A new Vatican directive that restricts gay men from entering Roman Catholic priesthood will give a needed boost to seminary reform and improve the caliber of priests, some Catholics said yesterday.
Others expressed fears, however, that the document will have a negative impact beyond seminary walls, diminishing the number of men interested in joining an already shrunken priest corps, further dividing Catholics on the issue of homosexuality, and causing gay Catholics and their relatives spiritual anguish.
"The first thought that comes to my mind is that this document is going to cause a good deal of human suffering," said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and a professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
"Gay, committed, celibate priests and seminarians, and bishops, too, that happen to be gay, are going to find this instruction a source of spiritual pain," Cozzens said. He noted that gay Catholics may ask if there is "something not quite right" with them, and parents of gays will be upset since they do not "see their children as necessarily objectively disordered."
Cozzens was referring to church teachings that call homosexuality "intrinsically disordered."
The five-page instruction to seminary officials states that men who "practice homosexuality," have "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies" or support "gay culture" should be rejected for priesthood.
Even if chaste, gay men should not be priests, added the document, which was leaked Tuesday to a Catholic news agency, and is expected to be formally issued by the Vatican on Nov. 29.
"The document simply reiterates long-standing Catholic teaching and practice," said conservative Catholic author George Weigel, a fellow at the District-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.
"It's clear that practice slackened . . . and the document is calling the church back to its own discipline of ensuring that a man before ordination is psychologically, spiritually and emotionally capable of living this very demanding lifestyle," he said.
Conservative and liberal Catholics said the full impact of the document cannot be determined until the Vatican offers more precise definitions of what it means by such terms as "deeply rooted homosexual tendencies," "transitory problems" and "gay culture."
Cozzens asked: "How do you measure the deep-rootedness of either homosexual or heterosexual orientation?"
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author in New York, rejected "the big stereotype . . . that because you are gay you are somehow sexually active, which is false."
Over the past 40 years, Martin said, "people have understood that you can be a gay person and be celibate as well." As a result, he added, gay men have been accepted in many seminaries.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Mount Rainier, Md.-based advocacy group for the Catholic gay community, said he believes that "bishops who oppose gay seminarians will continue to oppose them and those who support them will continue to support them."
Pia de Solenni, director of life and women's issues at the conservative Family Research Council, agreed: "The final say comes back to the bishop."
"One thing is critical," she said. "Within Catholic theology, the priest is understood as the groom to the church, which is the bride. He's understood as a father. If naturally he doesn't tend toward an orientation that enables him to be groom and father, I think it would be difficult for him to live out his priesthood."
The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the Chicago-based National Federation of Priests' Councils, who said he believes that homosexual orientation is not a barrier to being a good priest, predicted that the new instruction will not have a drastic impact on seminary enrollment.
"For someone who is mature and has psychological and emotional maturity . . . I just don't see that this document is going to discourage that person if he is called by God to be a priest," Silva said. "Where the problem lies is where you get fellows who go to a gay bar, when you begin immersing yourself in that particular community as if you couldn't live without it."