HOMOSEXUALITY / Comments by Thomas J. Reese S.J.


Two comments (22.11.2005 & 28.11.2005) by
Thomas J. Reese S.J.


What percentage of the priesthood is homosexual?
Does anyone have a right to ordination?
What will be the key issues in the Vatican document on homosexual seminarians?
Is this a uniquely American issue?

What percentage of the priesthood is homosexual?
As we all wait for the Vatican document on homosexuality and the priesthood, two questions have repeatedly come up. What percentage of the priesthood is homosexual and does anyone have a right to ordination? Two more questions need to be looked at: What will be the key issues? Is this a uniquely American issue?

Estimates of homosexuality among priests have ranged from 10% to 60%. The U.S. bishops have discouraged researchers from asking questions about sexual orientation (let alone sexual activity) in any survey because they know that the results would make front-page news across the country. They don't know because they don't want anyone else to know. As a result, the Vatican is making decisions about the appropriateness of ordaining homosexuals in total ignorance of how many current priests are homosexuals, how well they observe celibacy and how well they do ministry.

One of the only studies of this question was done by the Los Angeles Times in 2002. They found that 9% of the clergy reported that they were homosexual and another 6% said they were more homosexual than heterosexual (another 5% said they were half and half). Seventy-five percent said they were heterosexual or mostly heterosexual. Those involved in the survey believe that the study underestimated the number of homosexuals due to the natural reluctance of respondents to acknowledge their orientation even though they were guaranteed anonymity.

With regard to the presence of a homosexual subculture among some seminarians, 12% of the priests said it definitely existed in their seminary; another 14% said it probably existed. This, as you recall, is one of the questions being asked during the seminary visitations. Likewise, with regards to the presence of a homosexual subculture in their diocese or religious institute, 17% said that it definitely existed; another 27% said that it probably existed. As defined by the Times, a homosexual subculture did not include sexual activity.

Does anyone have a right to ordination?
Some advocates of the ordination of homosexuals and women argue that their human rights are being violated when they are denied ordination. Some bishops and Vatican officials, on the other hand, argue that no one has a right to be ordained.

Both sides seem to miss the point. True, no one has a right to ordination. It is a vocation, a call from God. As a result, if someone is called to the priesthood by God but denied it by church officials, then it is not a violation of a human right, it is a violation of a divine right--the right of God to call whomever he chooses to the priesthood. As a result, the real question should be, "Are they called or not?"

What are the key issues?
For some, the key issue is "Can a person, no matter their orientation, be celibate and a good priest?" For others, homosexual orientation is an absolute obstacle to ordination.

Some news reports indicate that the Vatican document will say candidates should not be admitted if their homosexual orientation is sufficiently "strong, permanent and univocal" as to make an all-male environment a risk. Here the term "strong" could be open to wide interpretation. Could the homosexual orientation be "permanent and univocal" but not "strong" enough "to make an all-male environment a risk"? Most psychologists would hold that homosexual orientation is permanent and univocal. On the other hand, one wonders whether the document will presume that orientation is a choice and whether it can be changed or "fixed."

Granted also the composition of most parish offices, one wonders whether the church should ordain men if their heterosexual orientation is sufficiently "strong, permanent and univocal" as to make an all-female environment a risk since this is the environment in which most priests will work for the rest of their lives.

The document will undoubtedly repeat what has been said in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357): "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." It should be noted that in this context "disordered" is not a psychological term but a philosophical term--an act that is ordered toward an improper end. For example, in 2352, the Catechism says the same thing about masturbation.

Is this a uniquely American Issue?
Some bishops and Vatican officials have indicated that the document will be part of the Vatican's response to the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S., noting that 80% of the victims of priestly abuse were boys. Those who have treated abusive priests, however, note that many of the priests who abused boys were in fact heterosexuals.

Many in the Vatican have considered the sexual abuse crisis a uniquely American issue. One Vatican cardinal at a press conference noted that all of the questions about abuse came from English-speaking reporters. Sad to say, reports from more and more countries are now showing that sexual abuse is not a uniquely American problem. Sadder still is the fact that the rest of the church seems to be repeating the same mistakes that many American bishops made in response to the crisis, rather than learning from our mistakes.

Although there is still a great deal of homophobia in the United States, it pales by comparison with Africa and Latin America where many both inside and outside the church would deny there are any homosexuals. Remember the Vatican is writing a document for the entire world. Bishops in Africa and Latin America would certainly not welcome a document that indicated any openness to homosexuals in the clergy. In Africa, such a document would open the church to attacks from Muslim clerics and in Latin America it would open the church to attacks from Fundamentalists. Only in the United States is this issue even being discussed.


Background on Vatican Instruction on Homosexual Seminarians

The instruction on homosexual seminarians has caused some confusion because of the use of the word "tendencies" (tendenze) in the phrase "deep-seated homosexual tendencies." Is "tendencies" the equivalent of "orientation" or does it mean something else? The document never uses the "O" word, which has left many people scratching their heads. Since the document does not define "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," we have to look elsewhere.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2358) 1) also refers to "deep-seated homosexual tendencies." It says: "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial."

"Tendency" is also used the The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's document, "Persona Humana" (Dec. 29, 1975).
It says:
"A distinction is drawn, and it seems with some reason, between homosexuals whose tendency comes from a false education, from a lack of normal sexual development, from habit, from bad example, or from other similar causes, and is transitory or at least not incurable; and homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable." (Section VIII).
Thus, according to Persona Humana, there are homosexual tendencies that are transitory and curable, and there is a homosexuality that is innate instinct, pathological and incurable.
One might infer that "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" are not chosen (according to the Catechism) but are some kind of innate instinct or a incurable pathological constitution (according to Persona Humana). And their numbers are not negligible. Is this the Vatican definition of homosexual orientation? That is the $64,000 question.

Since it is a general principle of canon law that law must be interpreted strictly (that is narrowly so as to maximize freedom), some canon lawyers and theologians will undoubtedly argue that even under this new instruction a bishop could still ordain to the priesthood a mature, celibate homosexual. As long as the Vatican does not use the "O" word, its documents are open to such interpretation.

For an insightful article on the instruction: Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominicans.

1) Cardinal Ratzinger was coordinator of the Latin changes to the catechism (1997).

Copyright©Thomas J. Reese S.J. 2005.

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