The Roman Catholic Church requires its priests to refrain from any sexual relationship, whether heterosexual or homosexual. So one might think that the sexual orientation of an aspirant for the priesthood would be a nonissue -- especially in light of the distinction the church has drawn between homosexual conduct, which is considered sinful, and homosexual orientation, which is not.
One would be wrong.
The Vatican recently issued a statement re-emphasizing that even chaste gay men are to be barred from the priesthood. Never mind that large numbers of gay priests -- estimates range from 25% to 50% -- already serve the faithful, with most adhering to their vow of celibacy.
"Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood," released Oct. 30 by the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, not only reiterates the teaching that men with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies are unworthy of ordination, it also urges seminaries to enlist the aid of psychologists in screening candidates for homosexuality and other "psychic disturbances."
The Vatican's hard line against chaste gay priests seems to be inspired by the condemnation the church justly received for its passive response to the sexual abuse of minors -- most of them male -- by some priests. But, as Pope Benedict XVI conceded during his visit to the United States this year, homosexuality isn't the same as pedophilia. That statement was a rebuke to conservative Catholics, and others, who have attempted to equate the two. (Despite the pope's enlightened comments, he approved last month's statement.)
Obviously, the church must be free to define the qualifications for its clergy based on theological arguments that many outside (and within) the fold find unpersuasive. In this country, the 1st Amendment allows the church to bar homosexuals from the priesthood, just as it does women. But even many Catholics will be horrified by the idea of the church employing psychologists to "out" prospective priests. Nor is it much comfort that the psychological scrutiny will be voluntary. What young man who feels called to the priesthood will feel free to object?
To be fair, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States -- including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles -- operates under its own guidelines for the screening of prospective priests, which can include consultations with psychologists. Although the U.S. policy professes to adhere to Vatican pronouncements (and was approved by the pope), it seems to adopt a narrower definition of "deep-seated" homosexual inclination, one that allows gays to be ordained as long as their sexual orientation doesn't interfere with their ministry.
Yet even if the U.S. church is following a more compassionate policy than Vatican pronouncements would seem to authorize, the role of psychologists in screening applicants raises troubling ethical questions, as even psychologists who approve of such cooperation admit. Aiding the church in weeding out homosexuals is hard to reconcile with these guidelines of the American Psychological Assn.:
"Psychologists are aware of and respect cultural, individual and role differences, including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language and socioeconomic status, and consider these factors when working with members of such groups. Psychologists try to eliminate the effect on their work of biases based on those factors, and they do not knowingly participate in or condone activities of others based upon such prejudices."
If the church -- or a diocese within the church -- takes the Vatican decree literally, it's hard to see how a psychologist could lend his or her expertise to the thwarting of a young man's aspiration to serve God simply because he happens to be gay. In our view, that's not just cruel; it's unprofessional.
Pope's new edict on the priesthood
How can psychologists ethically help the Catholic Church screen out gay priests?
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