The Vatican is ordering seminaries to bar candidates for the priesthood who "practice homosexuality," have "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies" or support "gay culture," according to a document published Tuesday by Adista, a Catholic news agency in Rome.
The long-awaited instruction to seminary directors was scheduled for official release next week. It has been the subject of numerous leaks that have sparked intense debate and led some Catholic leaders, including the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to defend the place of celibate gay priests in the church. But until Tuesday, a full text had not been published.
"The church, while deeply respecting the people in question, cannot admit to the seminary and the sacred orders those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or support so-called gay culture," said the five-page document, which a Vatican official said appeared to be the authentic, final version.
The instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department in charge of seminaries, is not entirely new. Previous Vatican documents dating back to 1961 have called homosexuality an "intrinsically disordered" condition and have declared gays ineligible for ordination.
But Vatican officials say those rules have been loosely enforced, and some have blamed homosexuality for a worldwide scandal over sexual abuse of minors by priests. Other Catholics say there is no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia.
"There are people on the right wing who from the beginning saw this document as a kind of magic wand that would remove the taint of the sex abuse scandal," said the Rev. John A. Coleman, a Jesuit sociologist at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "I think that's wishful thinking -- and pretty stupid."
The new document delves into the issue of homosexuality in greater detail than prior instructions and may have greater authority, particularly because it bears the imprimatur of Pope Benedict XVI, who approved it Aug. 31.
The document does not call for the removal of gay men who are already serving as priests, and it does not flatly bar the ordination of anyone who has ever acknowledged a same-sex attraction. It says men whose homosexuality is "a transitory problem" may be ordained as deacons -- a key step toward the priesthood -- if they have lived in celibacy for at least three years.
Those who have "deeply rooted" same-sex attractions, on the other hand, find themselves "in a situation that presents a grave obstacle to a correct relationship with men and women" and are not fit for ordination, even if they are chaste, the document says.
"One cannot ignore the negative consequences that can stem from the ordination of people with deeply rooted homosexual tendencies," it says.
Some conservative Catholics greeted the document with satisfaction.
"The Vatican has made a wise decision to come down in the middle of the road on this dispute. This new document acknowledges the incompatibility of active homosexuality with the priesthood but does leave the door open to men who have been able to live chastely with their same-sex attraction," said Brian Saint-Paul, editor of Crisis, a Washington-based Catholic journal.
He added that in his view, the barring of "deeply rooted" gays from all-male seminaries was more a matter of prudence than of theological doctrine. "It would be little different from me, as a raging heterosexual, being forced to live in a girls dorm while trying to learn to live chastely," he said. "It's a practical issue."
But several priests questioned how the church will define "deeply rooted" and said they feared that the Vatican was leaving no room for gay men who have a healthy understanding of their own sexuality and can live celibately.
"We're going back to the prehistoric, forcing people to live a lie," said the Rev. Richard J. Prendergast, pastor of St. Josaphat Catholic Church in Chicago. He is a member of Catholics Affirming Homosexual Leadership, a group he said was founded by seven priests, mostly in Chicago. In anticipation of the Vatican document, it has been collecting signatures on a Web site petition saying, "We reject the assertion or implication that persons with a homosexual orientation cannot offer valuable service in leadership roles in our Church."
While no bishops have signed the statement, some appear to be sympathetic. "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," Spokane Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, wrote in his diocesan newspaper on Oct. 28. "Witchhunts and gay bashing have no place in the Church."
The Rev. Fred Daley, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Utica, N.Y., and one of the few priests in the United States who has openly declared himself to be both gay and celibate, said the document contained a faulty understanding of sexual orientation. "I'm a deeply rooted homosexual and I'm proud of that, it's who I am and how God created me, it's not something transitory . . . it's not something you choose," he said. "I've also been ordained for 31 years and I'm committed to the church's discipline of celibacy."
The publication of the document is a sad day for the church, he added. "I can't help but feel there's hypocrisy in all of this when the hierarchy of the church knows a very significant number of its priests, bishops and cardinals are gay and are living celibate lives in a faithful way, the same way heterosexual priests are," he said.
The document does not elaborate on what it means by support for "gay culture." However, Pope Benedict, during his long pre-papal service as the Vatican's orthodoxy guardian, banned gay groups from using church property for meetings or setting up gay organizations under the umbrella of local churches.
The document also implicitly recognizes that it might drive homosexuality underground. "It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to hide his own homosexuality," it says.
Cooperman reported from Washington.