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In Strong Terms, Rome Is to Ban Gays as Priests

November 23, 2005

ROME, Nov. 22 - A new Vatican document excludes from the priesthood most gay men, with few exceptions, banning in strong and specific language candidates "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture.' "

The long-awaited document, which has leaked out in sections over the last few months, was published Tuesday in Italian by an Italian Catholic Web site,

The document appears to allow ordination only for candidates who experienced "transitory" homosexual tendencies that were "clearly overcome" at least three years before ordination as a deacon, the last step before priesthood. It does not define "overcome." Several critics worried that that language would make it nearly impossible for men who believe their basic orientation is gay - but who are celibate - to become priests.

The anticipation of the document has divided Catholics, especially in the United States, igniting contentious debate over whether this is an appropriate response to the recent sex scandals and whether celibate gay men can still be good priests.

On both sides of that divide, there was general agreement on Tuesday night that the document presented a strong deterrent to homosexual men, but with some limited room for seminaries to make exceptions.

The document puts the onus on bishops, seminary directors and the spiritual advisers "to evaluate all of the qualities of the personality and assure that the candidate does not have sexual disorders that are incompatible with priesthood."

A candidate, in turn, would have to be honest about his sexuality.

"It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his own homosexuality, regardless of everything, to arrive at ordination," the document states. "Such an inauthentic attitude does not correspond to the spirit of truth, loyalty and availability that must characterize the personality of one who considers himself called to serve Christ."

Vatican spokesmen refused to comment Tuesday, saying the document would be published on Nov. 29.

But an Italian reporter, Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican specialist for Il Giornale who saw the entire document two weeks ago, said the Adista document matched the one he saw. An anonymous church official was quoted by The Associated Press as saying the document, a short five pages with footnotes, was genuine.

While church documents as early as 1961 banned homosexuals from the priesthood, conservative Catholics complain that the ban has often been ignored. Some liberals say the priesthood has been enriched, and amplified in numbers, by gay celibate men.

Thus many conservatives called the document a necessary correction, saying the number of gay men in seminaries has deterred heterosexual men from applying.

"I don't think it's anything new or different from the church's constant teaching, but it's new in the sense that the teaching has been widely disregarded in seminaries," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press, which published many of Pope Benedict XVI's books before he was elected last April.

The document draws a clear line at banning active gays, and what many experts said was a less clear one banning candidates with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," while leaving the term undefined. Generally, it says, homosexuals "find themselves in a situation that seriously obstructs them from properly relating to men and women."

"It's a clear statement by the Vatican that gay men are not welcome in seminaries and religious orders," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of "In Good Company: the Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

"It raises the bar so high that it would be difficult to imagine gay men feeling encouraged to pursue a life in the priesthood," he added. "It's a very stringent set of rules they're applying. Really the only people that would be able to enter, according to the document, would be people who had a fleeting homosexual attraction."

Francis DiBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates the inclusion of gays in the Catholic Church, said, "It seems that its intent is really to keep homosexuality quiet, to silence gay priests and gay seminarians." Such secrecy, he said, will make it even harder to find candidates who are well adjusted and sexually mature.

But the Rev. Mark Francis, superior general of the Clerics of Saint Viator, a religious order based in Rome, said the document appeared to allow the leeway to ordain a candidate who believed he was gay but also believed he could be celibate.

"You could say, 'I believe I am gay, but that the tendencies toward being gay are not deep-seated,' " he said. "What constitutes deep-seated homosexual tendencies?" he said. "How does one judge that?"

Critics complain that by discouraging gay men from applying, it will alter the makeup of the priesthood, and possibly reduce its numbers at a time of an already acute shortage. Supporters maintain, however, that the priesthood needs to change, though Father Fessio said he worried whether that would actually happen.

"It depends on whether it's implemented or not," he said. "Will it be obeyed? I don't know. I've read a lot of documents in the past that weren't."

The document is marked as signed on Nov. 4 by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect for the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department that oversees seminaries. It says that on Aug. 31, Benedict "approved the instruction and ordered its publication."

While the document has been in the works for years, begun under Pope John Paul II, its release marks one of the most significant acts in Benedict's seven months as pope.

A doctrinal conservative who served as John Paul's defender of the faith for two decades, he spoke out before his election against "filth" in the church, which many observers speculated was a reference to the need to clean up the church after the scandals involving sexually abusive priests.

Some critics both in and out of the church have accused the Vatican of using gay priests as a scapegoat for that scandal, a charge the church has vigorously denied. Experts have noted that is incorrect to equate pedophilia with homosexuality.

The document concerns only candidates for the priesthood, not already ordained priests. But in anticipation of the document's release, a handful of priests have publicly declared their homosexuality, and a few bishops and leaders of religious orders have spoken out in defense of their gay priests.

The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., wrote in his diocesan newspaper in October: "There are many wonderful and excellent priests in the church who have a gay orientation, are chaste and celibate, and are very effective ministers of the Gospel. Witch hunts and gay bashing have no place in the Church."

Bishop Matthew H. Clark, of Rochester, addressing any "gay young men who are considering a vocation to priesthood," wrote: "We try to treat all inquiries fairly. You will be no exception."

Ian Fisher reported from Rome for this article, and Laurie Goodstein from New York. Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests