There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about the recent Vatican document and accompanying glosses about gays in the priesthood. Among the more lucid are those from Eve Tushnet and Ross Douthat. I think it would be helpful to point out a couple of things. The first is that this is demonstrably a ban on all gay priests and seminarians, regardless of their commitment to celibacy, and is expected to be rigorously enforced. The only exception is for those “with homosexual tendencies that might only be a manifestation of a transitory problem, as, for example, delayed adolescence.” Translation: if you’re straight and had some fleeting same-sex desires in adolescence, and have not felt them for at least three years before the diaconate, you’re ok. Anyone with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” is not. If you are not clear what “deep-seated hommosexual tendencies” means, this statement from L’Osservatore Romano should remove all doubt:

“Candidates who have ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies,’ that is, an exclusive attraction to persons of the same sex – independently of whether or not they have had erotic experiences – cannot be admitted to the seminary or to holy orders.”

In other words, even celibate gay men – gay men who have adhered to the Church’s teachings never to masturbate or have any sexual intimacy for their entire lives – are unfit for the priesthood. It no longer matters what gay priests – or gay men, for that matter – do. What matters is who they are. And who they are is a threat to the family and destabilizing to society.

THIS IS A CHANGE: There is also no doubt that this is a shift in the Church’s teachings about homosexuality. What the Church is now categorically saying is that there is something inherently sick about homosexuality, regardless of how it is expressed, that renders gays unfit for serving God. Again, the Church backs this doctrine up. Where once homosexuality was a “condition” and the Church could speak of “homosexual persons,” now there are merely “tendencies” and thr phrase “homosexual person” is not used. It says that homosexuality itself is a “problem in the psychic organization,” i.e. a psychological disorder – despite the fact that no respectable psychological organization concurs. The spokesperson for the Pontifical Council for the Family goes further:

“One must free oneself from the idea that leads one to believe that, insofar as a homosexual person respects his commitment to continence lived in chastity, there will not be problems and he can therefore be ordained a priest… [A] commitment in holy orders presupposes that the candidate has attained a sufficient affective and sexual maturity coherent with his masculine sexual identity.”

This is all lifted from pseudo-Freudian psychology last taken seriously in the 1960s. (Yes, Freud, the man who believed all religion was bunk, but, hey, you’ve got to find the arguments where you can.)

‘REAL MEN’ AND PRIESTS: The Church is arguing that heterosexual “masculine” “maturity” is a normative good and integral to the priesthood. Again, in the spokesman’s words:

“[A priest] must, in principle, be suitable for marriage and able to exercise fatherhood over his children. And it is under those mature conditions that he renounces exercising them in order to give himself to God in the priesthood,” the monsignor wrote. Msgr. Anatrella repeatedly affirmed the need for a priest to be heterosexual in order to see himself and for others to see him as the “bridegroom of the church” and as a “spiritual father” to those to whom he is ministering. “A homosexual person would have difficulty incarnating this symbolic reality of the spousal bond and spiritual paternity,” he said.

What this means is a real shift away from what Eve Tushnet rightly respects as a distinction between identity and acts, toward a conflation of the two and the designation of gay people as inherently defective as moral beings, because of their intrinsic violation of heterosexual normativity. Again, this is very far from the previous language of the Church on this matter. The Vatican once informed us in official documents in 1975 and 1986, that homosexual persons were “made in the image and likeness of God.” The condition of homosexuality was, for many, “innate,” and not in itself a sin. Gay people were “often generous and giving of themselves,” and the notion that gays could not lead celibate lives was an “unfounded and demeaning assumption.” Now, all the emphasis is on psychic disorder, social incapacity, and an inability to relate to men and women. Some want to argue that by saying that “homosexuality” has no “social value” and no “moral virtue,” the hierarchy is not condemning all gay lives, in so far as they are gay, as worthless and without moral standing. But it is very hard in the context of this document to see how. There was once a small and narrow space within which gay Catholics could live lives of dignity and self-respect. Benedict has deliberately removed all oxygen from that space. Moreover, you might expect that the document, aware of the immense pain and injury it would inflict upon gay Catholics and gay people everywhere, would somehow address this, reach out, present a positive future for gay people, or, at least, pay deference to the great work that gay clergy have played in the past. But that is not the case, as even Ross concedes. This Pope is uninterested in reaching out; he is interested in casting out.

WHERE GAY PRIESTS NOW ARE: Of course, if all this is to be taken seriously (and I cannot go along with the cynicism of those who pretend it doesn’t matter), it forces us to a very important question. Why is the Church permitting currently gay priests to continue in their ministry? If they cannot relate to men and women, as the Church claims, if their celibacy does not mitigate their psychological sickness, if they have –

trouble relating to their fathers; are uncomfortable with their own identity; tend to isolate themselves; have difficulty in discussing sexual questions; view pornography on the Internet; demonstrate a deep sense of guilt; or often see themselves as victims

– then why are they allowed to continue in the priesthood at all? Why ban seminarians but not priests? Already, we have signs that a gradual purge along these lines will begin. And so, by the logic of the demonization of homosexuals, it should. If gay men should never have been ordained in the first place, why should they be allowed to remain? My own heart goes out to those men who have lived up to their vows, been wonderful priests, and are now told that, in so far as they are gay, they have no social value, no moral virtue and thaht if they had not already been ordained, they would no longer be. What are they supposed to do? I’d say they have a moral obligation to tell their parishioners who they are, to debunk the prejudices and smears foisted upon them by the (often closeted) hierarchy, and let the chips fall where they may. Bigotry is wrong; condemning a whole group of society is wrong; demeaning their service is wrong; perpetuating unsubstantiated libels and pseudo-pop-psychology is wrong. It is incumbent on straight Catholics as well as gay ones to say this out loud. The principles here are fairness and compassion. Defending them is defending the Church itself.


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