Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

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." (no. 2358)

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 false.

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 orientation… 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 homosexual tendencies.

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 homosexual tendencies… 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 were males.


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


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