The Vatican may soon issue a document saying homosexuals should not be ordained as priests, but without clearly defining the term "homosexual" or specifying how intrusively the church should look into the sexual background of seminary applicants, Vatican watchers and church officials said yesterday.
The document, which has gone through several drafts since 2001, has not been published. Experts in Rome and the United States cautioned yesterday that its practical impact on candidates for the priesthood would depend on its precise wording and implementation, both of which remain to be seen.
But the document's symbolic impact is already rippling through the Roman Catholic Church and beyond, hailed by some as a much-needed antidote to a gay clerical subculture and derided by others as a misguided attempt to blame homosexuals for the church's pedophilia scandals.
The Rev. Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and an influential figure in conservative Catholic circles, said the document fit into an effort by Pope Benedict XVI to ensure doctrinal purity in U.S. seminaries, which will undergo a major inspection by Vatican officials this fall.
Barring homosexuals from ordination "doesn't break any new ground or propose a new policy," Fessio said. "That's the policy that's been in effect, in theory. It's just been ignored in many areas, particularly North America."
The Vatican most recently reiterated that position in 2002, when the Congregation for Divine Worship, its department in charge of the Catholic sacraments, said that "a homosexual person, or one with a homosexual tendency, is not fit to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders."
Catholic World News, a conservative news service based in South Lancaster, Mass., reported this week that the pope had signed the new document and that it probably would be issued in late October by the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department in charge of seminaries. The Vatican has officially declined to confirm that report, but the Associated Press and the New York Times quoted unnamed sources in Rome yesterday as saying the document will be issued soon.
John Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal weekly, reported in July that the document was on the pope's desk, awaiting his decision. Allen said in a telephone interview yesterday that it was unclear whether the pope had placed his personal imprimatur on the document, giving it greater authority, or simply authorized the Congregation for Catholic Education to issue it.
Allen also said the most recent draft contained no clear definition of homosexuality. An earlier draft that circulated in 2002 said that candidates with a "permanent, enduring" homosexual attraction should not be admitted to seminaries. But that language apparently has been dropped, leaving it unclear "where on the spectrum of sexuality -- from someone who once had a fleeting attraction 20 years ago, to someone who is actively involved in gay relationships right now -- seminaries are supposed to draw the line," Allen said.
Fessio said that if the document did not contain a clear definition, the church would need to follow up with "some standards" so that the decision was "not left entirely to individual seminaries." But he said it was unlikely that the church would take an extremely aggressive or intrusive tack, particularly toward homosexuals who are already ordained.
"I think someone who is living a good, chaste life and may be fighting some temptations, but you don't even know what they are -- I don't see how that would be a problem for that person," he said. "But if someone is cruising gay bars and promoting a gay lifestyle, someone who is saying it's all right, that it doesn't matter whether you've got this attraction or not, those kinds of people . . . should be in a different walk of life."
A U.S. priest who says he is gay but celibate, and who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his job, predicted that the document would push homosexual seminarians and priests further underground and ultimately be self-defeating.
"If you're not going to allow people to speak openly with their rectors and spiritual advisers and friends, if you drive it underground, you'll have less psychologically healthy men, not more healthy ones," he said. "In their effort to address the sexual abuse crisis, they're re-creating the precise kind of environment that gave rise to it."
The gay priest also said he deeply resented "this attempt to blame the whole pedophilia scandal on gay priests rather than on the bishops" who moved sexual abusers from parish to parish instead of reporting them to police.
"People like myself -- if we're not allowed to be public, and the bishops aren't able to acknowledge that there are gay but celibate priests who, frankly, are doing a lot of the work of the church -- then all they're going to see is pedophiles," he said.
The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said some U.S. bishops have tried to persuade Vatican officials that a flat ban on admitting gays to seminaries would do more harm than good.
"If that's going to be the policy of the church as the church seeks to be its best self, then I'm going to accept what the church tells me," Silva said. "On the other hand, I would have an awful lot of compassion for men who are holy, celibate, chaste and who are homosexual and have served the church well."
Staff writer Caryle Murphy contributed to this report.