Cloud over gay priests
The issue of homosexuals in the priesthood is under scrutiny in Rome. A draft Vatican document looks set to make waves, according to our Rome correspondent
MEN IN the Vatican are shocked when we ask about the making of a Church document. One morning we wake up and we find a report from the Vatican Information Service which says, in effect, Habemus Instructionem, an instant new teaching. We read the text. We smile. Or we make a face. We call around to the usual suspects and ask them what they make of it. We are not supposed to know who writes a teaching document, or who has a hand in re-writing it.
Let’s talk about the draft of a document on homosexuality and the priesthood that is now being circulated inside several Roman Congregations. This document, as yet unnamed, will come not from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but from the Vatican department that oversees the world’s seminaries, the Pontifical Congregation for Education.
Breaking all the rules, I sought the testimony of some who have been delegated to write the draft, or comment on it. Based on what they told me, I can report that the document will undertake to reverse the gaying of the priesthood that has taken place in the past 20 years. It is a move which some in the Church believe will be a needed institutional response to the clerical sex scandals of 2002.
A simple statement will advise bishops and religious superiors that homosexuals are risky material for ordination, should not be admitted to the seminary, and should not be ordained. When and if it appears (some are pushing for publication before Christmas), we can expect cheers from the Catholic right wing – who for at least a decade have been complaining about “the flood of homosexuals into the priesthood” – and dissent from the left, where they know too many chaste, hardworking priests who happen to have a homosexual orientation. There will also be screams from gay-rights activists in (and out of) the Church, who have achieved the remarkable public relations miracle in the past 20 years of convincing most of humankind that same-sex sex is as normal as left-handedness. From a large contingent of homosexually oriented priests and seminarians, there will be silence.
The Pope does not want homosexual priests. He does not want married priests either. Those helping the Pope draft his exhortation on the priesthood, Pastores Dabo Vobis, in 1992, had a hard time convincing him that celibacy was not “of the essence” of the priesthood.
In fact, there are married Catholic priests on every continent. Some 20 Eastern-rite autochthonous Churches have both a celibate and a married clergy. The Pope also has married priests who have come under his tighter jurisdiction in the Roman patriarchate, mainly as converts from the Anglican and Episcopal Churches, with their wives and children. There are also thousands of priests all over the world (some 20,000 in the United States alone) who left active ministry to marry. Technically, they are still priests. They can say Mass and perform priestly functions in an emergency.
And then there are an uncounted number of Roman-rite parish priests, principally in Latin America and Africa, who are, de facto, married – while their bishops pretend not to know. That is why the Congregation for Bishops or the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples keep selecting bishops among priests from religious orders, who are presumed not to have wives. In effect, parts of the Roman Catholic Church already have a two-tiered priesthood – some priests celibate, some not, just like the Eastern Churches. But the Pope’s courtiers know better than to tell him so.
When Remi de Roo, the retired Bishop of Victoria in British Columbia, said to the Pope one day at lunch five years ago, “We have to talk about the ordination of married men”, John Paul II did not hear him. When de Roo later repeated his remark, the Pope took his knife in one fist and his fork in the other, smashed the tabletop, and cried, “Deus providebit! Deus providebit!” (“God will provide! God will provide!”) That was the end of the discussion. The Pope has not listened to requests to ordain married men from the bishops of Brazil, Canada, Indonesia and the South Pacific.
Nothing has changed John Paul’s opinion. I overheard one Vatican official ask recently if the Church really wanted married priests – given the condition of marriage today. Last year, he said, 17 per cent of the marriages in Italy failed. “Do you think a divorced pastor can help anyone?” I allowed that maybe it takes a divorced pastor to understand the real agonies and the dilemmas faced by Catholics who divorce. He smiled and changed the subject. To him, such a scenario was impossible. Why waste time talking about it?
When will the Vatican release the document on homosexuality and the seminaries? Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect of the Pontifical Congregation for Education, said at a news conference last week: “Not soon”. Apparently there has already been some political pressure – from bishops – to bury the document. My guess is that their entreaties will only move the Pope to accelerate its publication.
You can trace the Pope’s anger back to January 2002, when he began reading headlines from Boston about priest-paedophiles. By 4 March, we could make an educated guess that the Pope already had his solution to the situation when we read an exclusive interview with the Pope’s spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, inThe New York Times. Navarro-Valls said there was no room in the Church for homosexual priests. He wondered whether the ordination of a homosexual priest was even valid. Was the papal spokesman speaking for the Pope? Well, what do papal spokesmen do? Sometimes, they launch trial balloons. This one was effective: it brought out hundreds of critics, and their voices were amplified, mainly by the secular media.
And it was not just an American problem, as became clear when Archbishop Juliusz
Paetz of Poznan in Poland, who had once served in the papal household, had to step down after allegations that he had propositioned his own seminarians. Suddenly, the scandal took on bigger proportions. Now it touched even the Polish Church, and now it was even clearer to the Pope that the problem was not a sickness called paedophilia – the abuse of pre-pubescent children – but ephebophilia – which is not listed as a disorder in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It seemed that these reports, multiplying every week, were simply cases of homosexual priests making advances to teenaged boys.
There were certainly early pointers. In January 2000, a series of articles in the Kansas City Star reported that hundreds of American priests had died of Aids-related illnesses since the mid-Eighties. Kansas City’s Bishop Raymond Boland said the deaths showed that priests were only human.
By 2002, the scandal had taken another turn. For 43 straight days in March and April, the New York Times carried a page one story on the scandal of abusing clergy. Finally, in mid-April, the Pope called all the American cardinals to Rome. Although details of his conversation with them have not emerged yet, when Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, emerged from the meeting he announced: “It’s an ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men.” Until then, many Catholics in America did not even know what insiders already knew: that the make-up of the clergy had undergone a vast change since Vatican II.
After the council, which taught that one could serve God equally well in the lay state, vocations to the priesthood began to drop – and so did admission standards at the seminaries. The Jesuits, among other orders, adopt
ed a policy that young men with what they called a homosexual orientation could enter the novitiate, if they were committed to chastity. A Holy Office instruction written in 1975 said that while homosexual sex was “disordered”, a homosexual orientation was not. Young men could have that orientation and go on to become good priests, just as their heterosexually oriented classmates have done, because they are all equally vowed to chastity. In fact, there are a good many priests today who would, if asked, admit they are homosexuals. In a recent US survey, 23 per cent of surveyed priests under 40 said they were gay.
Reliable sources in the United States say those numbers are too low. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector in Cleveland, Ohio, and the psychiatrist A.W. Richard Sipe, who has written three books on sex and the priesthood, say that half of the clergy in the United States have a homosexual orientation. Times have indeed changed. In my Jesuit years (1948 to 1958), we heard something called the Common Rules read out loud every month in the refectory. One of them said that the rule of chastity needed no explanation, because it was clear how perfectly it ought to be kept – “with angelic purity”. And so, we followers of Ignatius Loyola tried to live our lives not as men, but as angels. We sublimated our sexuality, and most of us did that by working 18 hours a day “for the greater glory of God”. If we could not channel our sexual energy into our work, we left the order. So what is that attracts a higher preponderance of gay men to consider priesthood as a vocation? In a recent interview on the BBC, a seminary rector in England said some feel “safer” in a virtually all-male environment, others enter because they do not have to admit they are not attracted to women. In addition, he said, the priesthood is rather like the caring and acting professions, and it is possible to see elements of both in the role of the priest, while others are drawn to a more “cultic” or “conservative” profession, which can appear to give clarity and security in a complex world.
But some in the hierarchy worry that putting young homosexuals together in a seminary is asking for trouble. “You can’t expect everyone”, says one Vatican monsignor, “to be heroes.” He adds: “You don’t hire an alcoholic to serve as your bartender.”
The editor of the Jesuit journal America, Fr Tom Reese, denies the implication that homosexuals cannot be chaste. It is a stereotype, he says, “contradicted not only by the experience of many celibate gay men in orders, but also by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which recommends chastity for all homosexuals”.
But another Jesuit priest, Kevin Flannery, a professor of philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome, says most of the recent cases of sexual abuse by priests cannot be classified as paedophilia (with pre-pubescent youngsters of either sex) but ephebophilia (with teenage boys). This, says Flannery, is nothing but “homosexual activity”.
The English seminary rector who appeared on the BBC seems to have a wise assessment of the problem when he says that he puts more stock in the “personal, spiritual, academic and pastoral formation” of all his students than in their sexual orientation. He says: “The real issue for us is maturity and integrity, not orientation. It is vital that future priests are able to relate at real depth with a wide range of people. If a student is misogynist or homophobic or only comfortable with other gay men, then I believe that he is not called to diocesan priesthood.
“I do not believe that a seminarian should be asked to leave a seminary just because his orientation is homosexual. It is far more important that he is passionate about being a herald of the Gospel, can preach and preside in the local community. In other words, it is maturity not orientation that matters.” It is testimony like this that gives some pause to Vatican officials. “Maybe”, said one of them, “we won’t see a document at all. Perhaps only a series of seminars where we try to write ‘the profile of a good priest’.” And what is that? “A well-balanced man”, he said. “A man who can control himself, a happy man who is at peace with the Lord, and with everyone else.”
Where do we find such men? The official Church does not want married priests. Apparently, it does not want homosexual priests either. So far, the men in the Vatican haven’t thought of asking the people of God what kind of ministers they want.