On November 29, the Congregation for Catholic Education issued an "Instruction concerning the Criteria of Vocational Discernment regarding Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to Seminaries and Holy Orders," signed by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski. This publication occurred after months of announcements, rumors, speculation, and confusion, which had ensured for the document an extraordinary degree of publicity, so much so that it may have usurped the place of the encyclical as the document setting the tone of the new pontificate.
The mediatization of the Church is seen in the "leaks" to the media, the instant reactions on the internet, and the "spin" in the interpretation of the rumored text at every stage. The leaks seem to reflect an ideological struggle within the Curia itself, with each side trying to put its own spin on the document in advance. As I write, it seems that a relatively "benign" interpretation is winning the day and that the Vatican has no plans to contest it or to offer further clarification. The rather uncanny speed and relative uniformity of the Episcopal response to the document is perhaps the product of coaching from the liberals in the Vatican itself, who must surely have been consulted by several bishops in recent months.
Distinguishing "between homosexual acts and homosexual tendencies," the Instruction says that the former are "intrinsically immoral" and the latter, the "deep-seated homosexual tendencies, which are present in a certain number of men and women," are "objectively disordered and are often a trial for such people." The text goes on to say that such people "must be accepted with respect and sensitivity." But it adds that "the Church, even while deeply respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to Seminary or Holy Orders those who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture." The text then gives the reason for this exclusion: "Such people, in fact, find themselves in a situation that seriously obstructs them from properly relating to men and women." Even "homosexual tendencies that might only be a manifestation of a transitory problem… must be clearly overcome at least three years before diaconal Ordination." (These transitory tendencies, Card. Grocholewski explained on Vatican Radio, could be due to "an uncompleted adolescence, some kind of curiosity; or perhaps accidental circumstances, a drunken state, maybe particular circumstances like a person who was imprisoned for many years…Or, these acts are done because one wants to obtain some sort of advantage...") The candidate is warned not "to hide his own homosexuality, regardless of everything, to arrive at ordination." A covering letter adds that priests with homosexual tendencies should not teach in seminaries.
If this document were enacted as it stands it would put a complete end to all the problems of clerical homosexuality mentioned above. Instead of symbiosis with gay priests, the Church would simply eliminate them. But, as Fr Timothy Radcliffe has urged, such a "solution" would be seen as profoundly offensive by many Catholics. Moreover, it is impractible, not only because it would entail a large cut in the number of priests, with little prospect of heterosexual replacements, but because it implies a delving into intimate matters that would be even more difficult to operate than the tracing of colored ancestry of apparently white people under the Apartheid regime in South Africa. That such unsavory analogies leap to mind in itself speaks volumes against the Instruction if interpreted in this way.
The "Benign" Interpretation
Some receptions of the Instruction suggest a tendency to see it as addressing a peculiarly American problem. The Archbishop of Yaounde, while deploring the rise of disruptive homosexual practices in Cameroon, claimed it would be difficult to find in religious institutions "such aberrations that are at the antipodes of our traditional society which approached sexual questions with great modesty and religious respect." This strategy of avoidance cannot be followed in countries where sexuality is openly discussed. What has emerged instead is an ingenious method of squaring the document with the ideas of decency widespread in these societies.
On first reading this text it seemed to me very clear that it excludes from the seminary anyone who has an exclusive or predominant homosexual orientation, that is, who is sexually attracted to members of the same sex rather than of the other sex (anyone between 2 and 6 on the Kinsey Scale), and that it also excludes persons with incidental homosexual feelings (1 on the Kinsey Scale) unless they have long outgrown them. When I read the interpretation of Timothy Radcliffe I thought that he was indulging in wishful thinking and playing fast and loose with the plain sense of the text. I even suspected that he was writing tongue in cheek in such passages as the following: "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has often given tendentious interpretations of the writings of theologians. Theologians, in turn, give the most negative possible interpretation to Vatican documents… As a Church we must find another way of listening to each other, which really attends to what is said." However, as the Master of the Dominicans from 1992 to 2001, Radcliffe knows Rome like the back of his hand, so his interpretation carries great weight.
It all hangs on a point that I did not notice when I read the text-namely, that the word "orientation" is never used, only the words "tendencies" and "homosexuality." A further point that had never occurred to me is signaled by Radcliffe's confrere, Bruce Williams of the Angelicum, in a text circulated on the internet on Nov. 30. He claims that in documents of the Magisterium "consistently and without exception, the word 'homosexual' always bears on genital activity," so that when homosexuality is described as "objectively disordered" what is referred to is not the homosexual orientation as such but only homosexual concupiscence. If this interpretation is tenable, the Catechism's description of homosexuality as "objectively disordered" loses much of its objectionable character. As to the Instruction, it does not exclude one who "experiences warm affection toward men," but for whom "homogenital temptations are extremely infrequent and always dismissed quickly and easily. He has never been sexually attracted to women, though he relates normally and even warmly to them also."
The "interpretive dance," as Michael Winters calls it in The New Republic, was a dizzying whirl in the hours and days following the release of the Instruction. It was like watching people rushing to defuse an explosive. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor forthrightly stated that "the Instruction is not saying that men of homosexual orientation are not welcome in the priesthood" - and indeed it had not said so in so many words. Andrew Greeley hailed the Instruction as "a stinging defeat" for those who would ban gays from seminaries, and professed to find in it unprecedented positive language about gays.
The US Conference of Major Superiors of Men lauded the Instruction's emphasis on affective maturity for two pages, then addressed the homosexual topic in a single sentence: "Since the Instruction speaks directly about persons with homosexual tendencies, it is important to thank those religious who have been examples of celibate chastity and to remind us that we are brothers to one another." Seamus Murphy, SJ, of Milltown Institute, Dublin, wrote: "The term 'deep-rooted homosexual tendencies' could refer to men conflicted about their sexuality and tempted to escape facing it through an emotionally immature option for the seminary" (The Irish Times, Dec. 2). Many dioceses said that they were already practicing what the Instruction preached, by seeking to ensure affective maturity.
The naysayers were outnumbered and outmaneuvred. One such was Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend: "I would say yes, absolutely, it does bar anyone whose sexual orientation is towards one's own sex and it's permanent. I don't think there's any doubt about it. . . . I don't think we can fuss around with this." Richard Neuhaus, said to be close to the Pope, dismissed the argument, put forward by Fr Radcliffe, that the past existence of good gay priests meant that the document could not intend to exclude gay people as such: "It is really no argument at all that, since those with disqualifying disabilities were ordained in the past, they should be ordained in the future. Those who try to make that argument should have the honesty to admit that they are not interpreting but rejecting the directives of Rome." Yet reception as rejection was indeed what was taking place; reception of the document's insistence on affective maturity, rejection of its specific ruling on homosexuality.
The official commentary in L'Osservatore Romano on Nov. 29 was discounted, even ridiculed, as an example of how the document must not be interpreted. The author, Tony Anatrella SJ, states that the text is aimed at people with "an exclusive attraction to persons of the same sex." Such persons, no matter how chaste, will "have serious difficulties situating themselves institutionally in cooperation with others," and be prone to "manipulation of ideas and people" and to "closing oneself off in a clan of persons of the same type." They will tend to "a mode of vocational discernment that seeks candidates in his own image," "relations with authority based on seduction and rejection," and "an often limited vision of truth and a selective way of presenting the Gospel message." A priest should be a man "suitable for marriage" and "able to exercise fatherhood over his children," if he is to incarnate a "spousal bond" with the Church and "spiritual paternity."
Some liberals, too, insisted, with no greater success, on the apparent literal sense of the Instruction. James Martin SJ said: "It will be very tempting for Catholics, especially liberal ones, to focus on questions of 'interpretation' and 'application,' in the hope that the document won't really mean what it says. They are talking about what the contemporary world commonly understands to be gay men, that is, men with a homosexual orientation. … There's little that is unclear." Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry said: "Bishop Skylstad's statement [as president of the US bishops' conference] is great if that's what the document said. But that's not what the document said. What the document says is that gay men are suspect because of their orientation, and ... because of this orientation, that they are not going to be faithful bearers of the gospel." Andrew Sullivan predicated a series of attacks on the Instruction on the literal reading of the text.
Breda O'Brien, in The Irish Times, complained about the document's ambiguity: "Why not write something like 'someone whose homosexual tendencies verge on the obsessive, making it extremely unlikely that he could live out a life of celibacy'? Why, in such a sensitive area, should it not be crystal-clear?" Some have replied that Vatican documents are of their nature not intended to be crystal-clear, but this is hardly true. Humanae Vitae, for example, spelt out its message in a rich discussion and stated its ruling with perfect clarity. The laconic and formulaic nature of Roman statements on homosexuality is due to an unwillingness to open the kind of discussion and consultation that lay behind Humanae Vitae.
Calls for Dialogue
The Instruction seems to have been very unfavorably received in Ireland, where recent public inquiries into clerical sexual abuse have left a lot of pain and disillusion. Senator David Norris wrote: "It was very interesting to observe the mainstream response to the latest diatribe from Rome as reflected in the national media over the past few days. The Vatican seems to have misjudged the mood of the people (at least in Ireland), and I am heartily glad for that. It is about time, too. Very few of us can have remained unmoved hearing the comments of the sister of a young Donegal man who took his own life in recent weeks partly because of the bullying and rejection he had suffered because he was gay" (Irish Times, Dec. 3). Rather than fearing that the document will be a weapon in the hands to homophobes, there is a fear that it will add to the fires of anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism now burning so fiercely in Catholic Ireland. (I noticed in a Japanese online discussion that the document was taken by many as showing the violence and intolerance of the Catholic Church.)
Reacting to Anatrella, Norris asked how anyone claiming psychoanalytical credentials could state baldly that homosexuality is "an incomplete and immature part of human sexuality." Norris contested "the blunt, callous and untrue statement that homosexuality is 'against conjugal life, the life of the family and priestly life,'" pointing out that "the gay community is moving all the time towards a greater endorsement of committed relationships. Moreover, we are all part of families, and many of us are in fact priests, so the statement is a nonsense as well as being cruel." He praised "prelates, who are trying to wrestle with the subject of homosexuality and to find in this horrid text some way of wrenching comfort from its weasel words for the gay members of their flock." His conclusion is thought-provoking: "No Christian church has ever been honest with its flock or told the truth about human sexuality. Those of us who remain with difficulty within the fold of the Christian church are waiting for a prophetic voice that will declare the truth, however complex, difficult and awkward, and allow us to explore the freedom that comes with honesty." In the same vein, Dave Donnellan, a former Holy Ghost missionary in Asia, told The Irish Times that "ultimately, gay people have to sit down with the bishops and leading church authorities and say 'this is who we are.' We have never experienced such engagement. It is a remote possibility in the short term and would be very difficult for both sides."
Clearly, the impact of the Instruction goes far beyond the world of the clergy or even of the Catholic Church. The problems its reception have lit up cannot be addressed except in a spirit of open discussion, not only with insiders like John McNeill, Mark Jordan, Richard Sipe, Jeannine Gramick (personae non gratae who need to be brought in from the cold) but with ordinary gay and lesbian Catholics and with the wider community. An investment in dialogue would be far more profitable than the years wasted on preparing the current Instruction, which seems destined, if the current line of interpretation holds, to remain a damp squib and a dead letter.
If there are ambiguities in the Instruction, there are still greater ones in the responses. One wonders, for example, what the bishops and religious superiors understand by the term "affective maturity." In a certain clerical mindset, just as sexual maturity means celibate continence, affective maturity means control and repression of emotion. Bachelors, who live protected and emotionally sheltered lives, could then be seen as affectively mature, whereas married people, who have weathered the ups and downs of an intimate relationship, cared for their children in sickness, and suffered heartbreak in time of tragedy, would still be mere learners on the path to maturity.
It may be that when the religious superiors talk of affective maturity their angle of vision is radically at odds with that of the Curia. They may realize for example that the deepest emotions of some priests are connected with sexual affairs, which have often brought them into touch with the bitter side of life. Even when they speak of celibacy and chastity, they may understand these notions in a sense that remains to be interpreted. Having seen what clever exegetes can do with a carefully formulated curial document, one can be forgiven for suspecting depths of intention behind even the most innocuous-sounding expressions.
The Church Moves On
In short an interpretive tsunami seems to be sweeping the Vatican whither it would not go. This process of reception could be seen as damage control, or could be taken as a magnificent example of the Church at larger exercising the authority proper to it. The Curia proposes, the church disposes. Those of us who recall the liberal interpretations offered of Humanae Vitae by the Canadian and Japanese bishops in 1968 will be aware that such modalities of "reception" have an honored place in church history. One recalls Msgr Dupanloup's irenic interpretation of the Syllabus of Errors in 1865, for which he was thanked by six hundred bishops and the Pope himself. Perhaps Fr Radcliffe and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor will be deemed worthy of similar gratitude when the dust settles.
Once a Vatican document is published it becomes a text of the church rather than just the people who wrote it. The reach of the curial arm is limited. The way the Church grips it and points it in the desired direction can make all the difference. "Reception" rather than confrontation is the time-honored Catholic strategy, a far more vibrant and creative one than might be imagined.
John McNeill declares that the Instruction will inspire priests and laity to look to God for guidance and ignore the oppressive hierarchy. He calls this "just another sign of God's shrewdness." As to gays, "they've come to see Church teaching on homosexuality as destroying their self-image, so they've had direct access to God, based on prayer, spirituality and freedom on conscience." Such appeals to a sensus fidelium seen as bypassing a dysfunctional church bureaucracy are no new phenomenon in the history of the Church. The best way to counter them is to give ample representation to lay concerns, as at a General Council. Should there emerge a split between the papacy and the worldwide episcopate on issues concerning homosexuality, this would be another pointer to the need of a conciliar resolution.
A happy ending, then? Alas, no. The interpretation that the Church is putting on the document involves a strained if not desperate reading. The document circulates independently of this interpretation and will be quoted again and again by those seeking ammunition against gays. It will also cause anger and alienation in many Catholics who will apply its words to themselves or their gay children. The final reception of the document lies in the future, when the Church will be able to look back on it -- as it looks back on the Syllabus of Errors -- from a more mature perspective.