Pope Francis and Gay Priests?

Pope Francis and Gay Priests? July 30, 2013

It would probably come as a surprise to few to find out that there are many gay Jesuits.  And so when the Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders came out in November of 2005, it also came as no surprise to most that the interpretation given to the instruction by most Jesuits was not the same as was given by everyone  (though it seemed to represent the majority interpretation).  For example, the Swiss Bishop’s Conference explained that “a homosexual tendency lived out in sexual abstinence does not exclude one from pastoral ministry.” The Belgian bishops: “The Vatican instruction makes a point of recalling that if the homosexual orientation of a candidate proves to be an obstacle with regard to freely chosen celibacy, or in terms of right relations with men and women, this candidate may not be admitted to the seminary.”  And Bishop William Skylstad explained that document was directed at a man entering seminary who is “so concerned with homosexual issues that he cannot sincerely represent the church’s teaching on sexuality.”  As long as he can so represent, then it is ok for a priest to be gay.

Not everyone interpreted the document this way.  Bishop John D’Arcy stated emphatically: “I would say yes, absolutely, it does bar anyone whose sexual orientation is towards one’s own sex and it’s permanent.  I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. … I don’t think we can fuss around with this.”  And of course Pope Benedict in an interview with Peter Seewald, quoted in an excellent article by Ross Douthat today:

PS: It is no secret that there are homosexuals even among priests and monks. Just recently there was a major scandal on account of the homosexual passions of priests in Rome.

B:  Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation. Otherwise, celibacy itself would lose its meaning as a renunciation. It would be extremely dangerous if celibacy became a sort of pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don’t want to get married anyway …

PS:  But there is no doubt that homosexuality exists in monasteries and among the clergy, if not acted out, then at least in a non-practiced form.

B:  Well, that is just one of the miseries of the Church. And the persons who are affected must at least try not to express this inclination actively, in order to remain true to the intrinsic mission of their office.

So the question on everyone’s mind has been, did Pope Francis say anything new yesterday?  I would say No, and Yes.  For the most part he just reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching on homosexuality.  But in an important way he may have added something new.  If he did indeed speak approvingly of gay priests who live a healthy and mature life of celibacy, then he was certainly not just saying the same thing as Benedict.  He was rather coming down on the side of the interpretation of the 2005 Instruction offered by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, i.e., that the Instruction is aimed at “men who are well integrated and psychologically mature, faithful to church teachings, and who posses a clear understanding of the meaning of, as well as the spiritual and emotional capacity to commit to chaste celibacy for life.”  If that is indeed the case, then from a pope that is new.

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  • Briggs

    I wonder if there is anyone else who is absolutely exhausted from the homosexual issues that are pounded into our senses day and night from all sections of media. If the strategy of those wanting normalcy granted to homosexuals is simply to stone the general public with constant little rocks until it lies down in defeat, I think they are just about to win. That I must daily, hourly visualize the acts of homosexuals, images of which come unbidden, from every angle, is wearying beyond belief. A moratorium on this subject for a week would be most welcome.

    • Can we then also have a “moratorium” on the sickly-sweet idolatry of heterosexual love and marriage that we are bombarded with, in order to sell STUFF, promote political campaigns and distort the ORIGINAL teachings of the Christian Sacred Scriptures that, for spiritual perfection in life, CELIBACY is the most desirable state of life?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      You and Rick Santorum share this problem. I hope your interpersonal relationships are not affected.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO:

        I would say that your reply to Briggs falls under the Rule #2 of propaganda (see my reply to Briggs).

    • Mark VA


      I would guess you are not the only one who is “exhausted”.

      Norman Davies, in his book “Europe”, lists (p. 500) these five aspects of propaganda:

      1.Rule of simplification – reducing complex issues to simple polar opposites (good vs bad);
      2.Rule of disfiguration – smearing and satirizing all opposition;
      3.Rule of transfusion – manipulating the consensus values to desired ends;
      4.Rule of unanimity – the pretense that all the “correctly thinking people” are in agreement with the desired viewpoint;
      5.Rule of orchestration: the continuous repeat of the desired viewpoint in different variations, and from different sources.

      • trellis smith

        Your positions are far more replete with propaganda then David,s witty riposte.
        Briggs opened himself to far greater ridicule that didn’t make it past the censor. Neither you or he are in a position to tell the opposition to shut up as you’ve monopolized the stage for centuries. Satire by far carries the argument and deflates the pompous.If you are exhausted then by all means retire.

      • So, don’t you have some stupid rule, MarkVA, about “reducing BOTH things to bad,” so you can attack MY comment above, too?

      • brian martin

        “That I must daily, hourly visualize the acts of homosexuals, images of which come unbidden, from every angle, is wearying beyond belief. ”


      • R.

        It’s not smearing or satirizing to respond to someone by comparing their reaction to someone else who is known for a similar reaction.
        One may indeed be tired of media saturation with gay issues without considering himself forced to “daily, hourly visualize the acts of homosexuals, images of which come unbidden, from every angle.”

        That seems to be a subset of those “exhausted” by the topic, a subset which includes Mr. Santorum, as David said. If Briggs does not actually do this hourly visualization, maybe he was satirizing positive media coverage of same-sex relationships. Would that be Rule 2? Because I manage to catch lots of gay-related news without visualizing “the acts of homosexuals” unless the “acts” are things like practicing law, mourning loved ones, raising children, hosting tv shows, serving God. Was that what Briggs meant?

        • Mark VA

          Trellis Smith, DismasDolben, Brian Martin, and R:

          I would not hesitate one whit to carry on a conversation with you on this topic, but first, I think, you should get your act together. Right now, our “conversation” resembles the art of cat herding.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I found this fascinating from Seewald’s interview with Pope Benedict:

    It would be extremely dangerous if celibacy became a sort of pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don’t want to get married anyway …

    Which, sadly, is exactly what happened in many cases, most tragically with child abusers and others with sexual problems, and one of the reasons why compulsory clerical celibacy is not a good idea.

    It was quite clear from the wording of the 2005 instruction that it did NOT preclude every homosexual candidate from the priesthood, so the Jesuit interpretation and that of he European Bishops is correct canonically.

    Pope Francis’ emphasis on non-judgemental acceptance of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is very welcome indeed. Too often, Bishops statements against same sex marriage have lacked that sense of compassion and acceptance which is so central to the gospel.

    God Bless

    • I agree, Benedict’s interpretation here was bizarre and ridiculous. As if the essence of the priesthood is celibacy, and as if celibacy only makes sense as a “giving up” rather than as a pattern of life sublimating sexuality (of whatever sort) into a greater service. His syllogism was all messed up, something like “Becoming a priest is about celibacy, and celibacy is about giving up marriage, and therefore gays can’t be priests because they’re not giving up something.” Both the major premise and the minor premise are wrong, as is is the conclusion. Celibacy is not the essence of the priesthood, it is something that was bootstrapped to it in the West as a historical accident. Celibacy is not about “giving up” but rather is a positive sublimation and eschatological sign that doesn’t need to be in reference to any particular “sacrifice” of some other good (should the canonically impotent also be excluded from the priesthood for their inability to validly marry??) And gay men most certainly still “give up” the thought of family and companionship and make sacrifices (beyond just “giving up sin”) if they choose to consecrate themselves institutionalized religious celibacy (as opposed to merely sexual abstinence). It also seems to assume that gay people could never desire (heterosexual) marriage and family (at least for the sake of biological children) when many mixed-orientation marriages indicate otherwise. It’s almost as fatuous as saying that vegetarianism is wrong because then you can’t give up meat on Fridays.

      • Brilliant response from you, as usual, Sinner, but don’t you think what you really mean is “chastity,” which has a much more positive connotation than mere “celibacy.” (I think we’ve had this conversation before, but I consider “chastity” to be a spiritual virtue, and “celibacy” to be something that any non-virtuous person is capable of manifesting.)

      • Jordan

        A Sinner [July 31, 2013 9:36 am]: It also seems to assume that gay people could never desire (heterosexual) marriage and family (at least for the sake of biological children) when many mixed-orientation marriages indicate otherwise.

        Sexual affectivity within a MOM cannot be discounted. I would hope that a seminary rector would consider this angle when accepting a married gay man for studies, should celibacy become optional for Roman secular clergy.

        Right now I am a straight woman’s “gay boyfriend”. Some might find that term offensive. Even so, she and I fulfill mutual emotional needs similar to partners but without any pressure for sex. A close non-sexual friendship between a gay man and a straight woman is not a legal or sacramental contract. A MOM which has little or no mutual sexual compatibility strikes me as not psychologically deterious but also spiritually harmful given the ramifications of public union. This is why I must disagree with A Sinner’s statement “at least for the sake of biological children.” Sure, a MOM with little mutual sexual interest could produce children. However, procreation is only one part of the marital union. Also, children are not lifestyle accessories designed to raise one’s gravitas in a religious community.

  • Jordan

    I greatly thank Pope Francis for confirming what many laypersons and some clergy have emphasized since the 2005 directive barring gay seminarians. Francis’s understanding of the question is commonsensical: being gay (i.e. experiencing an erotic drive towards the same sex) does not necessarily disqualify a man from ordination. However, a man who promotes his sexuality before his vocation is not fit for ordination. Few people I know disagree with the latter. Any person who places his or her sexual orientation as their essential criterion of existence is not a well-rounded and daresay psychologically integrated person.

    What saddens me is not necessarily the inevitable haste of a Catholic ultra-right blogosphere backlash against Pope Francis’s statement. Rather, it’s the greater inability of some Catholics, clerical or lay, to acknowledge that the priesthood is heavily gay overall. Those who refuse to countenance this reality of affairs often do so for highly individualistic motives pasted over with a shellac of orthodoxy or pseudo-orthodoxy. It’s important to note that Catholic conservatism, and in particular traditionalism, can be highly pietistic. This is not necessarily irrational: traditionalists have displayed great conviction and trust in their liturgical devotion and spiritual way of life in the face of often sharp criticism. Conservative and traditionalist convictions are greatly shaped by an individual, personal, and affective union with a certain liturgical and spiritual praxis. Yet, this pietism also tends to paint in broad heterodox strokes. Not a few conservatives or traditionalists subscribe to a functional conflation of sexual orientation with the tendency to sin (i.e. “intrinsically disordered” magnifies from a philosophical statement to a reductionist and essentialist conflation of intrinsic disorder with sexual orientation only). In turn, not a few conflate homosexual concupiscence with sexual sin itself. This is evidenced by the not infrequent slanderous caricature of all LGBT persons as grotesque and eager purveyors of the sometimes raunchy behaviors of pride parades.

    Pope Francis has pushed open the closet door slightly and has shed some sunlight into an often dank chamber. It’s time now for all Catholics, clerical and lay, to consider whether or not the same theological standards for heterosexuality apply to homosexuality and LGBT people. Unfortunately, I’m convinced that another hand will swiftly close the closet door again.

    • trellis smith

      Interesting comment ,Jordon. Of course one’s sexual orientation should not be promoted as the be all and end all of the human person. But there shouldn’t be a diminishment either. Gay people have ever right to promote themselves in the same way as straight people, Being in any denial of one’s sexuality is not conducive to a well integrated personality.

  • Part of the problem is Vatican ambivalence. Hopefully Francis is ending this by dropping a lot of the pretentious speech.

    For example, I had a frustrating conversation in the car with my family yesterday (we’re on a road-trip) about Francis “versus” Benedict. My brother was reading the headlines “Pope says don’t judge gays!” as being some sort of reversal on the Church’s position on things. Lots of the media seemed to try to spin it this way, at least in misleading headlines. I had to explain that the Church never said “Judge gay people!” in the first place and so saying “I can’t judge them” is hardly a reversal, especially when qualified with something like “If seeking God in good-will” or whatever.

    The Church never teaches to judge anyone, and certainly not private sinners whose immorality has no direct or immediate victim. Francis continues to warn about the politicization of identities or attempts to normalize things the Church opposes. But sloppy reporting (and sloppy thinking) apparently leads a lot of people to (wishfully?) interpret the statement “Don’t judge gay people of good-will” to mean “The Church no longer condemns homosexual sex acts,” which obviously isn’t true (whatever my own opinion on that matter). Wanting Francis to mean something doesn’t make it true, doesn’t make it his intent. It also suggests a continuing confusion in our culture between people and what they do, and between orientation and acts, as if “Don’t judge gay people” necessarily implies not judging certain types of acts.

    The priesthood thing is more interesting. Some conservatives are trying to say, “He’s talking about men who are already priests, not seminary candidates.” But I think, rather, Francis is basically saying that the “looser” interpretation of the 2005 instruction is correct (thank God). Benedict did not say “gays can’t be priests” in the 2005 instruction (private comments to Seewald aside), he released this sort of vague equivocal document through the Congregation of Catholic Education or whatever, that could easily be fudged by asking questions about “what does ‘deep-seated’ mean?” etc. Francis therefore isn’t saying anything mutually exclusive from Benedict, necessarily, though he does seem to be hinting at favoring one of several possible interpretations.

    Of course, as Time said, it’s less about what he said and more about HOW he said it. For example, Francis used the colloquialism “gay” rather than using more clinical or technical or formal jargon to describe homosexual orientation, and he didn’t feel the need to qualify his statements with anything about the “condition” being “objectively disordered” or anything like that. The teaching on sexual morality remains implicit, of course, but as a gay person Francis’s understanding that sexual orientation nowadays is something other than just a “tendency” or “inclination” to controversial sex acts…is refreshing. Also, it will hopefully help to silence a lot of the voices in the “labelling war” who argue that good Catholics can’t even say or identify as “gay” but must use “same-sex attracted” or some nonsense like that.

  • Sullivan is correct in what he says below; at some point the Catholic Church is going to have to deal with her incoherence on the subject of homosexuality, which, bad as he was on this subject, Benedict XVI Ratzinger’s hysterical rants on the subject drew attention to:

    What Ratzinger was saying is precisely that, in the case of homosexuals,hating the sin but loving the sinner is not a Catholic option. Because in the case of homosexuals, their sin is integrally related to their very nature, which they cannot change. The part of their nature that is objectively disordered and they cannot change is, moreover, that pertaining to love and sex and family, arguably the very things that make most of us happy. So gay people truly are deformed in the most profound way possible – morally crippled and constrained by their very nature.

    Why would Ratzinger have taken that huge and painful leap that is so anathema to the spirit of inclusion in the Gospels? Because in Catholic teaching, acts flow from being. It is absurd in Catholic thought to talk of something in nature that is entirely neutral and yet always leads to an intrinsic moral evil if expressed.

    To see why, try and come up with a serious analogy within Catholic theology for the argument that homosexuality as not sinful in itself but isalways sinful when expressed.I’ve been trying for twenty years.


  • Of course Pope Francis has touched the hearts of many in the Church with his actions. His latest comment even shows the ease with which he uses the word gay over homosexual, something his predecessor did not do.

    I love listening to those representatives of the clerical state who promote what I can only refer to as a lack of compassion. Jesuit pride I suspect is much like gay pride people speaking for themselves.

    Did the Pope change anything doctrinal in his recent statements , no he did not, but he has presented the Church’s position in a loving way. I think his change in tone in reaching out to gay people not homosexuals was a delightful remark from a true follower of Christ . We will see if the conversations about this matter will now change tone in the Church.

    Homophobia really needs to be addressed in the Church. But the real conversation that is taking place in other forums beyond the Church will affect the internal conversation within the Church and that is where the Holy Spirit is at work

    The Bishops of the Church are being forced to look at reasonableness in the public square and engage in reasonable dialogue a new concept for many of them.

    From a Catholic Gay perspective if I may share an opinion, it is a sea change.

  • Julia Smucker

    The problem I see with the way this is being reported – as with certain other things Pope Francis has said – is the pervasive misconception that the pope can make momentous doctrinal pronouncements in the context of a homily or press conference or any off-the-cuff remark. That’s creeping infallibility if I ever saw it.

    It could be a good opportunity to explain what papal infallibility (or even papal authority in a more general sense) does and does not mean – if we can manage to avoid the knee-jerk reduction to de-nuanced soundbites that is increasingly passing for journalism.

  • Hi Julia,

    Forget about creeping infallibility. Pope Francis was merely being respectful to LGBT people. Why is that so difficult to believe?

    • Julia Smucker

      That he “was merely being respectful” was my point exactly. It’s creeping infallibility that provokes the hyped-up reporting of a “groundbreaking” or “historic” statement any time the pope says anything the least bit unexpected, which only sets up further misconceptions when it must be explained time and again that not everything the pope says constitutes a sweeping doctrinal proclamation.