning says that when a man is ordained, he doesn’t just perform the functions of a priest. He actually becomes united with Christ, the bridegroom of the Church, and, therefore, to have a relationship to the Church’s bride, which is an ordered relationship, you have to have someone who has got that kind of affective maturity who also has an ordered relationship as a man to the bride which is his Church. So those are the fundamental reasons for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning he would be heterosexual in orientation, though celibate?

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: Yes, because that’s the normal orientation that corresponds to the finality of human sexuality.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Father Martin just because that was a very complex thought. Let me just get Father Martin’s view of that.

REV. JAMES MARTIN: Well, I would agree obviously with – I would agree with Father Fessio in terms of the high regard and the high status that priests have in the Church. The only thing I disagree with is that we’ve seen for many, many years, probably centuries, that celibate gay men can fulfill those roles just as well as celibate straight men can.

You think of someone — I think the most notable recent example is someone like Father Michael Judge, the hero at the World Trade Center. There was a man who was known by many of his friends to be celibate and gay and was this kind of national hero.

So I mean, I think the key thing here is to also reflect on experience that you have good, celibate, healthy gay seminarians as well as good, celibate, healthy gay priests.

And I think, you know, the Vatican document is going to make that much more difficult in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that, Father Fessio? I mean, are there not good, celibate gay priests who contribute a great deal and in fact this document does nothing to change their status, is that right?

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: Let me say two things about that, Margaret. First of all, we’ll leave to God which priests are good and which priests aren’t. I do know that over 400 priests have died of AIDS. I don’t think they got that from water fountains. One bishop and one Jesuit president of a university have died from AIDS. So I doubt they were chaste and celibate.

But I distinguish between two types of priest here: Someone who accepts the Church’s teaching that homosexuality is an affective disorder but realizes it’s a disorder he has and suffers under that and accepts it as his cross and unites himself to Christ crucified can be a holy, devout and good priest.

But someone who promotes the gay lifestyle, who is claiming that homosexuality is a gift, is ipso facto dissenting from Church teaching. And we may call him a good priest; he may be compassionate; he may be helping the poor, whatever. He may go in to take people out of the World Trade Center when they’re burning. But that does mean he’s teaching what the Church expects him to teach.

A priest, after all, is acting in the name of Christ and in the name of the Church. And if a priest is not going to accept the fundamental teachings of the Church, which includes the hard saying that homosexuality is an objective disorder, then he’s a dissenter; he’s doing a disservice to the Church. It’s failure to be truthful in advertising.

MARGARET WARNER: Father Martin, let me — can I move this along but feel free to comment on that but this relates to it. And let’s just look at the language. It said that the Church can’t accept people who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called “gay culture.”

But they would not preclude someone becoming a priest with homosexual tendencies that were, quote, only the expression of a transitory problem. Now, how much play is there in that? Who would make those distinctions? How varied could the interpretations be?

REV. JAMES MARTIN: Well, they could be very varied. Obviously these distinctions are going to have to be made by seminary rectors, by bishops, by superiors of religious orders, but I don’t think there’s much play in that –interestingly that notion of someone with a transitory homosexual attraction is actually a ban on someone who is essentially straight but who has had a homosexual attraction at some point in his life, so that’s the kind of person they’re talking about there.

MARGARET WARNER: They would not ban someone like that.

REV. JAMES MARTIN: Right. They’d have to be celibate for at least three years before the deaconate, which is the proximate step to the priesthood. But, in general, the document is banning people who understand themselves as gay, who understand themselves as having a primarily homosexual orientation, whether or not they can live celibately, and that’s that central part that talks about deep-seated homosexual tendencies, at least that’s how I read it.

You know, canon lawyers and bishops may read it otherwise and may apply it much differently.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about Father Fessio’s point that if a priest, even if he is celibate — actively promotes– well, it doesn’t actively in this document — it just says promotes the homosexual culture, that that is fundamentally at odds with the basic tenets of the Roman Catholic faith which is homosexuality is a disorder?

REV. JAMES MARTIN: Well, I’d say two things. First of all I think it’s wrong to assume that just because a man is gay and a priest he’s somehow a dissenter. I mean, the fact that you’re gay, you know, just because you’re born that way, does not make you suddenly this sort of, you know, genetic dissenter.

And, secondly, I think it’s kind of unfair to lay that blame at the feet of celibate gay priests who are in fact, in their celibacy living exactly according to the catechism, which says that gay men should live celibately; so to sort of blame gay men for dissent on those kinds of teachings when they’re, in fact, you know, embodying those teachings I think is really difficult.

And it’s a difficult pill for a lot of gay priests, celibate gay priests, to swallow.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both a final question. I’m going to ask you two questions in one which is never a good idea but I’m going to try it. And Father Fessio, let me start with you first.

First of all, how much of the timing of this do you think was driven by the sexual abuse scandal in the priesthood and, two, what impact do you think this will have on recruitment or interest in the Catholic seminaries?

As we know the Catholic — the number of Catholic priests in this country has been dropping precipitously even as the number of Catholic parishioners has risen.

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: Margaret, I’ll answer that, but I want to agree with my fellow Jesuit, Father Martin. I think he’s correct that priests who live celibate and accept the Church’s teaching should be honored and respected, but usually the term ‘gay” in our culture means someone who promotes the homosexual lifestyle as good; that’s the distinction I’m making.

But in your question here, what will it do to the seminaries and to recruitment, I think it will over time increase it because what has happened in the past — and I know this from personal experience of many people — is that young men who accept this document or what is taught have been excluded from the seminaries for being too rigid or they’ve been excluded because they have a view of sexuality which corresponds to the Church’s teaching.

And, as a result of that many seminaries and religious orders have had a preponderance of homosexual men there. And even when you have a solid heterosexual, orthodox Catholic young man joining the seminary, he finds himself in this homosexual subculture and leaves.

Those seminaries who have been operating according to what this document teaches already for decades are the ones that have many priests and many seminarians in them.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get to Father Martin — so you think it will actually increase the interest in going to seminaries —

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: I’m sure of it. At Ave Marie University, where I teach, we have 140 young men undergraduates. Of them 38 are preparing for the priesthood. Next year I’ll have 180 men. We’ve spent almost 60. There’s a tremendous desire for the priesthood among those who want to follow the Church’s teachings.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Father Martin, your view on that question.

REV. JAMES MARTIN: To your first question, I think it is related to the sexual abuse crisis. That’s stated in the document pretty explicitly. To the second question about vocations obviously this is going to prevent many gay men from even considering a vocation in the priesthood.

And I think, you know, there was a quote in the New York Times about a month ago from Sister Katarina Schute, who spends most of her life, her sort of professional life studying seminaries. And she said that this hope that someone straight men would rush in to fill this gap in vocations is really a misguided one at least according to her research.

And I don’t see any proof of that. But what it will do certainly is drive a lot of gay men away from the vocations that they had probably felt called to in the past couple of years.

MARGARET WARNER: Father James Martin and Father Joseph Fessio, thank you both.

REV. JAMES MARTIN: You’re welcome.

REV. JOSEPH FESSIO: You’re welcome.