A few weeks ago the editors of America discussed their support of the ordination of celibate gay priests (11/11). Our editorial responded to the arguments against ordaining gay men and restated the central argument in favor of their ordination: the historical witness of healthy and celibate gay priests.
The Vatican’s press office has now confirmed that a document on the ordination of gay men is being circulated among church officials. Though its contents are unknown, some hope that it will ban their ordination.
While persons of good will may disagree on how best to respond to the sexual abuse crisis, banning gay men from the priesthood would not address the real problems underlying the crisis. That a small percentage of gay priests have committed sexual abuse does not mean that all should be barred from ordination: a ban would represent little more than codified scapegoating.
Consider, too, some unforeseen effects of such a document.
First, for gay men already studying in seminaries and religious formation programs, a ban would be disastrous. Some bishops and seminary rectors would almost certainly be forced to expel gay men from seminaries. Think, for a moment, of a gay man at the final stage of his formation. After having carefully discerned his call with superiors, he would now hear this message: your vocation is no longer wanted. Though you have studied hard, lived celibately and have diligently prepared for the priesthood, suddenly you are not fit. Goodbye, good men, indeed.
Many good and celibate gay men would voluntarily choose to leave their seminaries and religious formation programs. Some would decide to keep their sexuality secret—hardly a recipe for healthy chastity. Others would opt to live in a kind of twilight zone—feeling called to celibate priesthood in a church that bars them from such ministry. What secrecy and self-loathing this could breed.
Some have suggested that superiors might permit these men to remain in formation, while rejecting only newer applicants. But what would superiors say to those men currently preparing for ordination? Would one counsel setting aside what the church has said? Or that Vatican statements need to be read in a more “Roman” way, that is, with great nuance and an understanding that these documents represent only “the ideal”? But an outright ban would be difficult to accept in this light, particularly as one draws closer to the sacrament of ordination, which needs to be accepted wholeheartedly—and without private reservations or “nuance.”
A ban would also scotch the vocations of many good young men considering a call to the priesthood. What gay man would desire priesthood in a church that explicitly declares it does not want him? Nor would some heterosexual young men, many of whom are more tolerant than earlier generations, find an organization that excludes gays all that attractive. In a time of a serious decline in vocations, barring gay men from orders would have the worst possible effect.
A ban might also seem confusing to many Catholics, for whom the sexual abuse crisis is not to be blamed on all gay priests, but on some psychologically unhealthy priests and, moreover, on some irresponsible bishops. A document forbidding the ordination of gay men would confound many American Catholics who have been counseled by their bishops (in the 1997 document Always Our Children) to treat gay persons with “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” and by the Catechism of the Catholic Church to avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination” toward homosexuals (No. 2358). And in a church that proclaims its solidarity with the voiceless, a ban would target exactly such a group. For in the current climate few are more voiceless than gay priests.
Finally, such a document would say, in effect, to thousands of celibate gay priests serving the church: you should never have been ordained.
A ban, in short, would be ineffective in combating the sexual abuse crisis, disastrous for vocations, confusing for many Catholics, harmful for celibate gay priests and unjust. One can only pray that it is not adopted.