The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday that under a new Vatican directive on homosexuality, men with a lasting attraction to members of the same sex can still be ordained as priests, as long as they are not "consumed by" their sexual orientation.
Bishop William S. Skylstad's flexible interpretation of the document, which was officially issued in Rome yesterday, was sharply at odds with the position of some other U.S. bishops. They said the Vatican intended to bar all men who have had more than a fleeting, adolescent brush with homosexuality.
"I think one of the telling sentences in the document is the phrase that the candidate's entire life of sacred ministry must be 'animated by a gift of his whole person to the church and by an authentic pastoral charity,' " Skylstad, the bishop of Spokane, Wash., said in an interview. "If that becomes paramount in his ministry, even though he might have a homosexual orientation, then he can minister and he can minister celibately and chastely."
Skylstad's comments are the opening salvo in what promises to be a wide-ranging battle within the U.S. church over the document's implementation. Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said yesterday that Skylstad's interpretation is "simply wrong" -- a rare public clash among bishops, who usually go to great lengths to preserve an image of collegiality, even when they disagree.
"I would say yes, absolutely, it does bar anyone whose sexual orientation is towards one's own sex and it's permanent," D'Arcy said of the document. "I don't think there's any doubt about it. . . . I don't think we can fuss around with this."
Although each bishop can apply the document as he sees fit in his diocese, the fallout could reach thousands of Catholic schools and parishes as gay men who are considering the priesthood -- and some who have been ordained -- reevaluate their place in the church.
"I think every gay seminarian faces a question of conscience now," said a 33-year-old gay seminarian from New England who requested anonymity because he has not yet decided whether to leave his seminary. "There's no question of leaving the church. I'll die a Catholic. The question is whether I can with integrity be a priest."
The six-page instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department in charge of seminaries, was leaked by an Italian news agency a week ago. But most bishops were silent about it until its official publication yesterday. As soon as it was released in Rome, many U.S. dioceses posted statements on their Web sites, and many bishops held news conferences.
The document says that "the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture.' "
It adds that men can become priests if their "homosexual tendencies . . . were only the expression of a transitory problem -- for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded." But those whose homosexuality is deep-seated "find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women," the official English translation says.
Several prelates, including Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, indicated that they will continue to ordain seminarians regardless of sexual orientation, as long as the candidates are committed to live in celibacy and to uphold church teachings.
"It is important to look at the whole person. One issue of many that are looked at in the overall evaluation process is in the area of human sexuality," McCarrick said in a written statement. "Applicants for the Archdiocese of Washington must have a demonstrated commitment to living a chaste life and must fully embrace, through belief and action, the Church's teachings, including those on human sexuality."
Asked whether that means the archdiocese will still accept gay seminarians, the cardinal's spokeswoman, Susan Gibbs, said: "We don't anticipate our admissions policy changing based on the document. There can be people whose orientation is homosexual if it's not such a strong part of their makeup that it interferes with their ability to live out church teaching. It's part of the larger picture we have to look at."
Skylstad took a similar approach. He said the barring of men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" refers to those who are "principally defined by" or whose "primary identification" is their sexual orientation. Although the document does not say so, he said, the same implicitly applies to men who have deep-seated heterosexual impulses.
"Absolutely, it cuts both ways. . . . I think if the orientation dominates one's personality, whether that be homosexual or heterosexual," then the candidate is not suitable for ordination, Skylstad said. "You know, a heterosexual person who cannot live the celibate life in fidelity to his mission, in fidelity to appropriate boundaries, is not going to be called by the church to priesthood, either."
The same point was made by Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, N.Y., in a statement on his Web site; it noted that the Vatican's instruction requires all candidates for the priesthood to show emotional maturity.
"I must concur, and add that such criteria also would be applied to a heterosexual man whose sexual behavior would in any way interfere with his celibate service to the Church and to those to whom he would minister," Clark wrote.
But in Rome, the head of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, said that the problems of homosexual and heterosexual candidates are not equivalent. Although many people think homosexuality is a "normal condition of the human person," he told Vatican Radio, it "absolutely contradicts human anthropology" and violates "natural law."
For the church, denying ordination to gay men is no more discriminatory than "if a person who suffers from vertigo is not admitted to a school for astronauts," the cardinal said.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things, said that "human nature being what it is, those who want to evade the clear statement of the instruction will have ample opportunities to seek loopholes, evasions and rationalizations."
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and generally a liberal commentator on church affairs, agreed.
"Over the next few months we will hear from plenty of canon lawyers and theologians and bishops, as we have already, arguing, out of a genuine and compassionate desire to help the church continue to accept celibate gay men into the priesthood, that the document needs to be interpreted in the most positive light possible," he said.
"But it is impossible, after reading the Instruction, to escape the fact that when the Vatican says men with 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies,' it means what it says."
Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.