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How can Vatican think inner conflict makes a priest safer?

Robert McClory, a former priest and professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism

December 11, 2005

The Vatican's recent instruction on barring gays from the seminary may be the worst document issued by the church since it declared in 1866 (three years after the Emancipation Proclamation) that "slavery itself ... is not at all contrary to the divine and natural law."

For centuries, gay priests, bishops, even cardinals have served the church and all its people with dedication and dignity. They were men who had come to terms with their "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" (to use the Vatican's words) and lived chaste and celibate lives. They did what other men who also felt called to serve in the priesthood did: They came to terms with their deep-seated heterosexual tendencies and lived chaste and celibate lives.

Now the church seems to be saying that it wants no more of the former. It does not want candidates for the priesthood who are at peace with who they are and have accepted their gay orientation. On the other hand, the document extends a cautious welcome to those whose homosexual tendencies are only "the manifestation of a transitory problem" and who are struggling to overcome these tendencies. If they can do so at least three years before being ordained deacons, they may proceed on to the priesthood.

As everyone knows, a major yet unstated reason for the publication of this instruction is the priest abuse scandal that has crippled the church and won't go away.

Based on the fact that the vast majority of the victims were young boys, some high church officials in Rome and many in the U.S. declared that the majority of the perpetrators were homosexual priests. The quick fix then is to bar gays from entering the priesthood.

But a far more probable explanation for the abuse, according to psychologists, is the high number of priests who were immature, insecure about their tendencies and full of doubt and guilt.

Such was the nature of Catholic parish life that these troubled priests, whether their tendencies were heterosexual or homosexual, had regular, accepted access within the Catholic community to boys, not to girls.

Ironically, the church is now saying that those who are struggling with immaturity and "delayed adolescence," who manifest insecurity about their homosexual problems, who are perhaps full of doubt and guilt about their past--these are acceptable candidates for the seminary.

On the other hand, anyone who is clear and straightforward about his homosexual orientation is unacceptable, even if he has been chaste for three years, or all his life for that matter, and is not immersed in the "gay culture."

The real source of this bizarre distinction are two assumptions embedded in the instruction: first that homosexual men cannot control themselves and are unable to relate effectively with men and women, and second, that homosexuality is an unnatural disorder, an illness that can be cured and must be cured before one is allowed to function as a Catholic priest.

The word "orientation" does not even appear in this document; the words of choice are "tendency" and "transitory."

Yet we are living in a time when the preponderance of scientific evidence points strongly to a genetic as well as a psychological component in those persons who are homosexually oriented.

If this is so, treating the condition as an abnormality that can be treated and cured is irresponsible and will surely prove counterproductive. It could lead to the continued ordination of troubled men who are apt to abuse children.

The instruction does not acknowledge any such possibility because it is weighed down by another assumption--namely that a moral position of the Catholic Church can never be wrong.

What will be the impact of this document? To the gay priests faithfully serving the church, it comes as a slap in the face. It says, in effect, "We are sorry we ordained you; it was a mistake, but with the clergy shortage what it is, you may stay." Some of these priests will leave, but most will remain with a heavy heart. Some may come forth and challenge the rationale at work here. The bulk of the brethren will say nothing.

Potential seminarians who acknowledge their deep-seated homosexual orientation and are attracted to a life of service will seek it in a venue other than the Catholic Church. Other young men who are aware of "transitory" gay tendencies and feel insecure about them may apply to seminaries with the hope that during their training, they will get over this affliction.

In all probability, some of these who apply will spend a lot of psychic energy lying to themselves and their superiors, lest they be judged "deep-seated" and forced to depart. The instruction is likely also to attract men who just never liked gays in the first place and are delighted to have them rooted out, so that the priesthood can become (as it never was) the preserve of those who are "healthy" and in full agreement with the church's position on all matters of sexuality.

For the general Catholic population, appropriate reactions would seem to include concern about whether the instruction will or will not be enforced, anger at leadership that is so distant from the experience of its people, and wonderment about who will be affected when the Vatican drops the next shoe.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune