But the Church’s Congregation for the Clergy, in a document approved by Francis, declared that bishops and clergy who oversee seminaries should indeed judge candidates’ sexuality and should ban them from becoming priests on that basis.
The document, called “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” has an official publication date of Dec. 8 but was posted online earlier. It covers many aspects of the priesthood, only touching on the subject of sexuality on a few pages toward the end of the lengthy report.
It quotes from the 2005 document on the subject of gay priests:
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.’ Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.
While that paragraph might seem to lay people to be a very clear ban on gay men from becoming priests, some experts said Wednesday that in fact it leaves large loopholes for many gay men to enter seminaries.
It comes down to the definition of “deep-seated” tendencies. While some might say that one’s sexuality is a deep-seated part of a person, so any man attracted to men is ineligible for the priesthood, others find wiggle room in that language. A man who is gay but who believes the church’s teaching against gay sex and who can commit to a life of celibacy — just as straight priests do — does not have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” in the view of some bishops.
“Not much has changed,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the editor at large of America magazine. “The people who were open to accepting healthy gay men into the seminaries will still do it. It does not negate the fact, nor could it, that there are thousands of healthy and hard-working and holy and celibate gay priests throughout the world.”
Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a Catholic University of America professor who has written books on psychological care for priests, said clergy have consulted him about whether they should admit specific men to seminaries based on their sexuality. The question they ask comes out of this Vatican language, Rossetti said: “I’ve had rectors sit me down and say, ‘What do I do with this guy? Is it deep-seated?’”
Rossetti said that his own recommendation would have to do not only with whether the man is or has been involved in a sexual relationship, but also with whether his sexuality is central to his identity or not. “If he’s marching in the gay pride parade, I’m going to say, ‘Mm, I don’t think so.’”
This document was the latest event in what many see as a pattern in Francis’s papacy. The pope’s words, often in extemporaneous remarks, lead liberals to hope that church policies will change. Then the Vatican reaffirms its traditional positions. In recent months, after Francis excited feminist hopes by creating a committee to study women serving as deacons, he said women probably will never be priests. He wrote a major document on family issues that suggested people who have divorced and remarried outside the church might be able to receive communion, but has refused to clarify when clergy have asked whether they should indeed interpret that document as a change in the church’s stance on who can take communion.
“One of the mistakes people make when they’re interpreting Pope Francis, they expect he’s out to change everything,” Rossetti said. “I don’t see him as changing our teachings, so much as helping us be more compassionate people.”