Prohibiting men with certain characteristics from being ordained to the priesthood is nothing new in church discipline. More than 40 years ago, when I was still in the seminary, church law laid down a number of such impediments. According to the theology of the time, the office of the priesthood required a certain level of physical perfection as well as a certain status in society. Thus men with prominent physical handicaps were excluded. Because they handled the sacred species, a man’s fingers were particularly important. A man who lacked even a pinkie was already impeded. If he lacked a thumb or index finger on either hand, a dispensation from the pope himself was required for him to be received into the priesthood. Likewise, a man born out of wedlock needed a dispensation in order to be ordained. A priest who had been born a bastard would present a spiritually sullied image to the congregation.
None of these impediments reflected in any way on the moral or spiritual character of the man. They were rather, in the view of the time, objective conditions inconsonant with the dignity and office of the ordained priest. Today Catholic theology and practice see such impediments as inappropriate. In the revision of canon law after the Second Vatican Council such impediments quietly vanished.
At least this was true until the recent instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education entitled Instruction on the Criteria of Vocational Discernment Regarding Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to Seminaries and Holy Orders. This document, if I am not mistaken, establishes a new impediment to ordination of the type described above. In the text of the document there is absolutely no indication that those who have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” are necessarily guilty in any way of behavior or thinking contrary to church teaching and discipline; nonetheless they are impeded from entering the seminary and receiving sacred orders. The document does not use the word “impediment,” but it seems to be the proper category under which this prohibition must be considered.
While this particular impediment is a new one, there is a large body of canonical instruction on impediments in general and the manner in which they are to be applied. This praxis, it seems to me, is the best resource we have for interpreting the meaning of the instruction. The phrase “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” is not self-explanatory. “Tendencies” are not visible to the naked eye. “Deep-seated” is not a univocal phrase. Interpretation is required. I am inclined to say that the instruction does not offer further explanation because the authors realize that such interpretation comes about naturally in the life of the church.
The primary canonical principle about impediments is that they must be interpreted strictly, that is, narrowly. In the canonical literature impediments are an authoritative limitation of freedom, and canonists rightly conclude that church authority does not want to limit the “freedom of the children of God” in any way beyond the absolute minimum.
What would be a strict—that is, narrow—interpretation of the term “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”? Certainly the phrase points to a psychological condition. But the words chosen—from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, among other sources—have been deliberately selected, I believe, to avoid identification with any current psychological theories. We in the English-speaking world might have expected the congregation to use the phrase “homosexual orientation.” Its absence is, I think, deliberate. “Orientation” suggests irreversibility. Official church documents and practice tend to avoid any such suggestion. Among the premises of Courage, for example, the most widely approved Catholic ministry to homosexuals in this country, is the capacity of homosexuals to change. The literature and presentations of Courage include powerful testimonies of men who attest that faith, therapy and a deep spiritual life have completely altered their inclinations, behaviors and lives.
The document itself indicates preference for this understanding when to “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” it opposes “homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem.” Thus the instruction envisions a spectrum ranging from transitory at one end to long-lasting at the other. “Deep-seated” designates the extreme end of the continuum.
Some national conferences of bishops have begun to expand on their understanding of this term. The German bishops have indicated that the deeply rooted tendencies referred to in the document are those “which can lead to a situation that ‘gravely hampers a correct relationship with men and women.”’ The Swiss bishops propose that “if homosexual tendencies make sexual abstinence impossible, admission to the priesthood is impossible.” Both of these statements pick up on phrases and descriptions in the instruction and point to externally verifiable criteria: incorrect relationships and the impossibility of abstaining from explicit sexual behavior. The instruction itself refers to the “affective maturity”required of priests that “will allow him to relate correctly to both men and women.” A man lacking this kind of mature emotional integration is clearly not a suitable candidate for the seminary or for ordination. If homosexual tendencies are among the causes of such a behavioral incapacity, then these tendencies must be judged to be deep-seated and an impediment to ordination.
But where no such external behavior reveals these tendencies, even though they are present, the man, his spiritual director, his confessor and seminary personnel face a somewhat different situation. In such instances the phrase “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” refers to what in many or most cases is known only to the individual and those to whom he chooses to communicate. The discipline of the church has always distinguished carefully between the forum of conscience (“internal forum” in canon law) and the public forum (“external forum”). Spiritual directors and confessors deal with the forum of conscience; church administrators (including seminary rectors) deal with the public forum. Roman instructions on seminary discipline have always excluded confessors and spiritual directors from participating in the faculty’s decision-making about a candidate’s suitability for the priesthood.
The instruction does not explicitly refer to this distinction of forums, but rather emphasizes the responsibility of the individual:
It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his own homosexuality in order to proceed, despite everything, toward ordination. Such a deceitful attitude does not correspond to the spirit of truth, loyalty and openness that must characterize the personality of him who believes he is called to serve Christ and his Church in the ministerial priesthood.
The candidate’s spiritual director likewise has the “grave duty” to guide the candidate to a candid acknowledgement of any homosexual tendencies that might deprive him of “the affective maturity that is characteristic of the priest.” In such a case the director is to dissuade the candidate from proceeding toward ordination. At the same time, such guidance and persuasion remain in the forum of conscience. As the instruction concludes, “It goes without saying that the candidate himself has the primary responsibility for his own formation.”
I have three observations that I hope may be helpful especially to candidates and seminary officials in this situation, where deep-rooted tendencies remain hidden.
1. No one can be obliged from outside himself to make what would be in effect a public confession or, in the jargon of today, to “out” himself. When asked about his sexual orientation, a prospective candidate is obliged only to reply that he has no “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” in the sense meant by the document. If he feels the contrary might be true, he should consult with a spiritual advisor and/or confessor.
2. It has been my experience that some homosexuals find it impossible to admit that they are homosexual. Even if they are involved in homosexual relationships, they will protest that they are not gay.
Such denial—primarily psychological rather than moral—presents what is probably the most difficult situation confronting seminary officials, confessors and spiritual directors in their respective spheres. What is clear to others remains hidden to the person himself.
Certainly an individual who cannot accept all the components of his personality lacks the affective maturity required for ordination. In the case where homosexual tendencies appear to be a significant cause of such affective immaturity, seminary officials, confessors and directors, exercising the “respect and sensitivity” that the congregation imposes on us all in relation to our homosexual brothers and sisters, will have the challenging pastoral task of guiding the prospective candidate to an acceptance of himself and to the consequent withdrawal or postponement of his request to enter the seminary while he dedicates himself to the task of personal integration through intensive therapy and solid spirituality.
3. The document excludes those with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from entering the seminary or being ordained. The unspoken assumption is that these tendencies are present and actual. What should be done in the case of a person who admits that he has had such tendencies in the past but through grace, prayer and perhaps therapy no longer has them and has been free of them for more than three years? It would seem that if there are those who can, with his express permission, validate this claim (e.g., a therapist), he would no longer be subject to the impediment.
Like all church teaching in recent years, this document recognizes our responsibility as followers of Jesus to show our love for our homosexual brothers and sisters with respect and sensitivity. I hope that the above reflections can help assure my brothers in the priesthood who may feel that the instruction makes them “second-rate” that any of us who honestly made our ordination promises, who have faithfully accepted the burden of celibacy, and who have, no matter how we may have failed the Lord and his people, risen up through the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation to continue to carry our cross, can look forward with founded hope to being embraced by the Lord at the end of our journey.