Homosexual Candidates, the Seminary and Priesthood
by Gerald D. Coleman, S.S.
On November 29, 2005, the Congregation for Catholic Education
in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline
of the Sacraments and with the approval of Benedict XVI issued
an instruction on the admission of homosexual candidates to
the seminary and Holy Orders. The instruction is singular in
purpose: "whether to admit to the seminary and to holy
orders candidates who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies."
The instruction is a document for the entire world and should
not be read as addressed only to the church in the United States.
It presents pastoral norms for faithful observance. It should
not be interpreted as a legislative document.
The instruction deals with four categories of candidates. Active
homosexuals cannot be admitted to seminaries or ordination.
Sacred Scripture and the church's tradition present homosexual
acts as grave sins and intrinsically disordered. Those who support
"gay culture" cannot be admitted.
Although not defined, this term assumes that identification
and support of a gay culture and lifestyle is equivalent to
a judgment to be sexually active, support those who are, and
have a personal agenda in conflict with church teaching. "Gay"
came into popular usage in the 1970s and frequently denotes
a homosexual person who is sexually active. However, this is
not always the case, as "gay" is sometimes used to
suggest a homosexual person with self-esteem.
Also excluded are candidates with deep-seated homosexual tendencies
(le tendenze). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith's 1972 document Persona Humana refers to "tendency,"
making a distinction between a "false tendency" (for
example, from bad education, bad example, from habit), which
"is transitory or at least not incurable," and a tendency
that is definitive due to "some kind of innate instinct
or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable."
(section VIII) The Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise
speaks of "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" and
names such tendencies as "objectively disordered."
Reputable medical literature (e.g., Stedman's Medical Dictionary,
2002) defines a homosexual tendency as characterized by a "direct
desire toward individuals of one's own sex" and "[involving]
sexual intercourse between individuals of the same sex."
Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary (2002) translates
such a tendency to mean "someone who practices homosexuality"
and possesses a "characteristic likelihood," a "predisposition
to think, act, behave, or proceed in a particular way."
Accordingly, the instruction may rightfully understand a "deep-seated
homosexual tendency" in this fashion, indicating that a
homosexual candidate who has a profound predisposition which
drives him to unwavering homosexual activity cannot be admitted
to the seminary or Holy Orders. Candidates with such tendencies
are seen as having and supporting a liberated sexual life obsessed
with sex and unable to overcome sexual conflicts. Msgr. Anatrella
thus comments in the November 29 issue of L'Osservatore Romano,
"the homosexual tendency is a counterindication to the
call to holy orders." A cover letter accompanying the instruction
states that priests with homosexual tendencies should not have
educational roles in seminaries, nor are they to be appointed
rectors. Consequently, to downplay the instruction's teaching
on deep-seated homosexual tendencies would be misleading and
The instruction allows for the "different" possibility
of acceptance of a candidate with a "transitory problem."
The example given is a candidate whose "adolescence"
has not yet been superceded. In light of the teaching in Persona
Humana, transitory means that a person's homosexuality is
not pathological and is rooted in such experiences as an inadequate
formation in sexuality, following or imitating another's example,
or the result of a habitus, an acting out without free
will. Such problems can be overcome and bishops, religious superiors,
and seminary personnel are required to reach a "morally
certain judgment" about a candidate who experiences a transitory
problem" and one who has "deep-seated homosexual tendencies."
Those who practice homosexuality, demonstrate such tendencies,
or support a gay culture or lifestyle are automatically excluded.
The instruction does not make reference to a homosexual "orientation."
This concept was created in 1869 and is defined by Webster's
New World dictionary as "sexual desire for those of
the same sex as oneself." It usually and only indicates
the direction of one's sexual interest, largely dictated by
psychological, parental, and social forces. Since the instruction
is setting forth pastoral norms, it seems prudential to realistically
distinguish among candidates who are sexually active, those
who experience a transitory problem, those who have deep-death
homosexual tendencies, and those who have a homosexual orientation.
It would seem that a man with a homosexual orientation who is
freed from homosexual tendencies could be an apt candidate for
the seminary and Holy Orders. On December 1, a Vatican official
told NCR's John Allen that "the point of the document was
not principally to ban each and every candidate with a same-sex
Everyone knows there are gay men who are fine
priests, and everybody knows that being gay doesn't mean somebody
if a pedophile. This is not about scapegoating homosexuals."
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, president of the Catholic
Bishops' Conference of England, and Bishop Herve Girard of Lyon,
president of the French Bishops' commission on ordained ministry,
support this possibility: "The instruction is not saying
that men of homosexual orientation are not welcome in the priesthood.
But it is making clear that they must be capable of affective
maturity, have a capacity for celibacy and not share the values
of the eroticized gay culture
It would be unjust to immediately
discard those who believe themselves or declare themselves homosexual."
In 1985, Cardinal William Baum, then prefect of the Congregation
for Catholic Education, made a distinction among practice, orientation,
and temptation. He indicated that homosexual practice and orientation
disqualify a candidate for acceptance into a seminary and defined
orientation as a "commitment to or support of homosexual
practices or lifestyle." This understanding of orientation
seems to match the instruction's understanding of deep-seated
The instruction calls for a discernment of suitability based
primarily on affective maturity. Such an assessment cannot be
known hypothetically, but only personally. If a particular homosexual
candidate does not demonstrate a stable affective maturity but
is driven by a homosexual tendency, then he should not be admitted.
If a candidate's self-identification makes his homosexual orientation
personally, socially, and politically decisive, he cannot be
admitted. If a candidate's sexual orientation is the central
driving element of his life, this will cause him and others
problems, will create inner and outer stress, and will affect
the unity of the priesthood. This is a source of scandal.
The instruction makes no judgment on the psychological maturity
of individual homosexuals. No priest with a homosexual orientation
should feel that this document classifies him as defective.
In fact the instruction teaches that homosexual persons "must
be accepted with respect and sensitivity" and should not
suffer from any sign of unjust discrimination. It adds that
that church "profoundly respects the persons in question."
Anatrella indicates that "the church affirms the validity
of the ordination of its priests, including those who may have
One vigorously must oppose denunciations
and all forms of suspicion and innuendo which could attack the
personal dignity of ordained ministers."
Aligning itself with John Paul II's Pastores Dabo Vobis
(1992), the instruction refers to the four integrated and complementary
pillars or dimensions of priestly formation: human, spiritual,
intellectual, and pastoral. Within this understanding, the document
highlights "the particular importance of human formation."
One aspect of human formation is spotlighted, "affective
maturity," that is, the ability to "relate correctly
to both men and women." This term finds frequent expression
in Pastores Dabo Vobis and means, among other things,
"a responsible love" that touches the person in his
physical, psychic and spiritual dimensions." Affective
maturity assumes that a seminarian and priest bring to all human
relationships a serene friendship and a deep brotherliness,
with the capacity to renounce anything that is a threat to these.
Affective maturity demands that a seminarian and priest truly
be a master of himself, able to be a "sincere gift of self"
to all. (nos.43-44)
The instruction calls for a homosexual candidate to a type of
"fatherhood" where he relates "correctly to both
men and women." Any candidate who sustains "disturbances
of a sexual nature" is unable to develop a "true sense
of spiritual fatherhood towards the church community."
Priests with a homosexual orientation have certainly shown themselves
capable of relating to men and women.
Bishops, religious superiors, and seminary personnel are not
to admit to the seminary or ordination a candidate who does
not demonstrate a stable and affective maturity. Seminary formation
is not the time to solve major life issues such as addictive
behaviors, sexual issues, financial irresponsibility, or an
inability to work cooperatively with others. If a man has serious,
unresolved issues or has developed a personal agenda that he
might put ahead of the Gospel, he is not a good candidate for
ordination. He does not sustain a stable and affective maturity.
This norm applies to heterosexual candidates as well.
The instruction places "truth" at the center of priestly
discernment. It calls for an assessment of suitability for ordination
and places this responsibility squarely on the candidate. He
is called to trust the discernment of the church and not be
dishonest. This admonishment places an equal responsibility
on bishops, religious superiors, and rectors to create a formative
atmosphere that promotes a climate for this level of truth and
honesty. Spiritual directors and confessors have the "duty
to dissuade" from ordination candidates who display dishonesty
about their sexual tendencies. Dishonesty is the key factor,
not the orientation itself.
Finally, the instruction does not equate child sexual abuse
with having a deeply-rooted homosexual tendency. It cannot be
characterized solely as a response to the sexual abuse crisis
in the United States. Nor can the instruction be described as
an attempt to blame the clergy sex abuse crisis on homosexuals
by equating homosexuality and pedophilia. In the U.S., the report
from the National Review Board (NRB) as well as the John Jay
Study indicated that 78 percent of cases of clergy sexual abuse
cases involved young people 11 to 17, with over 2 percent involving
15 to 17 years olds. Eighty-one percent of the reported victims
For this reason, the NRB's report called for a "searching
inquiry" about homosexuals as candidates for the seminary
or Holy Orders due to "the culture today, and the male-oriented
atmosphere of the seminary." The report indicates that
bishops who chose to ordain homosexuals should first facilitate
a "searching inquiry" to discern the possible presence
of the sort of tendencies already referenced.
To be a good priest, a man needs a solid human formation psychologically.
He needs to be a man of faith and prayer. He needs to be a secure
man who fulfills his commitments to the priestly state of life,
including a chaste celibacy. He needs to be faithful to the
teaching of the church and not let it be diluted by a personal
agenda. The accomplishment of all of this is even more God's
work than the man's. A man in whom God has accomplished this
good work is a good priest. There is nothing that can stop God's
grace other than a man's willful refusal to accept it.
Gerald D. Coleman is a Sulpician priest and moral theologian,
past president of St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.,
and a participant in the Theological Ethics Reading Group at
the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Liguori Press will soon
publish Fr. Coleman's book Catholic Priests and Human Formation.
December 2, 2005