The Tablet, Nov. 26, 2004


The Tablet

Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.



The Tablet 26/11/2005 CAN GAYS BE PRIESTS? Timothy Radcliffe

  The long-awaited Vatican document on homosexuality in the priesthood, due to be published next week, has been substantially leaked. Here the former Master of the Dominicans assesses what it has to say about gay men and their suitability for holy orders

TWO WEEKS AGO I was in Nova Scotia, giving a retreat for the bishops and priests of eastern Canada. A priest sent up a piece of paper with a question that he was too shy to ask publicly: “Will this document on the admission of gays to the priesthood mean that I am not welcome anymore? Does it mean that people like me are second-class priests?” I have heard this same question, in one form or another, from priests all over the world. The forthcoming Vatican document on homosexuality and the priesthood (see page 40) is the focus of intense anxiety, which is why we must attend to exactly what it says.

There are two principles to bear in mind: first, we must give it as positive an interpretation as possible. This is not a matter of putting a positive spin on documents but of trying to discern what are the true intentions of the authors. Our media are filled with accusation and this document will be denounced as another attack on gay people. This denunciation also occurs within the Church. 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. Nothing good can come from Rome! As a Church we must find another way of listening to each other, which really attends to what is said. Justice and truthfulness demand this.

Second, a vocation is a call from God. It is true that, as the document says, it is “received through the Church, in the Church and for the service of the Church”, but it is God who calls. Having worked with bishops and priests, diocesan and religious, all over the world, I have no doubt that God does call homosexuals to the priesthood, and they are among the most dedicated and impressive priests I have met. So no priest who is convinced of his vocation should feel that this document classifies him as a defective priest. And we may presume that God will continue to call both homosexuals and heterosexuals to the priesthood because the Church needs the gifts of both.

The Church has a right and a duty to exercise careful discernment in the admission of seminarians. When the document says that this has been made “more urgent by the current situation”, then presumably it is thinking of the crisis of sexual abuse that has shaken the Church in the West. So there are two questions: does this document provide good criteria for discerning who has a vocation? And will it help to address the crisis of sexual abuse?

The document insists that a candidate for the priesthood must reach an affective matur- ity that “will allow him to relate properly with men and women, developing in him a true sense of spiritual fatherhood for the ecclesial community that will be entrusted to him”. Let us leave aside for the moment the question of “spiritual fatherhood” and focus on affective maturity. What does this mean?

The document states that the Church “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 first criterion is straightforward. The same could be said of those who are actively heterosexual. The second two need clarification.

What is it that is meant by a “deep-seated homosexual tendency”? The counter-example given by the document is of someone who goes through a temporary phase of homosexual attraction, and asserts that the seminarian should have overcome this at least three years before ordination to the diaconate. That would not cover all the cases of seminarians who are reflecting on their vocation in the light of this document.

It could also be interpreted as having a permanent homosexual orientation. But this cannot be correct since, as I have said, there are many excellent priests who are gay and who clearly have a vocation from God. Perhaps it is best understood as meaning that someone whose sexual orientation is so central to his self-perception as to be obsessive, dominating his imagination. This would indeed pose questions as to whether he would be able to live happily as a celibate priest. But any heterosexual who was so focused on his sexuality would have problems too. What matters is sexual maturity rather than orientation.

Then there is the issue of supporting “gay culture”. It is right that seminarians or priests should not go to gay bars and that seminaries should not develop a gay subculture. This would be to celebrate as central to their lives what is not fundamental. Seminarians should learn to be at ease with whatever is their sexual orientation, content with the heart that God has given them, but any sort of sexual sub-culture, gay or straight, would be subversive of celibacy. A macho subculture filled with heterosexual innuendo would be just as inappropriate.

But does supporting a “gay culture” mean only that? As the document says, the Church must oppose “unjust discrimination” against homosexuals, just as it does racial discrimination. That means that all priests must be prepared to side with gay people if they suffer oppression, and be seen to be on their side. Of course this raises complex issues. To oppose gay marriage will be seen by some people as discrimination, whereas in official Catholic teaching it is not. If one becomes involved in any opposition to discrimination, then one is liable to be misunderstood. It is a risk that one must sometimes take.

Finally, there is the question of “spiritual fatherhood”. This is not a concept with which I am familiar. Can only heterosexuals offer this? This is the view of the Bishop to the American armed forces, who said recently: “We don’t want our people to think, as our culture is now saying, there’s really no difference whether one is gay or straight, is homosexual or heterosexual. We think for our vocation that there is a difference, and our people expect to have a male priesthood that sets a strong role model of maleness.” I cannot believe that this is what is intended by the document. There is little evidence of muscular Christianity in the Vatican. If the role of the priest was to be a model of masculinity, then he would be relevant to less than half of the congregation and one could therefore argue that women should also be ordained as role models of femininity. I presume that the “spiritual fatherhood” is above all exercised through the care of the people and the preaching of a life-giving fertile word, but neither has any connection with sexual orientation.

It is extremely urgent that we form priests who are “affectively mature”, and able to relate easily to men and women. This document tries to identify criteria that will help to discern that maturity and points to issues that are undeniably important. These criteria need to be applied equally to all candidates, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Our society often gives the impression that heterosexuals and homosexuals are virtually two species of human being. But the human heart is complex and patterns of desire shift and evolve. I have known priests who thought that they were gay when they were 30, and then discover that they were not, and vice versa. If we are to form priests who will live their celibacy fruitfully then they must be at ease with themselves, in all their emotional complexity, without being deluded into thinking that it is the core of our identity. That is Christ. “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2).

Our society is obsessed by sex and the Church should offer a model of a sane but not compulsive acceptance of sexuality. The Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that priests should talk about sex “with moderation rather than copiousness”. We should be more attentive to whom our seminarians may be inclined to hate than whom they love. Racialism, misogyny and homophobia would all be signs that someone could not be a good model of Christ.

The document concludes by urging seminarians to be truthful to their spiritual directors. To lie would not correspond with “the spirit of truth, loyalty, and availability that must characterise the personality of one who considers himself called to serve Christ and his Church in the ministerial priesthood”. This is of fundamental importance. But if the criteria of this document are interpreted in a narrow sense to mean that no one who is gay can be ordained, then some seminarians would find themselves to be in an impossible situation. If they speak openly, then they may not be accepted. If they do not, then they are failing in transparency. The danger is that the most honest may therefore leave and the less truthful stay, and so we would form a priesthood that was immature, ill at ease with itself, and more liable to continue abuse. It is therefore most important that these criteria are not interpreted in a way that drives people into concealment. That would actively impede the formation of priests who are affectively mature.

Timothy Radcliffe OP, former Master of the Dominicans, is now at Blackfriars, Oxford. His latest book, What is the Point of Being a Christian? is published by Continuum next week.