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Vatican Issues a Qualified Ban on Gays in Priesthood

Times Staff Writers

Men who have “deep-rooted homosexual tendencies” or who sustain a “gay culture” may not be trained to become Roman Catholic priests, the Vatican says in a new document posted Tuesday on a Catholic news website.

However, the church says, if a man had “transitory” homosexual tendencies that have been “overcome” for at least three years, he may be admitted to a seminary, the school that trains priests.

The document was quickly criticized by some gay rights sympathizers, who say the church does not understand homosexuality. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said the instructions would have little, if any, effect on how seminaries in the Los Angeles area admit candidates.

The new instructions are basically a reaffirmation of the church’s long-standing ban on ordaining active gays into the priesthood. They repeat a 1961 condemnation of homosexual acts but provide more specific guidelines that were ordered partly in response to the sexual abuse scandal plaguing the church.

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“It should not be ignored that there are negative consequences that result from the ordination of people with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies,” the document states. “Such people find themselves in a situation that is a serious obstacle to correct relationships with men and women.”

Most of the document’s key details were previously reported in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. But the Internet publication Tuesday by Adista, an Italian Catholic news service, represented the first time the document in its entirety has been disclosed.

On Nov. 29, the Vatican is scheduled to formally release the instructions, which Adista said were signed by Pope Benedict XVI on Aug. 31 and by Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski on Nov. 4. Grocholewski is the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican body in charge of drafting the guidelines.

As expected, the document -- years in the making -- stops short of ordering an absolute ban on homosexuals in the priesthood, as had been feared in some circles.

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Instead, it allows for a more nuanced approach that in effect makes room for gays who are celibate, have been celibate for three years or do not flaunt any aspect of a gay culture, which church officials have defined as the use of gay movies, books and websites, and participation in gay pride events.

It also reiterates church teachings as contained in the Catholic catechism, which state that homosexual acts are immoral and a grave sin and that homosexual tendencies are “intrinsically disordered.”

It encourages ordained priests to help prevent the admission to seminaries of active gays.

“If a candidate [for the priesthood] practices homosexuality or exhibits deep-rooted homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director, as well as his confessor, have the duty to dissuade him from pursuing ordination,” the instructions indicate. “It would be gravely dishonest for a candidate to conceal his homosexuality in order to pursue ordination.

“That kind of inauthentic effort does not correspond to the spirit of truth, loyalty and self-offering that should characterize the person who is being called to serve Christ.”

Despite an acute shortage of priests in some parts of the world, the Vatican decided to institute a more careful screening of candidates to the clergy. Officials said they were responding to two concerns: the sexual abuse scandal in the United States and elsewhere, and criticism from some Catholics over what they saw as a growing gay subculture within seminaries and in church life.

Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said that seminary candidates in Los Angeles already are required to be celibate for at least two years before they can be admitted.

“The challenge, I think, for the media is to make sure it is not sort of taken out of context,” Tamberg said. “There will be some people who from what they hear in the media will think: ‘Oh my God, this means no gay will ever be ordained in the priesthood again or anybody with a homosexual orientation will never be ordained again.’ That’s simply not true.”

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Though the specific instructions pertain to homosexuality, they should be seen as part of many efforts to address spiritual challenges for men considering the priesthood, Tamberg added. More important than sexual orientation is an ability to lead others to Christ, he said.

“Any impediment that would prevent a priest from fulfilling that duty is cause for examination or disqualification,” Tamberg said. “That could be one’s sexuality that, one way or the other, gets in the way; it could be alcoholism; it could be that that person is incredibly selfish and not willing to give of themselves in the measure that is required of a priest.”

In addition, some church officials argue that preventing the admission of active gays to seminaries, which by their nature are all-male institutions, will encourage more otherwise-reticent heterosexuals to join the priesthood.

Critics counter that if a priest is celibate, as church doctrine requires, then it should not matter whether he is gay or straight, and the new rules will only drive gays underground. They also say that the church is decades behind the time in its attitude toward homosexuality.

Sister Jeannine Gramick, a nun who was ordered by the Vatican in 1999 to stop her ministry promoting the rights of gay men and lesbians, said she believes celibate gays should face no barriers to priesthood.

“I believe that the document shows a lack of understanding of sexuality,” Gramick said. “It does not appreciate the dimensions of human sexuality and the continuum that exists in terms of sexual orientation; it is rejecting a whole continuum of people the scientific community recognizes as valid and normal and natural.”

Though she believes the new rules will cause some gay priests and candidates for the priesthood to leave, others will simply remain in the closet, she said.

“What I see this doing is perpetuating the problem of a secret institution that we are trying to overcome,” said Gramick, who remains with the order of the Sisters of Loretto. “With this whole sexual abuse crisis we were talking about creating an institution that is transparent,” and this does not do that, she said.

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Also, gay men are unfairly singled out with restrictions that do not apply to straight men, she said. “Does the institution say to heterosexual men that you cannot participate in aspects of heterosexual culture?”

At the same time, some observers said the instructions were less restrictive than had initially been expected.

Father Thomas Rausch, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said the three-year rule keeps the door ajar for gay seminary candidates.

“It still leaves up to the local bishop the important role of admitting candidates to the seminary. So, in that sense I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact,” he said.

If it ordered that no gay candidates be accepted at seminaries, he added, “it clearly would be discriminating against gay candidates, and that would clearly be unjust.”

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Wilkinson reported from Melilla, Spain, and De Cristofaro from Rome. Times staff writer Lisa Richardson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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